In the New York Times:
In the San Diego Union Tribune:
Shaye Areheart Books, 2008
As con artists go, Marina Marks, the fortune-teller at the center of The Grift, is intriguingly decent. At the novel’s beginning, she has achieved a steady clientele through “a slow build of confidence and a fostering of need,” as opposed to flat-out preying on people’s weaknesses and fears, ripping off their life savings, and then vanishing into the night. She isn’t greedy–like most of us, she’s looking to support herself and work toward a comfortable retirement–and although she doesn’t like people much, she doesn’t despise them either. A loner, the product of a hard childhood, she trusts only her instincts, which are polished to glistening.
Like the finest grifters, she reads people as easily as if their thoughts and feelings floated above their heads in word balloons. In the opening chapters she’s itching to leave Florida (she hates the humidity, and the local gypsies, santeros and voodooiennes form a closed shop), and she breaks her own rules in order to score big and move her game to Southern California–to coastal North County, San Diego.
San Diego County readers will enjoy Ginsberg’s observations of local detail. Marina settles into Encinitas, with clients in Rancho Santa Fe and Pacific Beach, “a neighborhood that straddled the line between expensive and completely ridiculous.” Ginsberg knows her restaurants and coffee shacks, her streets and freeway exits; she knows Swami’s Beach and Highway 101. Santa Anas, we learn, are great for professional clairvoyants: those hot, scary, fire-happy winds make for desperation, and desperation means dollars.
Marina attracts an assortment of credulous types: lovelorn, confused, desperate characters whose loosely interconnected stories she–and Ginsberg–manage with skill. As Ginsberg gathers them all into a plot (adultery, infertility, unrequited love) and nudges Marina toward romance, we’re entertained with smart observations of life on the con. Marina’s take on her fellow man is at once unsentimental and fair-minded. She takes pride in her restraint, her refusal to take gullible patrons for more than they can afford, and her own considerable talents: “Since she was a child she’d known that people would pay well to hear things about themselves that they could figure out if they would just look into the mirror.”
She understands that people don’t really consult psychics because they want money, love, or success, even if they think that’s what they’re after. “People wanted to know what the stars predicted, what the cards foretold and what their futures held because they wanted to make sure their futures existed. In many ways it didn’t matter what the future held as long as there was a future to look into. That at any moment it would all stop, that there would be a vast maw of blank, unknowable eternity to contend with, was what frightened people most of all.”
Marina’s a refreshingly cold character and fine company, right up to the point where that plot darkens and coalesces into a rather ordinary whodunit. At that point her well-honed grift turns, overnight, into a gift. This is too bad.
When Marina learns she can in fact see into the future, the novel’s tone also changes. Gone is her skepticism, that bracing, gimlet-eyed take on all of human nature, including her own. The new Marina, now at the center of a quick-gel suspense plot, is helpless in the grip of lurid premonitions: she can’t encounter most humans without instantly sensing imminent danger and blurting out what they must do to save themselves. This could have been funny (and suspenseful at the same time), but Ginsberg seems too invested in Marina’s “gift” to play with it (Ginsberg has been a practicing astrologer for twenty-five years), and the result is an ending too foreseeable, especially given the promise of The Grift’s beginning.
Fiction readers are old hands at suspending disbelief: even the most willfully rational can kick back and entertain the possibility, on the page at least, of mediums and spirits and the predictive power of those sketchy lines on our palms. But when a bright, complex character we’ve grown to admire suddenly turns into one we’ve met many times before, the effect is not so magical. Ghost whisperers, psychic detectives, children who talk to dead people: they’re everywhere. A con artist with a conscience: now, that’s something you don’t see every day.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Crown Publishers, NY 2008
Actually, Virginia, there really was a War on Christmas, but it wasn’t fought by liberal atheist UnAmerican pinko hippies. On both sides of the Atlantic, the War was waged and almost won by deeply religious Puritans, mindful of the holiday’s pagan roots. Also, they were opposed on principle to excessive fun. Christmas-keeping was a sinful habit practiced by the lower classes, and even as the centuries rolled on and standards inevitably began to slip, Christmas itself remained banned in pious Massachusetts until 1855. It was a Bah! Humbug! world–until winter of 1843, when Charles Dickens, down on his luck and desperate to rescue his reputation as a literary star, wrote A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
The title of Les Standiford’s entertaining and persuasive little book is not greatly exaggerated: he makes a strong case for Dickens almost single-handedly fashioning our durable Christmas ideal, “the glorification and defense of the family unit itself,” with Bob Cratchit and his loving brood as its archetypes. Not a fan of organized religion, Dickens was a dedicated believer in the practice of Christian principles of charity and compassion, and never more demonstrably so than in the writing of this book. A Christmas Carol is entirely secular in plot–there is no mention of the Nativity–yet Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from wretched miser to joyful philanthropist is as familiar to us as any Biblical parable.
