“Class was a delicate matter, a subject for intuition rather than conversation, one of those ‘borderline’ subjects, deeply felt but never discussed,” writes Jessica Mitford in Hons and Rebels (NYRB Classics, 2004), a memoir of growing up in the storied upper-class English family that inspired her sister Nancy’s Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed earlier today. I haven’t read this one, but I admired Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. And the NYRB site has a brief introduction by Christopher Hitchens and a reading group guide with more on this family of six gifted daughters and a son killed in World War II.
June 18, 2009
At Home With the Honorable and Rebellious Mitford Sisters – Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela and Unity
June 2, 2009
May 20, 2009
Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York
Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?
Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.
But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:
“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”
Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.
In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.
“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”
Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.
Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.
Published: April 2009
About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.
One-Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
May 14, 2009
When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’
A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived
Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.
Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?
In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.
Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.
Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.
Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”
Published: April 2009
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like books but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
May 11, 2009
Maria Laurino Writes of Her Near-Death From Preeclampsia During Pregnancy in Her Memoir, ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’
Maria Laurino tells the chilling story of her near-death from preeclampsia in her new memoir, Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom (Norton, 224 pp., $23.95). The five-page incident is a small part of the book but worth reading by anyone who has or is at high risk for preeclampsia, the pregnancy disorder that used to be called toxemia.
May 5, 2009
You’re 40. He’s Left. Now What? Suzanne Finnamore’s ‘Split,’ a Memoir of Divorce, California-Style, With Chilean Merlot
“A meteor of repressed anger” arose in the mother whose husband walked out
Split: A Memoir of Divorce. By Suzanne Finnamore. NAL, 272 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Suzanne Finnamore seems to have lost her way as a writer. A decade ago, she won deserved praise for the polished wit and taut plotting of her first novel, a romantic comedy about the impending wedding of a materialistic and self-absorbed 36-year-old bride in a part of northern California where the Chilean Merlot runs deep.
Otherwise Engaged made clear that Finnamore knew what was wrong with writing “as rich as Croesus,” “at this point in time,” “in the very final analysis,” and the many similar phrases that turn up in her latest book. Her new memoir of her divorce has the high-flying brand names and neuroses of her first novel, but the prose has turned cute and baggy.
Split suggests that Finnamore has begun to strip-mine her life for publication. At the age of 40, she may have gained new material when her husband walked out of their upscale northern-California home and began taking luxury vacations with a woman who soon became pregnant: The separation left her with a toddler, a mortgage, and “a meteor of repressed anger.”
But Finnamore skims over her pain in chapters so glib and short, she might have texted them to her publisher. In one scene, she goes a credit-card buying spree just when her income seems least certain. At warp speed, she spends $4,000 on more than a dozen frivolous items such as a “blond cardigan sweater with a detachable white mink collar” and a set of “blown-glass 14th-century French shoe reproduction Christmas ornaments.” She explains the binge by saying blithely that her purchases “have gotten me through this travesty” of a divorce. More alarmingly, she says that while smoking she set fire to “not one, not two, but five chenille throws”: “One mattress pad went down while I was on the phone to New York, as did two pillows and a luxury comforter.” Yes, divorce makes you crazy. But some of Finnamore’s behavior seems so reckless, you don’t know whether it results from the separation or from personality traits that were there all along.
Split is clearly not a how-to book, but what is it? Perhaps a coda to the “relationship autopsy” that a marriage counselor required Finnamore and her soon-to-be-ex husband to perform. The tone of Split resembles that of a breezy game of miniature golf the couple and their son played before the decree came through. “Even the pending divorce we just lightly reminisce over,” Finnamore writes, “as though it was a vacation to Fiji, where it rained.”
Best line: Finnamore’s son says while she is reading him a Christmas poem, “We’d better take Daddy’s stocking down, because he’s not going to be here tomorrow.” A rare poignant moment in a book long on wisecracks.
Worst line: Two categories here. Category No. 1: All of the clichés like those in the second paragraph of the review above. (“… it might, in the very final analysis, be some kind of elaborate prank.”) Category No. 2: All of the lines that make you wonder if Finnamore is exaggerating for comic effect or has a habit of self-destructive behavior that seems especially risky for someone who lives with a young child, such as her comment that she set fire to five chenille throws, apparently while smoking in bed.
Consider reading instead: Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001), a beautifully written account of the impact of divorce a mother of two boys, ages 3 and 5. Otherwise Engaged better introduces Finnamore’s writing.
Published: April 2009 (NAL paperback), 2008 (Dutton hardcover).
Editor: Trena Keating
April 23, 2009
She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts
You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.
April 20, 2009
A Film Critic Remembers Growing Up With Unexploded Bombs in Postwar London – David Thomson’s ‘Try to Tell the Story’
Looking back on life with a father who kept secrets from his English family
Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
Film critic David Thomson grew up in a London infested with unexploded bombs, real and symbolic. The real ones landed intact during the Blitz or later in World War II. The symbolic ones began to fall when Thomson’s father, on learning that his wife was pregnant, left home and from then on returned to the family’s South London home only on weekends to see his son. This arrangement was less bizarre than some described in recent memoirs. What made it unusual was that when Kenneth Thomson returned for his weekly visits, he took young son on sports and other outings without ever acknowledging that he had been away.
