Tag Archives: domestic violence

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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Get Over It

From This Moment On: An Autobiography by Shania Twain (Atria Books, $27.99, 448 pages; Audioworks/Simon & Schuster Audio, $29.99, 7 CDs)

An autobiography from a 45-year-old?   Oh my, yes!   Shania Twain has done enough living in her 45 years to put most everyone else in her age group into the category of slacker.   Shania’s deep love of music and the comfort it has provided through a really hard life gives her the right to tell her story.   Although she has received the accolades only dreamed about by singer/songwriters the world over, it is doubtful many of them have experienced the level of childhood deprivation and anxiety that motivates her career.

The version reviewed here is an audio book that is unique because the introduction and epilogue are recorded in Shania’s own voice.   The text of the autobiography is read by Broadway actress and writer, Sherie Rene Scott.   Scott’s voice resonates with the simple, straightforward attitude conveyed by Shania’s words.   Most autobiographies are intended to provide the writer’s side of a story or an event of particular note.   In this case, the narrative serves to inform the public that becoming a world-wide success in the music industry is a daunting task with serious downsides.

Ms. Twain, who began her singing career very early in life as Eilleen Twain, did so at the prompting of her mother.   The family often did not have enough to eat or a secure roof over their heads.   The tale is straight out of a mournful country song.   Daddy and mommy are trapped in a cycle of poverty and spousal abuse, the children are forced to become self-indulgent at a very young age, and tragedy strikes just when Eileen thinks she has escaped the grip of her childhood.

There’s no need to dwell on the timeline or life events that serve as milestones.   The internet has taken care of the particulars for anyone who can use Google.   Rather, it is the one-on-one experience of hearing about Shania’s feelings of yearning and betrayal that are the payoff for a reader/listener.   In some way, the audio book seems the best way to experience her life.   True, there’s no checking back a few pages when a particular passage is noteworthy; however, enough of her wisdom comes across in the telling that the essence is clear and well experienced.

One curiosity of note is that the vocabulary and grammar in the book are well beyond the level of formal education that Shania received in her childhood.   She states that when she was out on her own, she spent time writing songs and playing music while her roommates attended college.   Perhaps Shania absorbed the tone of the more educated people around her.   There’s no doubt that she has a great capacity to learn and benefit from her diligent efforts.   That said, a thoughtful and sensitive editor no doubt assisted in making this a compelling read (or listen).

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A copy of the audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   From This Moment On is also available as an Audible Audio, Kindle Edition, and Nook Book download.

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Searching So Long

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper, $14.99, 304 pages)

Chandra Hoffman makes a strong debut with her first novel, Chosen.   Written in clear flowing prose, Hoffman will draw empathy from the reader by presenting a true-to-life portrayal of individuals from both sides of the adoption process.

“I wanted to tell a story in which there are no heroes or villains, just shades of gray, real people trying to recover from their stumbles with grace.”

Chloe Pinter is the director of a private adoption program in Portland, Oregon named Chosen Child.   Engaged to a youthful beach bum who yearns for a life on the beaches of Maui, Chloe is immersed in the intimate details of the lives of her clients, torn on what she wants from her own life.   Chloe’s committed to support each of her clients, who range from delinquent, hostile convicts to wealthy high school sweethearts.   She provides them with the financial and emotional resources that she has available, even putting her career and personal life on the line when one of the babies goes missing.

There are other cases where her influence was heavy, life-changing…  and then there are those for whom her actions were like strokes on the Zen watercolor paper, where the darkest of watermarks disappear after brief moments…

Hoffman captures the waves of emotional confusion and exhaustion that accompanies parents of newborns.   She demonstrates the complexities of the adoption process with compassion and expertise that she brings to the novel from her prior professional work as an orphanage relief worker.   She further delves into sensitive topics such as infidelity, postpartum depression, and domestic violence but does so with grace.

This story has merit, and the passion that Hoffman has for the world of adoptions comes through clearly.   My recommendation falters due to the storyline’s predictability and the farfetched resolution to the main part of the story.   Hoffman’s attempt at portraying the complexities of the characters often falls short and results in several unlikable, egotistic male characters who either continue to imagine or participate in affairs, and two of whom describe in detail the way they would murder their partners (which, thankfully, never comes to fruition).   Therefore, this novel is simply recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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I’ll Just Hold On

Musical Chairs: A Memoir by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $16.99)

Jen Knox’s first book Musical Chairs is difficult to describe.  

What is the likely fate of a young girl who comes from a family with a history of runaways, mental illness, and substance abuse?   It is more likely than not that their adolescence will be rife with incident, but to succumb to all three and then manage to out-do the rest by becoming a stripper on top of it?   That is the unlikely, but true, story of Jen Knox.

Readers seem to gravitate toward memoirs, especially in recent years, and especially if they tell the story of overcoming difficulties such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and the like.   Those people will like this book, although it is difficult to figure out exactly why someone would want to expose themselves to this type of content.

What is admirable about this effort is the objectivity with which the author portrays the events of her life.   She does not try to blame others or elicit pity for herself.   This third person telling of a first person story, while unique, may leave some readers wanting more:  more of the inner thoughts, the perceived reasons behind the behaviors, the emotional reactions that have undoubtedly surfaced upon reflection, etc.   In this way the book may fall a bit short.

There’s a sense of rushing through some of the events in the author’s life.   The book is sparse (176 pages) and takes the reader through a decade.   It causes one to wonder if there’s more to the brutal vignettes outlined in these pages that the author has yet to quite work through.

The book is written in three sections:  Runaway, Dancer, and The Education.   The reader learns of some of the encounters with shady characters during the dancing era; follows the author through a variety of dead end jobs and temporary residences; and, eventually, learns more about her mysterious grandmother and catches glimpses of the relationship between her and her eventual soul mate, Chris.

This is a solid first effort, if not a great one.   Several episodes of the author’s life seem to cry out for more detail or explanation; although this may be intentional.   In fact, it appears that Knox wanted it this way.  

Many readers may want more, and some will be disturbed enough as it is.   Most will be happy that the author’s life has come together.   Ms. Knox should be.   The vast majority of the people who find themselves in similar shoes are not so lucky.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author.   Musical Chairs is also available in Kindle and Nook Book editions.

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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