One-Minute Book Reviews

October 4, 2009

Eve Pell Airs the Monogrammed Laundry in ‘We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante’

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The great-great-great granddaughter of tobacco baron Pierre Lorillard remembers her overprivileged childhood and her involvement with the Black Panthers

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. State University of New York Press/Albany, 225 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Eve Pell notes perceptively that there was something “curiously un-American” about the values of her parents, members of the last generation who believed that if your blood was blue enough, you didn’t have to redeem yourself through work or philanthropy. “Horatio Alger, for example, would not have been welcome in our circle,” she writes, “since we looked down on people who actually made their own money (after we did) as ‘latecomers.’”

Pell maps the damage in this memoir of her overprivileged childhood on Long Island, her work with the Black Panthers in San Francisco, and her late-life success as a world-class marathon runner. She grew up fox-hunting and hearing about prominent forebears such as the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, her great-great-great grandfather. One of her great-grandmothers gave seated dinners for 125 guests, “one course after another, with a footman in livery standing behind each chair”: “She never put on her own shoes – her lady’s maid did that.” And yet Pell hardly had charmed youth: Early on, her beautiful mother ran off with a lover and fought for custody of her daughter in a battle played out in the New York newspapers.

By telling her story, Pell aims show what happens to rich families when blood and money thin and, in the culture as a whole, an aristocracy of birth gives way to an aristocracy of achievement. And to some extent, she succeeds. Pell is a close observer of the mores of relatives such as an aunt who sold some of her diamonds to create and publish a version of the Bible that “excluded references to eating meat since she was a vegetarian.”

But We Used to Own the Bronx isn’t as enlightening as it could have been. Pell is better reporter than analyst and, as such, offers few insights into her world that go beyond the banalities of psychotherapy. She was in a unique position to shed light on the phenomenon known as radical chic or champagne socialism, but she makes little of it.

As a young mother, Pell became emotionally involved the Black Panther George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, who was eventually shot to death while trying to escape. Why did she act in ways that might have endangered her three children? Pell says, in part, that Jackson “made me feel like a real woman.” She also says that in 1996 — when she would have been in her 60s — she was “surprised and shocked” (and “horrified” and “appalled”) to learn that a cousin felt no guilt about a nasty anti-Semitic prank in his youth. By then, she’d lived for more than six decades in a family teeming with men who belonged to private clubs that didn’t admit Jews, so it’s unclear why she was as startled by this as by her discovery that Jackson may have been a psychopath.

In such passages, Pell comes across as either naïve or sanctimonious and, in any case, lacking in self-awareness. She also shows little sense of humor about the foibles of the oddballs in her clan. Pell has tried not to allow herself to be defined by family – but she takes her clan so seriously as to leave the impression that, in many ways, she’s still in thrall to it.

Best line: “I had been raised to think that anyone who felt bad was not trying hard enough.”

Worst line: Pell writes of an ex-husband: “There were things I had to put up with. He routinely ate all the chocolate icing off the top of Sara Lee cakes and left the rest of it, stripped, in the fridge for us.” We’re supposed to sympathize with this?

Published: February 2009

Caveat lector: We Used to Own the Bronx has one of the worst titles I’ve seen on a book this year. It refers to a large tract of land once owned by the Pells, but leaves the impression that the book is about, say, the 1949 Yankees. The subtitle is fine.

About the author: Pell lives in San Francisco.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 22, 2009

Krait Expectations — James Patterson’s ‘The 8th Confession’

Patterson writes at a 10-year-old reading level in the his new “Women’s Murder Club” novel

The 8th Confession. By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

Who are the intended readers of The 8th Confession? The large font and generous white space suggest that James Patterson wrote it for nursing-home residents or people reading the book by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout. But the short chapters – generally, no more than three pages long – make you wonder if he had in mind fans of MTV. And what about the 5th grade or 10-year-old reading level that the novel has, according to the readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word?

