California Dreaming’ by Penelope Bagieu – A Pictorial Biography of Mama Cass Elliot

 

‘California Dreaming’, a graphic novel by Penelope Bagieu  (2017) – 266 pages

‘California Dreamin’ combines two of my interests, biographies of rock or pop stars and graphic or cartoon novels that are not about superheroes, fantasy, or outer space.  Since ‘California Dreamin’ is essentially a true story it isn’t a graphic novel, but I don’t know what else to call it.  It covers the life of Ellen Cohen who became famous as Mama Cass Elliot up until the time the song California Dreamin’ was released.

She was born to a Jewish couple in Alexandria, Virginia in 1941. The family of four stayed barely afloat by the deli her father ran.  Even from an early age, her excessive weight was a problem for her.  Everybody knew she could sing wonderfully, but could she ever make it as a professional singer with her size?

At age 19 she left home for the burgeoning folk scene in New York City.  Her father who was always sickly died soon after she left home.  She kicked around with various folkie groups, but didn’t really start to make it until she met Dennis Doherty, and they started a group called the Mugwumps.  Both Cass Elliot and Dennis Doherty were phenomenal vocal talents.  Dennis was the great love of her life, but her love for him was unrequited although he was a good friend.

John Phillips asked Dennis Doherty to join him and his wife Michelle in his folk group the New Journeymen.  Dennis said he knew this great woman singer named Cass Elliot, but after Cass auditioned John turned her down because she was too fat.  Cass hung around with the group, and it was quite obvious that Cass’s voice made the group sound much better, but John still refused to have her in the group.  One time the record producer Lou Adler visited the group, and Cass happened to be singing with them their new song California Dreamin’.  Adler wanted to sign the four of them immediately to a contract, but John wanted him to sign only the three.  Adler said that without Cass there would be no contract.  So that is how the Mamas and Papas were born.

‘California Dreamin’ is a fun sometimes poignant graphic, not novel, but perhaps graphic biography?

 

Grade :   B  

 

Six Reasons Why ‘Golden Hill’ is a Superior Historical Fiction

 

‘Golden Hill – a Novel of Old New York’ by Francis Spufford     (2017)  –  299 pages

‘Golden Hill’ is the most delightful historical fiction that I have read for a long, long time.  Here is my attempt to enumerate reasons as to why this novel is such a pleasure.

l.  It takes place in New York City in 1746, a time and place little dealt with in historical fiction or even in history books.  England still ruled their North American colonies, and New York City had only 7000 residents but was growing fast.  At that point New York City was still a small town.  We see this small town through the eyes of young Englishman Richard Smith who is quite familiar with the real metropolis London.

2.  ‘Golden Hill’ is written in the English language of its time instead of in modern English.  This makes the characters and scenes seem more authentic.

3.  None of its characters is famous or renowned, so the characterizations aren’t stilted by impersonating a famous stick figure.  Nothing brings a novel down faster than a wooden historical personage.  All the characters in ‘Golden Hill’ can and do act as outrageously as real people.

4.  The romance in ‘Golden Hill’ is not your typical lovey-dovey affair.  Perhaps the best romances both in fiction and in real life are those where the contestants – the man and the woman – are a match in their weapons and firepower.  The romance between Richard Smith and Tabitha Lovell is that of the best of enemies on the order of Beatrice and Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.   As Richard says to Tabitha of Shakespeare:

“I think you like him because his comedies are full of quick-tempered women with razor tongues.  I think you like to hear Beatrice and Benedick insulting upon each other.”

“Maybe,” she said, laughing.  “But you, sir, are not Benedick.”

“And you, madam, are not Beatrice.”

“True.”

5.  The guiding light for ‘Golden Hill’ is William Shakespeare.  After more than four centuries, Shakespeare is still the best model we have for comedy and drama.  I would classify ‘Golden Hill with its wicked humor as more of a comedy than a tragedy.   As in Shakespeare, there is a staged play within ‘Golden Hill’ which is great fun as it is rehearsed and performed.

