Today is the premiere of my new blog, Popcorn In My Bra.
Has it really been thirty years since Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories Slaves of New York was released? I read it a several years after its initial release, and to me, a young girl who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Slaves of New York and Janowitz just defined the Big Apple to me, the way her WASPy peers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and their literary offerings never did. But then again, as a dorky, most definitely non-WASPy kind of girl, this shouldn’t surprise me.
Imagine a Pre-Guiliani New York of the 1980s. This was before Times Square was completely cleaned-up and Disney-fied, Donald Trump was just a loud and tacky business man, not the GOP candidate for president (yes, a much kinder, simpler time), “greed is good” was the mantra of every yuppie sporting slicked back hair and suspenders, the World Trade Center defined the Manhattan skyline and “Sex and The City” and “Girls” weren’t notions in the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena Dunham.
Slaves of New York is a collection of intermingled stories of struggling and hustling painters, designers, performance artists, writers, and other creative types. One creative type we meet is Eleanor who is in her late twenties and trying to make it as a jewelry designer. She lives with her boyfriend, Stash, who is a graffiti artist, temperamental and only fleetingly devoted to Eleanor, sometimes going for days without speaking to her for some minor infraction on her part.
As a jewelry designer, Eleanor feels she is a failure and is frustrated by her lack of artistic and professional success. Furthermore, she desires more of a commitment from Stash, marriage, but that is isn’t about to happen any time soon.
And even though Eleanor knows she should fully break free from Stash, find someone better and concentrate more on her jewelry designs she doesn’t. Her relationship with Stash isn’t just about love; it’s also about having a place to live. Eleanor can’t afford to pay rent all on her own; yes, the rent is too damn high!
Another slave of New York is Marley Mantello, the protagonist of five of Janowitz’s tales. Marley fashions himself of a genius painter, on the verge of being the “next big thing.” What he lacks in actual talent and skill, he makes up in sheer bravado and being a legend in his own mind. He pays no mind to those who merely orbit his universe. Yes, Marley is unbelievably obnoxious and best to be ignored if one runs into him. But there are times when tragedy befalls him, and he shows a true humanity that makes you feel a smidge of compassion, like when his sister commits suicide.
Other stories between the covers of Slaves of New York include a man who claims to be rich and takes unsuspecting women “jewelry shopping “at Tiffany’s. Why he does this, he can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s just easier to pose as an eccentric man of considerable means, rather actually be the poor guy he actually is.
Other tales told include one of man, Victor, who suffers from a cocktail of ailments, neuroses and acid reflux being just a couple of them. Cora gets involved with Ray, not for love, but through him she can a cop a decent meal now and then and some free furniture for her new apartment. She should feel guilty, especially considering she’s graduate student of women’ studies; but hey, she’s just trying to survive. And in another tale, a spoiled, rich girl, after getting expelled from college and enduring a brief marriage, dabbles in prostitution and heroin (haven’t we all?).
But for me, Slaves of New York, is Eleanor’s story. Like me, Eleanor is from a small town, both befuddled and in wonderment the city and all it has to offer. She’s desperate to fit into the artistic, creative, madcap world that surrounds her, but finds herself coming up short. She’s such a naïve lass that she doesn’t realize a fashion designer she has coffee with is gay, which reminded me how shocked I was the first time I saw two guys making out at a party even though I had no problem with gay people. And I can only imagine the look on my face when I saw some ladies snorting coke in at a dance club bathroom; I’d seen Scarface on cable, for goodness sake! And aside to my mother, I have never done coke, okay?
We now live in very different time that existed in 1986. Business moguls are now rock stars, and rock stars aspire to be moguls. Google is a verb, people don’t want to be artists, but instead they want to be brands, and we let our social media define us. Yet, Eleanor’s tale is eternal. We want to be independent, desire success, express ourselves in a creative matter, and still want the stability and security we think only a marriage will offer. Sure, at times Slaves of New York is sentimental, dated read, but I still found it entertaining and can still relate to Janowitz’s debut.