To appreciate just how familiar, we must first recognize the immense influence Dickens had on the readers of his own day. No modern author, not even Stephen King, approaches Dickens’s bestseller achievements. Even before the publication of Carol, his novels sold to as much as one-quarter of the literate English public. Not the book-buying public, or the fiction-loving public: he was read and discussed by one-quarter of the people who could actually read anything at all. When a new Dickens installment of Pickwick or Oliver Twist came out, everybody–just about literally–would be talking about it the next day.
Within Dickens’s time, Carol was immediately pirated in the States, published, like all of Dickens’s work, without a penny owing to its author (in those days, copyright did not survive the transatlantic crossing), and within a few months three versions were dramatized on the London stage, only one of which was sanctioned by Dickens. By the end of the first year, there were sixteen dramatized versions in England alone. Today, anyone reading this review can vividly recall at least one Christmas Carol; Scrooge himself has been played by, to name just a few: Alastair Sim, Vincent Price, John and Lionel Barrymore, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Susan Lucci, a Muppet, and Mr. Magoo.
One of the delights of Standiford’s book is that he pinpoints almost the moment of conception of this work. Having shown us in detail why Dickens needed money and needed it fast, he then describes him walking the rainy streets of Manchester after a triumphant speech at the Athenaeum (one of his co-speakers was Benjamin Disraeli), still basking in his audience’s approval, yet contemplating the dreadful social ills all around him, where thousands were unemployed and over half of the children of working-class parents died before they reached the age of five. As he walked, a new story occurred. It wasn’t fully formed, of course, but still, just like that, much as you or I might suddenly recall where we left our keys, Scrooge was born, and Tiny Tim, and Bob Cratchit, and the dreadful, clanking Jacob Marley. “He wept over it, laughed, and then wept again, as bits and pieces swam up before him.” As indeed he might.
Other delights include a wealth of intriguing tidbits about Dickens’s life and times. Among them:
- In his letters, Dickens approvingly referred to Christmas trees as “new German toys,” because they had just been popularized by Prince Albert, the Bavarian consort of the Queen.
- In Dickens’s day, the populations of England and the U .S. were roughly the same, but our largest city, New York, contained only 312,000, while London housed 2 million.
- Dickens’s greatest novel, Bleak House, was probably inspired by his fruitless lawsuit against one of the Christmas Carol pirates.
- Tiny Tim probably had rickets.
- A year after his triumph with Carol, Dickens published Chimes, the second in a planned series of Christmas moneymakers. Upon finishing, he wrote a friend, “I have written a tremendous Book; and knocked the Carol out of the field. It will make a great uproar, I have no doubt.” It didn’t.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is handsomely bound, printed in late-eighteenth-century type on deckle-edge paper, and includes a printed bookplate, making it a handy Christmas gift. Standiford has burnished a familiar old book for us and shown us why it endures. And also, by the way, why you’ll probably be belting into a roast turkey in a few days, and not a roast goose.
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown 2009
In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, pride–whether in family, intellect, moral fiber, social conscience, atheism, or piety–always triggers a fall, and the fall is both terrible and terribly funny. The reader doesn’t chuckle, though, chuckling being the kind of thing you do when you’re comfortable. The reader, somehow implicated in the fall, laughs in horror. A self-reliant, morally upright woman is gored by bull; a brilliant non-believer has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman; a foolish old woman is graced by a moment of spiritual clarity and immediately murdered. “She would have been a good woman,” says her killer, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The woman who wrote that line wrote this one when she was a nine-year-old cartoonist, depicting a young girl being admonished by her mother to hold her head up straight: “I was readin where someone died of holding up their head.” In Flannery, Brad Gooch shows, without needing to argue strenuously for it, the straight thematic arrow that led from childhood through to the end of her short life, at thirty-nine. The pious Roman Catholic child became a severely religious, self-described thirteenth century mystic; the girl who decided, at 12, that she would never grow older was in many ways an ancient child at the time of her death, having been sheltered all her life by family and friends.