Clearly a lot of people don’t care about the conflicts. Fifty-four titles appear on a list of “Books by James Patterson” at the back of The 8th Confession, many of them worldwide bestsellers. Patterson’s latest is a glorified police procedural and the eighth volume in his popular  “Women’s Murder Club” series that involves Detective Lindsay Boxer, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Cindy Thomas and others who try to solve their boyfriend problems along with crimes.

On the evidence of The 8th Confession, it’s hard to account for Patterson’s appeal. “James Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death,” Gary Dexter wrote in the Spectator. That’s a polite way of saying that he likes scum, and his new book involves several types: a streetwise con artist with a history of recruiting girls and turning them into crack dealers, an ex-beauty queen on trial for bludgeoning her father to death with a crowbar, and a psychopath who is murdering San Francisco’s rich with a krait that leaves hard-to-spot bite marks.

The large font and small chapters create at least the illusion of a fast-moving plot – a trick a lot of novelists have caught onto – because you’re continually turning pages. And Patterson has a stronger grip on the English language than some blockbuster authors. He doesn’t bludgeon you with inanities like Stephenie Meyer’s deathless, “It’s a voluntary choice” — a line that, you suspect, he would never allow in one of his novels. But The 8th Confession has neither heart nor soul nor even much tension or San Francisco atmosphere (though we do learn that Restaurant LuLu is “the place for homey Provenςal cooking, rich casseroles and pizzas grilled in a hickory-wood oven”). The ending of The 8th Confession, which has eight people confessing to one crime, devolves into farce. It may tell you all you need to know about this novel that a line intended to crank up the suspense is: “Booker has Al Sharpton’s home number and he’s threatening to use it.”

Best line: “Tyco was wearing his party clothes: a feather boa around his slender shoulders, nipple rings, and a black satin thong.”

Worst line: No. 1: “There were times when reporting to Jacobi was like having bamboo slivers pushed under my finger nails.” This cliché should have died with Mao. No. 2: “But a year and a half ago a psycho with an illegal sublet and an anger-management problem,  living two floors above her, had sneaked into apartments and gone on a brutal killing spree.” As opposed to one of those killing sprees that wasn’t brutal. No. 3: “ ‘I’m not finished talking yet,’ I growled at Cindy.”

Published: April 2009

About the author: Patterson has also written 14 novels about the psychologist Alex Cross, including Jack & Jill, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He lives in Florida.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 8, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Workshops, Quote of the Day (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

“Can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Should poets stay home and read poetry instead of taking their work to workshops for critiques? Sometimes, yes, says Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the author of Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, $9.95, paperback) and other books. Julia Oder asked him recently what he thought of the current “obsession” with workshops. His answer:

“Poets in small towns like Hailey, Idaho, feel they have no one to talk to about poetry. Everyone’s watching football on TV. So the poetry workshop serves a wonderful purpose for lost souls trying to find themselves in poetry. But if you’re in a big city, you don’t need it. I think it’s better for poets to stay away from poetry workshops. I mean, in a place like San Francisco, there are so many poetry readings going on – practically every night there’s one.”

Oder followed up by asking Ferlinghetti if he thought a poet could learn a lot just by reading poetry. He replied:

“Yes, it’s much better just to read it. And then I think – can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in “Poetry’s Eternal Graffiti: Late-Night Conversations With Lawrence Ferlnghetti,” by Julia Oder, Poets & Writers magazine, March-April 2007 issue. I couldn’t find the interview on the site for the magazine www.pw.org/mag/, but if you search for “Ferlinghetti” there, you’ll find lots of other articles about him.

Comment by Jan Harayda:

Ferlinghetti has a point that also applies to other kinds of writers’ groups. You have to be careful about when, why and which groups you join. They can hurt you if they devolve into a substitute for serious reading and writing. Groups that consist only of writers who have published little or nothing can involve other problems, especially if they include critiques of members’ work. The people in your group may not know how to give you the feedback you need to get published or make other kinds of progress. If they don’t, you might gain more from taking a class with a writer you admire who has achieved some of the things you’d like to accomplish.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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