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All the Way from Memphis

Nightingale Palace 2

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace: A Novel by Dana Sachs (William Morrow, $14.99, 346 pages)

By the time the train arrived in New York City… Goldie Rubin Feld was ready. Somehow, through the force of her will, the past had grown smaller and smaller in her mind until, finally, it disappeared.

If you loved the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you owe it to yourself to check out the second novel by author Dana Sachs (If You Lived Here). As with Hotel, Sachs’ story deals with Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II and afterward. In Hotel, the city of Seattle served as the stage on which the story’s events took place; in Nightingale Palace, the city of San Francisco – past and present – serves as the primary stage.

As the story opens, thirty-five-year-old Anna is called to New York City by her grandmother Goldie – a relative she has not spoken to in five years. Anna is a widow and has never quite forgiven her grandmother for the way she spoke so poorly and disrespectfully about Anna’s late husband Ford while he was alive. Goldie is Jewish, in her eighties, twice-widowed, rich – she owns a Rolls Royce, and is extremely inflexible and demanding. Goldie wants Anna to drive her across the country to San Francisco in the Rolls Royce she’s named Bridget. Goldie left San Francisco in 1944, and she wants to return some artwork to a member of the Nakamura family. The Nakamuras lived in, and maintained, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park befor they were rounded up and placed in a relocation camp.

Anna agrees to her grandmother’s unusual request because she’s become frozen in her grief and has no idea what’s going to happen to her next. Both Anna and Goldie seem to sense that something will occur during the cross-country adventure that will provide an impetus for Anna to decide what she wants and needs out of her life. (Ford has been dead for two years. Anna is alive, but barely so.) At the very least, it’s going to get her out of Memphis and give her the opportunity to see how other people live.

All that matters is elegance.

This is not a novel that can be read quickly, or should it be. Sachs has a great sense of style and elegance in the way she writes and it must be appreciated. Here’s an example:

…then, without fail, Henry (Nakamura) would pull out whatever beautiful object he had brought to the store and show it to her. Goldie would become transfixed. Carefully his slender hands would open a box, unfold a velvet wrapper, unwind a leather strap from an ivory clasp. Goldie would become almost immobile with pleasure. She would remember experiencing similar sensations when she was a child, watching her mother braid her older sisters’ hair, or do needlework, her fingers piercing the fabric as rhythmically as a musician strumming a guitar. For some reason, observing the fine, precise movements of someone else’s hands gave Goldie a peculiar, almost physical delight. When those hands were Henry’s, though, the experience became exquisite… those moments spent gazing at his hands moving across a little tea set or carved wooden box offered, for Goldie, a fleeting but almost divine consolation.

Nightingale Palace offers up, in the form of a novel, life’s lessons. These are lessons that in earlier times we might have learned from our elders. The story teaches us that everyone finds happiness and fulfillment in their own way, regardless of race, age, sexual preference, religion. It also teaches us that love is not always lost and that every new day holds out the promise of something better.

Something good might happen today.

We all have a chance to be happy here.

The unforeseen ending of Nightingale Palace is life-affirming and uplifting. It brings to mind the truth of Jackson Browne’s words, that sometimes it would be easier to change the future than the past.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:

http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-secret-of-the/

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You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 304 pages)The singer Mary Wells had an amazing, crystal clear voice that was to presage what came later with The Supremes and Diana Ross.   Wells’ early ’60s-era singles, such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “Two Lovers” were so perfectly recorded that it’s difficult, even now, to think of anyone attempting to cover them.   (Try substituting another singer’s voice in your mind.   Try it.   It can’t be done.)

The Queen of Motown died all too young from cancer at the age of 49, and in a basically impoverished state.   Wells’ dramatic riches to rags story offered cinematic-style opportunities for the right writer.   In Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Peter Benjaminson delivers an account that falls short of being extensive or definitive.   Biographies of artists – musicians, writers, fashion designers, actors – often come across as flawed when the biographer missed the chance to interview his or her subject.   While Benjaminson interviewed many of Wells’ “friends, lovers and husbands,” he was forced to rely on another writer’s dated one-on-one interviews with the singer.

Because Benjaminson cannot describe what it was like to be in Wells’ orbit or company, he takes the route of writing about “the sex, the violence and the drugs in her life.”   This is unfortunate because writing about Wells’ sexual partners, domestic violence incidents, and her illicit drug use does nothing to flesh her out as an artist.   The story of Wells’ life is told in such a straight-forward, chronological order that there’s no rush to turn the pages.   (It’s a book that I put down far more than I intended.)

The story’s momentum comes late, when Benjaminson deals with Wells’ clearly fatal cancer diagnosis and her poverty.   Wells might have been a multi-millionaire had she taken the deal offered to her by Berry Gordy to remain at Motown as a co-owner of the record company.   Instead, she left to begin what she felt was going to be a highly successful musical career with another label.   It was not to be, and Wells’ later may have repeated her mistake by turning down an alleged offer of $1 million from Gordy when she was quite ill.   (Benjaminson is unclear as to whether this offer was, in fact, ever put on the table.)

Mary Wells, the woman who – in her own words – “helped build Motown” was to survive by playing gigs in small clubs, in hotels such as the Sheraton Airport Hotel at LAX, at San Quentin State Prison, and basically wherever someone would offer her a few dollars to walk on stage.   It’s ironic that, as Benjaminson states, Wells was to pursue fortune, not fame during her lifetime but her terrible personal decisions left her with “no money to speak of.”

Where Benjaminson gets it right is in providing readers with details about Wells’ recording sessions at Motown (with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) and elsewhere.   These details are what draw the interest of music fans.   There are, however, some facts presented in this bio that may be open to question.   For example, Benjaminson insists that Wells was hugely popular for several decades in Latino neighborhoods in California, and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.   This was not evident to this reviewer when I lived in L.A.

As with Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal (2010), which was highly focused on personal issues rather than on the music of the three performers, this bio by Peter Benjaminson left me feeling that I knew little more about the late, great Mary Wells when I finished it than when I opened it.   I suspect that one can discover more about her spirit, her character by listening again to her records, her songs — a life’s work.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This review first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:  http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-mary-wells-the-tumultuous/ .

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(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (Random House, $27.00, 432 pages)

“Elemental power – a simple grandeur of conception – that sticks in the soul and finds it way to the corner of one’s smile.”

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye is the story of the history behind the world’s most beloved and enduring hero.   Initially created as a villain in 1933, Superman was later revised as a hero by Jerry Siegel and drawn to resemble movie star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. by Joe Shuster (Clark Kent was molded after Harold Lloyd).

I have always liked Superman.   I still remember when my mom took me, an eight-year-old, to the big city to see Superman: The Motion Picture starring Christopher Reeve.   It was a big outing, not only the city…  but a movie!!!

I read everything I could about the movie beforehand, kept every article, studied every picture, and learned the bios of the stars and crew.   Heck, I knew what the movie was about before I even entered the theater.   But you know what?   For those two magical hours I truly believed a man could fly.   And Christopher Reeve will always be “my” Superman.

Since then, Superman has always held a magical hold over me.   I have a huge Superman collection, which I love and my wife abhors.   Lately the collection had to suffer due to kids, rent, food, etc., but at least it’s easy to buy me presents.   My son, who at the age of three and despite a constant brainwashing from his old man, decided to follow Batman (probably just for spite), has an ongoing battle with me about who is the “greatest superhero.”

I’d like to think I’m winning, but really, is there such a thing as winning an argument with a five-year-old?

I got this book from the local library.   When I took my kids there a few weeks ago my son spotted it on the “New Books” shelf, grabbed and proudly presented it to me.   You know I had to check it out.

This is Superman – the granddaddy of all superheroes, the one who started it all, the icon who is held to a higher standard in fiction and has set the standards for many of us in the nonfiction world.   It’s no wonder that the franchise is almost 80 years strong and growing stronger.

The research in the book is excellent and the book itself is fascinating.   Mr. Tye goes through the early development stages of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, through the character’s successes and their mismanagement of their careers, the shysters, the businessmen, and the fanboys who grew up to reclaim their hero and his “parents.”   The tale continues through the years, telling of important story arcs and individuals who shaped the mythology: writers, artists, actors, and publishers.

Along the way the author reaches the conclusion that Superman is not just an American hero, but a hero to children around the world and an icon to look up to.   Especially poignant to me was the time after the death of Superman where, in the comics, heroes rose and ordinary people wore the famous emblem trying to live up to the ideal of Superman himself.

The book is a well-researched document about a beloved character and the people who made him so.   The narrative is full of wonderful anecdotes about the comics (including why many characters have a double-L in their names), the famous copyright trials, the movies and TV shows (including Smallville), and is chock-full of interviews with a cast of characters who deeply care about this mythological titan.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5 (a rating equivalent to Highly Recommended on this site).

This review was written by Man of la Book, and originally appeared on the Blogcritics Books site.   You can read more reviews by Man of la Book at his bookish blog:  http://manoflabook.com/ .

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