“I think,” said O’Connor, “that you probably collect most of your experience as a child–when you really had nothing else to do–and then transfer it to other situations when you write.” Psychiatrists would likely agree, but she had no use for those–nor for liberals, freethinkers, or Northerners (unless they shared her faith)–except as fuel for her fiction. As we read Gooch’s generously researched biography, though, what emerges is a singular character to whom any experience, whether in childhood or later, was a kind of encumbrance, almost an obstacle. O’Connor lived fully in her own head. She seems to have come into the world primed to explore the relationship between God and his most wretched creations, and to do so through the medium of fiction.
She spent most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia. When she began to write in earnest, she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later Yaddo, a community of artists in Saratoga Springs, New York. She lived briefly in New York City and was a year-long guest of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald in Redding, Connecticut. Life in the North brought her close friends–including the poet Robert Lowell–and a number of devoted admirers. But she remained resolutely alien to her surroundings, and when she was diagnosed with disseminated lupus–a fatal disease at that time–she returned home, where her mother cared for her for the rest of her life.
It was there, in the place where she knew she would die, that she produced some of the most brilliant and disturbing short stories ever written, in any country, in any age. What distinguishes her is the clarity of her own vision, which is so peculiar and yet so fierce that even the reader who is put off by the cruelty with which she treats her characters cannot shrug off what is on the page. Critics–and admirers–have often diminished her as an exemplar of the Southern Gothic style, like Carson McCullers and Erskine Caldwell. But she was never part of any group. True, there are grotesque people in her fiction, but these she used to investigate the Christian concept of original sin. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she explained, somewhat exasperated, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Readers not already familiar with O’Connor’s works should secure copies of two books: Gooch’s Flannery, and The Complete Stories. You could, of course, read the stories without looking at the biography, but if you did the reverse, the facts of her life would not be nearly as engaging. Much of the fascination in reading Flannery involves meeting some of the models for her characters: there weren’t many, and some were used again and again. What she knew of the truth came from study and severe contemplation; what she knew of human beings came from the few people she let into her life. “I’m anti-social,” she once explained, and she wasn’t apologizing for it, either.
She appeared on TV once, in 1955, to be interviewed before a brief dramatization of one of her stories. When asked how she came to write her first novel, Wise Blood, she answered, “Well I thought I had better get to working on a novel, so I got to work and wrote one.” Unfazed, the interviewer asked if she’d be willing to explain to the studio audience “what happens” in the story they’re about to see. “No,” said Mary Flannery O’Connor, “I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.” Amen.
Into the Beautiful North
Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company May 2009
There’s nothing like an old-fashioned Quest to stir the reader’s blood, especially a reader accustomed to novels of complex, elusive purpose. Modern readers continue to turn pages for a variety of reasons–because they are a concerned with a well-made character’s fate, or engaged with the author’s argument, or dazzled by “the language.” Sometimes they turn pages out of duty, because they’re Just Not Quitters. In refreshing contrast, Quest novels announce their purpose in a straightforward manner: Colorful, memorable characters prepare for and embark on a journey of immense significance, shot through with peril. They’re after the Golden Fleece or the Beast Glatisant. They’re off to find the Holy Grail or destroy the Ring of Sauron or find their way back to Kansas, and the reader gets to come along too. Into the Beautiful North is just such a novel.
Tres Camarones–the starting point of the Quest–is a tropical Mexican beach town, barely on the map. It has a tenth-run movie theater with rusty metal seats and a corrugated tin roof, and a church full of fruit bats. The inhabitants of Tres Camarones, mostly female, one day realize that not one of them is pregnant. The children are growing older with no babies to replace them, because the men have all gone north looking for work, to what they call Los Yunaites, and have never returned. Worse, bandidos–wearing the uniforms of the State Police–have come to stay and daily menace the women from their Black Cherokees and dark-windowed Tahoes. One night inspiration comes to one of the youngest women, Nayeli, as she watches The Magnificent Seven, in which a tiny Mexican village assembles seven gunfighters to rid them of their oppressors. Nayeli’s Quest: to journey north, find seven strong Mexican men, true champions, and bring them back home.