Dealing with a rough year, and a challenging summer of both professional and personal trials (not to mention allergies that are at def con levels), I thought I would escape into a fun bit of fluff via a chick lit novel. I picked up Vintage by Susan Gloss, charmed by the cover of a pretty dress in a shop window.
As a concept Vintage has a lot of potential. This is a book that tells the tale of three very dissimilar women. Violet is the owner of a Madison, Wisconsin-based vintage clothing shop called Hourglass (love the name). She escaped a bad first marriage to her high school boyfriend, Jed, and a stifling life in the small town of Bent Creek (fictional-looked it up). Always a lover of vintage clothing and accessories, Violet realizes her dream to sell vintage finds at Hourglass to the Madison locals.
April is 18-years-old and pregnant. She’s also been abandoned by her boyfriend who is off to medical school. A smart girl, and a math whiz, April has to put her college education on hold due to her pregnancy and her impending single motherhood. She is also dealing with the death of her mentally ill mother, who died in a car accident, which may have been a suicide.
And then there is Amithi, who immigrated to the United States from India after marrying her husband in an arranged marriage Naveen when she was still a teenager. She recently found out Naveen has been cheating on her for decades with a colleague. Amithi is also struggling with the idea of her daughter Jayana being married to a non-Indian man.
Violet first makes April’s acquaintance when April tries to a return wedding dress to Hourglass. Violet has a strict policy when it comes to returning items to her shop. But despite that she takes some pity on April, being pregnant, abandoned by her boyfriend, rejected by her boyfriend’s parents, college plans that are put on hold and now without a mother. Through a wee bit of maneuvering, Violet agrees to hire April on as an intern to help her gain some college credits. April is a whiz when it comes to numbers, and she helps organize Hourglass’s financial and accounting matters. Even though Violet is not yet forty, she seems a bit out of sorts when it comes to any organizing that requires a computer and an Excel spreadsheet.
Amithi becomes Violet’s friend when she comes into Hourglass to sell a sari she wore when she married Naveen in 1968. Her marriage now in tatters due to Naveen’s betrayal and infidelity, Amithi has no need for a silk orange colored sari to remind her of her wedding day. She’s also sick of her daughter sticking her nose in her and Naveen’s business, and just wants to move on, not knowing who she is beyond being a devoted wife and mother. However, Amithi does have a skill that helps her bond with Violet. She is a talented seamstress and soon she is helping Violet with some of her vintage items that need some TLC. Doing something she loves and excels at, helps Amithi feel useful and helps her cope with the of her marriage.
And with these three characters, Vintage started out a promising read…but it soon fell flat and became just standard-issue chick lit that failed to inspire and entice me as a reader. These included banalities like Violet obsession with her biological clock and dating life. There is April’s ex-boyfriend swooping back into her life at just the right time to rescue her from becoming a single mom. And then there is Violet’s ex-husband oozing back into her life, just as she sparks up a relationship with a new man. And then there are Violet’s friends, Karen and Lane, giving up their careers in law and show biz respectively for soccer mom suburbia. There is an evil landlord who threatens the fate of Hourglass, but thank goodness for a rich benefactor whose death pretty much saves the fate of Hourglass. And I’d be remiss not to mention a clichéd story-line of a fashion show featuring drag queens and a single declaration of love.
Only Amithi didn’t come across as a total cliché. And I think a novel focused on Amithi and the choices she makes in the wake of her busted marriage would be so much more interesting.
However, Vintage isn’t a complete mess. Gloss is a talented writer, with a gift for writing sincere dialogue that made the three women real to me even though I found them a bit too clichéd. Gloss also has a wonderful way of describing people, places and things that made them truly come to life. She captures Madison perfectly. And I also could actually see the Hourglass’s layout in my mind’s eye. I also loved how each chapter began with a brief description of various vintage finds including not only April’s wedding dress and Amithi’s sari, but 1980s power suit, complete with shoulder pads, