Tag Archives: 1960

New York State of Mind

The Widow of Wall Street: A Novel by Randy Susan Meyers (Atria Books, $26.00, 352 pages)

widow of wall street

As with The Murderer’s Daughters, The Widow of Wall Street transports the reader into situations that few people experience.  Author Randy Susan Meyers  maintains her running theme of human frailty in this, her fourth novel.

A bitter opening chapter sends the tale to nearly the end of its long and treacherous timespan, from August 1960 to 2009.  Author Meyers has taken the horrific scandal that was the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and reworked it into an up close and personal morality piece that provides raw emotion and insight into the lives of her fictional characters.  While the general premise of the telling closely mirrors the real life front page story, the details that are specific to Meyer’s characters are of her own invention.

Phoebe has a better than ordinary life living on a nicer street in Brooklyn.  She’s pretty and doesn’t look like the rest of her Jewish family.  At age fifteen Phoebe has become smitten with Jake Pierce who has just turned eighteen.  Jake’s family is down the economic ladder from Phoebe’s.  Jake is ambitious, agressive and determined to get ahead.

As the chapters unfold, the pace of the tale quickens.  Phoebe and Jake’s life as a married couple in New York has its up and downs.  Jake is clearly obsessed with making money and Phoebe feels she has been relegated to a boring housewife life.  Jake is a risk-taker and he lacks the sort of empathy that would temper his personal drive.  Consistent with the Bernard Madoff scenario, Jake borrows money from his wife’s family, which as we know puts them at jeopardy of being his victims.

Author Meyers does an excellent job of depicting her characters.  Jake is hard edged and deluded, as a Ponzi scheme boss must be to maintain the illusions he creates.  Phoebe, for the most part, lacks the fortitude and willingness to see past the glittering life she leads as the scheme grows and grows.

While the tale is not original, the writing is superb.  Readers will wonder at the lives led by the super rich.  It’s like being behind the scenes of the pages of People magazine.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Widow of Wall Street was released on April 11, 2017.

 

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Those Were the Days

The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 387 pages)

“To me now, that culminating day of the summer – of the year, really – seems like one long, twisty dream, everything that began with Proxy’s Cadillac nosing into the driveway and the thunderous disclosures that followed, and then the tremendous gathering at the (fishing) derby, as if the audience would come to see what Tom Harry would bring about next.”

Ivan Doig, author of the bestseller Work Song and 8 other prior novels plus 3 nonfiction works, has fashioned a family novel that at first glance appears to be a very slight story.   It’s the tale of Tom Harry, a single-parent bartender in an isolated town in northern Montana.   The story we read is told by his son Rusty, and it’s a look back in time – the summer of 1960 – when the now-adult son was twelve and his father was still alive.

As told, Rusty meets a young playmate named Zoe who will turn out to be the love of his life and his future wife.   The story that the reader presumes will play out – that Tom Harry dies and Rusty takes over his role as the town’s most skilled bartender – is  not the one that Doig delivers.   (It is also not the story of Rusty and Zoe’s adult romance.)   Instead, it’s about how Tom Harry masterfully handles the stresses in his life, most notably when a former female co-worker shows up in town to present him with a twenty-one year old daughter he never knew existed.   It’s the suddenly on-the-scene daughter Francine who eventually becomes the possible replacement for Tom behind the bar.

If the plotline seems minor, Doig makes up for it because he has a marvelous voice for describing life’s everyday happenings:

“Tomorrow came all too soon.   Pop must have believed fish got up before dawn.   Cats were just scooting home from their nightly prowls, eyes glittering at us in the Hudson’s headlights, as he drove out of town and into a gravel road that seemed to go on and on.   I was more asleep than awake when he stopped the car.”

This is a story about a young man who comes to idolize his “Pop”, and discovers that he’s just a man with a few very human flaws (lust, dishonesty, and others) – and yet also a human being admired as a leader who never departs from his key values in life.   He’s a man who can and will do anything necessary to provide for his son.   The novel ends with a conclusion that Rusty could not see was coming, one which should surprise almost all readers.   It’s about love and life’s tough lessons and once you’ve finished reading The Bartender’s Tale, you will no doubt feel like you’ve left the company of some very decent, struggling yet valiant people who will be missed.

Doig is a unique writer who takes what’s seemingly too small in life to matter, fills the entire stage with it, and makes us care deeply about outcomes.   It’s a very special gift.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

 “(An) enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story  about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes.”   Library Journal

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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Only the Good Die Young

Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)

“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”

It’s 1960.   You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo.   The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency.   Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your  mother) that the evil kid has escaped.   Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.

As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business.   You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth.   So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient…   And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything.   Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.

You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works.   You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since:  “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns.   So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”

Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more).   Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody.   Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics.   The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the  nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.

At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser.   It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights…   Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.

Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.

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That Was the Year That Was

The year 1960 was a monumental one during which this country elected John Kennedy as its president.   But the book 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies illustrates once again that more is less.   Instead of writing a book about President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson or the losing presidential candidate Nixon, David Pietrusza attempts to cover them all at once; as a result more is lost than gained.

One basic problem is that the backgrounds and life events of these three separate large characters in U.S. history (and modern politics) are covered rapidly.   For the reader who has already read full biographies of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon, far too much is missed or condensed down to Reader’s Digest style summaries.   On the flip side, the reader who has never read in depth about these figures will likely be unable to comprehend some of what he/she is reading due to the very facts and circumstances that are left out.

I’ll provide an example of the latter problem.   One of the events that made Nixon a major, but young, political figure in the late 1950’s was his involvement in investigating Alger Hiss.   That is mentioned on just two pages in 1960 and what’s missing is an explanation of the key evidence found against Hiss that Nixon relied upon in alleging that Hiss was a Communist and/or a spy (notwithstanding that Hiss worked in the U.S. State Department for Franklin D. Roosevelt and was once the Secretary-General of the United Nations).   There’s no explanation here of the microfilm found in a pumpkin or the typewriter that was supposedly found to have been used by Hiss to commit a forgery.   For the person who is not familiar with Nixon, it will seem that he is credited for “breaking” Hiss but it will be unclear as to exactly why.   Nixon’s role as a prosecutor is hazy without a sufficient review of the evidence he presented against Hiss.

There’s another issue.   The book jacket states:  “Like The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White – yet far more revealing than Kennedy camp insider White could ever be…  (it) has the narrative energy and suspenseful turns and twists of a headlong thriller.   Yet it’s all true.”   Well, we actually don’t know today what is and is not true about what is reported as fact in 1960.   For example, there’s an entire chapter – a somewhat odd and silly one – about Kennedy’s relationships with women (“They were a dime a dozen”); and statements about his father and brother Robert.   But these events happened so long ago that we do not, in truth, know what happened and what was alleged or was the product of someone’s imagination.

It’s also not clear what the impact of this information is supposed to be…  Enough said.   But, for me, the biggest fault with 1960 is that I never felt I was getting to know any of the three figures as human beings.   By contrast, Pietrusza shows some surprising skills by including some write-ups of peripheral figures that come off as much more real and human – individuals with true strengths and flaws.   Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller are two of the figures who come to life in 1960 in a way that the three lead subjects do not.

Finally, this is just not the suspenseful thriller touted on the book jacket.   For an excellent example of a non-fiction political/modern history book that does read like a Capitol thriller, the interested reader can turn to By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld by Bradley Graham.   Rules is an 832-page roller coaster ride that is never dull.   By comparison, 1960 is a 417-page survey that tries to cover the lives of three very large figures at one selected point in U.S. history.   It comes off as simultaneously both too big (focusing on three pivotal lives rather than one) and too small (leaving out too many key details while including a bit too much gossip).   As a result, it simply feels flat in the reading…   But maybe Pietrusza will produce a comprehensive biography of Hubert Horatio Humphrey or Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller; either would – no doubt – be quite interesting.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidents by David Pietrusza.

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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