Four adventurers set out–three girls and the gay manager of a local taco stand–with the blessing of the townspeople and instructions to look up Mayor Irma’s old boyfriend in Tijuana, who will surely help them over the border. Their bus ride north is harrowing, grueling, hilarious, as they see their own country with fresh eyes. “If you want to see the damnedest things in life,” says one of their drivers, “drive long-haul trips in Mexico.” When they reach Tijuana, they get revelations of a darker sort. The mayor’s boyfriend is nowhere, the streets are full of predators, and they take refuge with an old couple living in the dompe, a vast pile of garbage hundreds of feet high: “It was dark gray, ashen, black, and it was covered in flecks of white paper as if small snow drifts were on its slopes. Gulls swirled and shrieked, and packs of feral dogs trotted downslope.” Their host points to the top of the garbage volcano. “From up there,” he says, “you can see America.”
Theirs is a hopeless cause–but then Quests always are. That’s the point of a great Quest: insurmountable obstacles, rotten luck, hopeless odds, all arrayed against valor, that ancient, shining, universal human virtue. Undaunted, the four continue North, gathering valiant adventurers as they go.
Among the many pleasures of Into the Beautiful North is its big-hearted view of the United States as a foreign country. Since this is a Quest, not a political novel, Urrea never gets bogged down in messages. The country stands for itself. The lawns of Clairemont are pristine green, the Del Mar sea an insane color of blue. (The author, now on the faculty of the University of Illinois in Chicago, is evoking what he knows firsthand, having grown up in Tijuana and San Diego, come of age here as a writer, and written eloquently about the border region in all of his books.)
On farther north, in Aspen, Colorado–yes, of course, some of them make it to Colorado, and beyond–evergreens and lodgepole pines sprout and snowcapped peaks march, and homesick Nayeli bursts into tears at the terrible beauty of it all. The heroes encounter racism, generosity, ugliness, stupidity, sympathy, and various kinds of regional nuttiness. Also Washington’s Revenge, from a drinking fountain in St. Louis.
And will they find their seven champions? Will Nayeli, on a private quest to find her father, make it to Kankakee, Illinois? Will Tres Camarones be rescued and replenished? As Jake Barnes said at the end of a modern novel of complex, elusive purpose, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it absolutely is.
Last Night in Twisted River
Random House October 27 2009
“The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.” So begins John Irving’s twelfth novel, which turns out to be about the writing of a novel which begins with that very line. It’s a solid first line, as Irving and his central character, novelist Danny Baciagalupo, well know. It brings the us into the middle of a series of events and counts upon us to trust the writer: in time we’ll know who the young Canadian is, and what terrible thing is about to happen as a result of his hesitation, and why we should care. We’ll wait patiently for the where and the when and the who of things, partly because we are modern readers, but mostly because, having read many of his great-hearted, engrossing novels, we trust John Irving.
The first section of Twisted River lives up to our expectations, immersing us in the rough world of New Hampshire loggers and river drivers in 1954, a time just before the lumber business became tamer and more mechanized. Though fans of Irving will quickly recognize certain Irving-elements (New England; amputations; accidents; bears), they may also be reminded of Larry McMurtry, which is a bonus. The town of Twisted River is a world as wild and violent, as sad and funny, as Lonesome Dove, Texas, populated with outsize characters–the women, especially, are fearsomely large–with mysterious histories and yearnings. We settle gratefully into this new world.
Soon something bad happens to the characters, setting the plot in motion. Unfortunately, at just this turning point, something bad also happens to the novel. It jumps ahead in time and place, not once, but five times. Although it retains focus on the same characters–father, son, grandson–it sets them down in a succession of worlds less colorful and new than Twisted River. Their circumstances keep changing (the father, a cook, works at a series of restaurants), along with their surroundings and the minor characters in their orbit, so that even though this is a long novel, it feels undeveloped. Irving has to keep introducing these new worlds with new details and does not have the luxury of building on the ground he has broken. Even the names of the characters change, as they try to stay one jump ahead of an implacable, robotic nemesis, Constable Carl.
The main character, the cook’s son, is a writer. Many novelists today–Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Brett Easton Ellis, Ian McEwan, to name just a few–have written novels about writers, and we might be tempted to connect this practice to the general narcissism of our age, except that this is a pretty old habit: Hemingway, Nabokov, Forster, Stegner, and Maugham all did it. So did Louisa May Alcott. But Irving has written a whole lot of books about writers. He writes what he knows, what he dreams, what he fears, and he doesn’t bother much with disguises. As Danny Baciagalupo’s erstwhile wife Katie says about her husband, Irving is “completely at ease being naked in front of strangers.” This ease, coupled with his talent, has made for some wonderful reading: The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year were crowded with eccentric characters whose lives and stories interlocked and smashed into one another in controlled chaos. That the creative struggle lay, naked and unashamed, at the heart of these novels in no way diminished them.