6.  In ‘Golden Hill’, the reader can always expect the unexpected to occur.  Fortunes can change from hero to zero and back to hero in a matter of a few pages.   While the author keeps his story and characters true to their time, there are no other limits to what he imagines for his protagonists.  The vivid scenes range from the Popes Day bonfires to a card game of piquet.

If you are at all interested in historical fiction, ‘Golden Hill’ is one you will not want to miss.

 

 

Grade :   A+   

 

‘Who is Rich?’ by Matthew Klam – A Tiresome Long Weekend in New England

 

‘Who is Rich?’ by Matthew Klam   (2017) – 321 pages

 

‘Who is Rich?’ is fun for the first twenty pages or so when our narrator is snide and cynical describing the students and the other instructors at the New England summer arts conference where he is an instructor in cartooning.  He easily demolishes all the pretensions and excesses and inadequacies of all these would-be prospective artists and writers and their instructors who are there to make a little extra money and have some hot fun in the sun away from their families.  Having attended a few of these arts workshops myself, I can assure you that all of us naïve but gullible participants are easy targets for derision.

The instructors are also ripe for over-the-top disparagement:

“In the big hall of the main building I heard Tabitha give the same speech she gave last year, about her spiritual journey beyond incest, into alcoholism, then past that, into group sex and casino gambling, ending in healing and forgiveness.” 

However after this sneering fun, the narrator begins to talk about himself.  Then this instructor/narrator in ‘Who is Rich?’ of a sudden gets all sincere.  He talks about his early success with a graphic novel only later to have to settle for a career as a magazine illustrator.  He talks about his exhausted wife who is at home taking care of their two little kids and also about his rich mistress who is at the conference. His voice and attitude change from cynical and snide to earnest and heartfelt. Our guy is self-absorbed and whiny and unhappy. That is when he gets real tiresome.  Unfortunately he goes on in this fashion for almost 300 pages.  This novel would have been much more fun if the narrator had applied to himself the same derisive cynicism he applies to all the other conference goers and instructors.

So for ‘Who is Rich?’, the first twenty pages sparkle and the last 300 pages drag.  This is one of those novels where I got sucked in by a strong beginning only to spend the rest of the novel debating whether I should just quit reading it.

The problem with self-absorbed narrators is that they focus on themselves at the expense of everyone else.  Thus the characterization of his wife does not go much beyond “frazzled”.  His kids are an adorable nuisance. His girlfriend at the conference is “hot and rich”. This is the second year of his affair with her, that difficult stage when his mistress begins to seem just as annoying as his wife.

‘Who is Rich?’ is the kind of novel that when the narrator contemplates suicide, the reader wishes he would just go ahead and do it and cut a hundred or so pages off the reading.

 

Grade :   D

 

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa – Life Goes On in Angola during their Civil War

 

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa   (2013)  –  247 pages       Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

The southern African country of Angola had just achieved independence from Portugal when it descended into a protracted civil war that lasted from 1976 to 2002. Angola was a pawn in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  However the Angolan Civil War was a real war that raged on and off for 27 years leaving 500,000 people killed.

“This wasn’t what we made our independence for.  Not for Angolans to kill each other like rabid dogs.”

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ consists of 37 short chapters or vignettes that tell quirky stories related to Angola at that time.  Since there is a lot of white space between the many chapters, this is a quick read.

Many of the chapters center around a lady called Ludovica Fernandez Mano or ‘Ludo’ for short.   She was born in Portugal but is staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Luanda, Angola when this story opens.   One day the married couple does not return home, and Ludo is left in the apartment by herself.  Early on an intruder tries to break in, and Ludo shoots and kills him.  After that, Ludo bricks herself in.  She stays there for 27 years.

Stuck in that house, Ludo is alone and isolated.  However the reader does not really feel her claustrophobia, because the author scatters the story and includes pieces which are unrelated to Ludo but are about some other aspect of Angola during this time.   ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ probably would have been more effective as a novel if it were strictly about Ludo and her confined plight, but that may not have been the author’s purpose in writing this work.