In this memoir of his first 18 years, David Thomson sorts out the effects of the buried truth with tact and forbearance. Try to Tell the Story has banal descriptions of cricket matches: “The day we were there we saw Hutton score a century backed by Graveney against Lindwall and Miller, but by the end of the match, after [Australian] centuries from Hassett and Miller, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had to make a heroic stand against England against defeat.” But the book shows that Thomson developed early a fine critical sensibility both for films such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and for moviegoing in general. When Thomson wondered how movies got onto theater screens, his father pointed to light from a projection booth. “In those days that beam of light was thick with writhing smoke,” he writes, “since everyone at the movies smoked.”
Best line: “The first day I arrived in America there had been a flood in Maine, a summer flood. It was on the evening news and the Boston reporter, all quickfire and soft soap, had lined up an elderly Maine fellow to see if he had ever seen anything like this before. ‘Well, Mr. Parsons,’ he said. ‘I understand you’ve lived all your life in Maine.’ And the old-time said, ‘Not yet.’”
Worst line: “… we had food rationing for years – into the 1950s, I remember.” Relying on memory for that date is lazy writing. Food rationing ended in England in 1954 and was such a significant event that people burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square. Thomson could have found the date in a few minutes of online searching.
If you like this book, you may also like: Paula Fox’s memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Try to Tell the Story. Some material in the finished book may differ.
About the author: Thomson lives in San Francisco. He also wrote Nicole Kidman and “Have You Seen ….?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.
April 15, 2009
The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers a mother diagnosed as manic depressive
Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Penguin, 112 pp., $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
This elegant memoir is a gentler nonfiction counterpart to Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman’s tragicomic 1967 novel about a well-off woman who chafes against the sterility of her life as a Manhattan wife and mother. Kaufman’s Tina Balser decanted her resentments into a journal. Mim Reichl recorded hers in letters and on scraps of paper that her daughter, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, drew on for this slender book.
Born in 1908 in Cleveland, Mim wanted to become a doctor like her father. But she yielded to parental pressure to get a Ph.D. in a field she disliked so much, musicology, that after obtaining her degree she never played her violin again. A lifetime of frustration followed as she explored paths to fulfillment that kept turning into cul-de-sacs: volunteering, raising children, starting a business.
Like legions of her contemporaries, Mim Reichl was overeducated for work as a housewife, a woman who might seem to embody what Betty Friedan would call in The Feminine Mystique “the problem that has no name.”
“I can feel myself growing more and more rebellious,” she said when her bland first husband complained about her housekeeping. “Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?”
A move to New York and a happier second marriage didn’t end her discontents. She wrote The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, 12-volume set that she and her husband produced and that sold well. But when that project ended, she had trouble finding a job. In the years just after World War II, many Americans considered it unpatriotic for women to take jobs from the returning soldiers.
“You women and girls go home, back to being housewives, as you promised to do,” an army general said in a televised speech.
As the years of underemployment wore on, Mim was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium. “Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?” Ruth Reichl wonders.
A good question, but perhaps oversimplified. Mim thought in either-or terms (“I am a failure” and “My children have abandoned me”) and treated her daughter at times with shocking cruelty. Her reaction was brutal when Ruth, who had become a food writer, got her first book contract. “Do you think we sent you to graduate school so you could write cookbooks?” she asked. “When are you going to do something worthwhile?” Mim’s behavior often seems less typical of manic depression than of borderline personality disorder, characterized in part by a tendency to see the world in black-and-white, one of several alternate diagnoses unexplored in the book. At times, Mim’s mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job. For all we learn about her, Mim remains an enigma.
But if Reichl leaves questions unanswered, she has written a warm and forgiving portrait of a woman who gave her many reasons to do otherwise. The most poignant sections of Not Becoming My Mother suggest that Mim never stopped trying to solve the problem of her life. As an old woman, she wrote: “Who am I? What do I want? … I need to find me.” That line echoes softly one that she wrote years earlier: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”
That line – in which Mim seems to imply that motherhood is not “meaningful work” – makes this an odd book for a publisher to be pitching to the Mother’s Day gift market. It tells a bleak enough story that its arrival in stores may be a few weeks premature. This is an iffy prospect for your mother, but it could be fine gift for a daughter who is graduating in June.
Best line: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”
Worst line: Reichl says that as she read her mother’s papers, “I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy.” She doesn’t say exactly when she found the cache that inspired this book, but she was apparently well into adulthood. And you don’t believe for a minute that a woman as accomplished as Reichl “began to understand” so late in life that she had to make herself happy. After all that has come before it, that line – found in the last paragraph – seems glib.
Recommendation? This is a good book but overpriced. A typical 250–300 page hardcover costs $25. This one has 128 pages and costs $19.95. You do the math.
Published: To be published on April 21, 2009
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Not Becoming My Mother. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 26, 2009
It’s odd how few good memoirs there are by high school teachers, especially compared with the many by professors. A worthy exception to the pattern is Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story (Villard, 256 pp., $15, paperback). In this lively book, Brendan Halpin reflects on his years as young teacher in inner-city and suburban public schools in the Boston area in the 1990s. His tone can be smart-alecky, but he’s a passionate teacher who has grounds for complaint about apsects of his work: hostility from older teachers, a poorly designed truancy program, patronizing advice dispensed to teachers by consultants with no classroom experience. Halpin has also written a good memoir of his first wife’s breast-cancer treatments, It Takes a Worried Man, and young-adult or crossover novels, including Donorboy and new I Can See Clearly Now (Villard, 288 pp., $14).
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.