In this latest novel, those eccentric characters, even the illiterate ones, seem to exist largely to comment on Danny’s novels: the choices he makes, the taboos he is willing or unwilling to break. Irving doesn’t give these characters their head, and the result is static and predictable. The chaos is all too controlled. John Irving and Danny Baciagalupo are haunted by accidents, those that have already happened, those that haven’t happened yet. Accidents–the contingency of things–make for a great novelistic theme, one which Irving has used masterfully in the past. But here, in this sketchy, creator-centered world, nothing seems remotely accidental. Fate organizes the novel fatally, plodding behind its characters as they try, sort of, to elude it. Halfway through, Danny addresses Fate directly in a sort of prayer. “Please don’t hurt my father or my son…Hurt me, if you have to hurt someone.” Last Night in Twisted River might be a successful novel if only the reader could believe this was anything but a forlorn hope.
Appeared November 2, 2009.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany
Though Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany and Company, began his creative and professional life as a painter, his early fascination with glassmaking led to a storied career in interior design and the formation of Tiffany Studios, producers of spectacular stained glass windows and, later, exquisite lamps. We all know, sort of, what Tiffany lamps are, but only in 2005 did we learn that these lamps were probably not Tiffany’s idea to begin with. They were the brainchild of Clara Driscoll, director of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios. Diana Vreeland’s novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany focuses on Driscoll–her life and times, her talents, and her long, complex, sometimes fraught association with Tiffany himself.
Much of the novel is devoted to the working conditions of women New York City from 1888-1909, the years of Driscoll’s employment at the Studios. Widowed young, she remained unmarried during her twenty years with Tiffany. Whether she would have chosen to do so is beside the point, since married women were not allowed to work there. Until now, no one knew that some of the most prized Tiffany lamps–including a dragonfly lamp that won first prize at the 1900 World’s Fair–were inspired and produced by Driscoll and her female glasscutters. Louis Tiffany avoided giving public credit to underlings. Even if he had been more generously inclined, acknowledging the importance of Driscoll and her workers would have rankled his male employees, whose Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters Union strike had been undercut by the hiring of those women, and who later tried unsuccessfully to drive them out.
Driscoll’s private story–a failed romance, numerous boarding-house friendships, her mentoring affection for her “Tiffany girls”–are part of the novel but practically tangential. Since Vreeland lavishes most of her own creativity on Driscoll’s work, we view her days through artfully cut pieces of opalescent glass. “Be courageous with color,” Tiffany says. “Let it pour out of you,” and color pours out on almost every page, along with scrupulously detailed description of every step of the glassmaking and glass-cutting process. As a result, readers may be more entranced with that process than with Driscoll’s barely glimpsed life.
Vreeland is an industrious writer, generous with period detail. Hardly a page goes by without some timeline reminder. Driscoll and her friends read Whitman and Twain, attend the plays of Oscar Wilde and the operas of Richard Wagner. The names roll by in stately waves (J.P. Morgan, Siegfried Bing, Emma Goldman, Emma Lazarus,…), each wave reminding us that Driscoll’s story is steeped in history. Yet that history doesn’t quite come to life.
The best historical fiction (I, Claudius and The Siege of Krishnapur) immerses the reader in a distant time while maintaining focus on the characters who abide there. For the immersion to work, it must be complete: we must, while in the novel’s grip, forget where we are, and move among historical figures and artifacts as though they were part of our own world. If we cannot for a few hours imagine this world as our own–if we view it from a safe and staid remove–then the novel fails to quicken. Though Vreeland’s love for her subject comes through sharp and clear, her story is closer to diorama than drama.
A straightforward biography of Clara Driscoll–which Vreeland could surely write, as her book is prodigiously researched–would have been much more effective. For one thing, it could have included photographs. As it stands, readers will want to supplement their experience of the Clara and Mr. Tiffany with frequent library and Internet searches. To see those glorious windows and lamps is to appreciate Clara Driscoll’s great achievements, as well as Vreeland’s descriptive gifts.