Instead Agualusa opens things up. He writes discursive sketches of some of the strange things that are going on in Angola.  Some of the chapters are about the native tribes of Angola such as the Kuvale who are prosperous in their number of oxen but still suffer food poverty.

“They are unable to trade their oxen for corn.  This apparent paradox – so many oxen yet so much hunger –is yet another way in which they are unusual.  But isn’t that true of Angola too? So much oil…?”

The above lines from Ray Duarte de Carvallo are quoted in the novel.

It seemed to me that Agualusa had a wider purpose in telling different facets of the story of Angola during this time rather than just focusing on this one woman Ludo.  That wider purpose may have been a detriment to the fiction but probably served the truths of Angola more effectively.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles – Two Outrageous Ladies

 

‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles  (1943) – 221 pages

Having read a ton of literary fiction, I look out for the distinctive and the unusual, fiction that no one else besides that author could possibly have written. However I fear I may have met my match in oddness and strangeness with ‘Two Serious Ladies’.

The two main characters here often act in ways that are incomprehensible to me, and they offer no justifications for their actions.  Originally this opaqueness of behavior was offputting to me but ultimately these ladies’ waywardness becomes part of the curious beauty of the story.  In ‘Two Serious Ladies’, these two women do these unexpected offbeat things all the time.  However the scenes in this novel stay etched in my mind, and I expect they will stay there a long time.

The first lady is Christina Goering.

“As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. “

 “As a grown woman Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child.” 

Who says a main character must be likeable?  Christina has a way of hooking up with not very nice men she meets in dive bars.  Several times she goes to strange men’s houses in order to prove something (I don’t know what) to herself.  She doesn’t like any of these guys, but she has a “sickening compulsion” to go to their house and even stay there for days.  The last guy is a particularly rough sort and there is some menace for the reader fearing what he might do to her.  It is like she is on some degenerate spiritual quest.

“In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.”

Christina incidentally meets the other serious lady, Mrs. Frieda Copperfield, at a house party.  That is nearly the only interaction between the two women.  Otherwise their stories are totally separate.

The 33-year-old Mrs. Copperfield goes traveling in the Central American country of Panama with her businessman husband.  He finds a respectable dull hotel for them to stay in.  However as they are walking around the shady “red light” side of town, they come upon a sleazy place called the Hotel de Las Palmas, and Mrs. Copperfield is immediately captivated. The hotel is run as a place where prostitutes can rent rooms to bring their clients. Mrs. Copperfield becomes enchanted by one of the prostitutes, Pacifica, and also by the owner or Madam of the hotel, Mrs. Quill.  She decides to stay there on her own in one of the rooms near Pacifica.  Guys have these kinds of risqué adventures all the time.  Why not women?

I guess this novel is autobiographical but in a thoroughly outlandish way.

“There is nothing original about me except a little original sin.” – Jane Bowles

Jane Bowles was married to the more famous novelist Paul Bowles whose most acclaimed novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ I have also read. Paul chose mostly men for his sex partners; Jane chose mainly women as her sexual partners.

“Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.”  – Jane Bowles

Paul and Jane were devoted to each other.  They threw rowdy parties to which they invited many of the literary stars of the time including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal.  Jane was the wild charming “life of the party” type, and she drank heavily.  That may explain why she wrote only this one novel at the age of 24, though she did write a play and some short stories later.  She viewed writer Carson McCullers as her main female fiction writing competition.  At age 40 Jane had a massive stroke, leaving her totally dependent on Paul, and she died at the age of 56 in 1973.

I have decided that I will not give a grade to ‘Two Serious Ladies’.  This is the first time that has happened since I started grading.  I just cannot make up my mind whether it is a work of genius or just outlandish, ridiculous, and baffling.  I will let you make up your own minds.

 

Grade :   ???

 

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors – An Amusing Drive through Copenhagen

 

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors  (2016) – 188 pages   Translated from the Danish  by Misha Hoekstra

Don’t expect any thrilling or suspenseful plot in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’, because there isn’t any.  The novel is pleasantly inconsequential, and that is a good thing.

It is mostly the viewpoints and reminiscences of a single Danish woman in her forties named Sonya as she goes about her daily life. She had a boyfriend who left for “a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids”, so she lives alone now and that is just fine with her.  Nothing spectacular or even very noteworthy takes place in this story. It is her deadpan way of looking at things that makes the scenes humorous. This is a novel that goes its way on its attitude.

Sonya is learning to drive a car (thus the name of the novel), and her driving instructor is a forceful woman named Jytte who tends to often get hysterical and does not trust Sonya to switch gears.  Jytte does all the gear switching with her remote device, and Sonya never will learn to switch gears from Jytte. So Sonya asks to change driving instructors behind Jytte’s back, and is assigned a man named Folke.  The only problem with Folke is that she fears this married man has wandering hands.

I just want to learn how to drive, okay? I don’t want to have my hand held, I don’t want to be massaged, hugged, or interrogated, to be hit on or coochie-cooed.  I want to learn how to drive that car so I can drive over there.”

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ contains many hilarious scenes of Sonya interacting with the people around her.

Sonya translates the crime novels of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson for her living, and she jokes about all his gory victims.

 “These days what she knows most about is how to cast bodies in ditches, the deep woods, lime pits, landfills.  Mutilated women and children lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land.”

 Although Sonya now lives in the metropolis of Copenhagen, she often remembers her childhood in Jutland on the farm.  She has frequent flashbacks to her rural childhood, her farm family and the whooper swans and the large herds of deer.  She writes a too-honest letter which she never does send to her sister Kate who still lives there.

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ is light and amiable and amusing, a pleasant interlude from all the more vexing problems of today.

 

Grade:    B+ 

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel – The Father from Hell

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel   (2017) – 165 pages

‘One of the Boys’ is an ultra-realistic fictional account of a monstrous family situation told from the younger twelve year-old son’s point of view.

A married couple from Kansas is divorcing, and there is the question of who gets custody of the two boys.  The mother had hit the younger boy, and the father has this idea to make the damage to the boy’s face look a lot worse than it actually was, so he would get custody.  The younger son goes along with the father’s scheme. They “enhance” the marks on the boy’s face and take some pictures so it looks like the mother has really beat up on the younger son.  Child Protective Services rules in favor of the father, and soon he and his two boys are off to Albuquerque, New Mexico where they stay in a singles apartment complex.  The father is quite well off working as an independent contractor doing accounting jobs for small businesses.

However soon after they move into the apartment, the father locks himself in his bedroom, and the boys know he’s doing drugs in there.  Sometimes the father just stays in the bedroom for a week at a time, and the boys must fend for themselves.  Occasionally the father sends the boys out to do business with his drug dealers.

When the father does come out of his bedroom, he is subject to sudden violent mood swings.  Sometimes he feels guilty and vows he will be a better father, but other times he goes into a rage. At one point he threatens his older son with a knife, and from then on the two boys plot ways to escape from their abusive situation.  They make arrangements with their mother to go back to her, but that falls through when she decides to “reconcile” with their father.

This terrible family situation is taking place in Middle America, in Kansas, among the fairly well-to-do.  The novel is a case study in how drugs can tear a family apart.  However family dysfunction is not the only hazard these boys confront living in the singles complex.  In one scene the younger son wanders into an ‘adult’ party involving a man and two women out by the swimming pool.

‘One of the Boys’ paints a vivid first-hand picture of these boys’ desperate lives.  The boys undergo a harrowing plight, and there is no redemption.  I would have perhaps preferred to have an epilogue from this boy as an adult telling us what happened later and giving us readers some perspective on their appalling predicament.

 

Grade :    B+

 

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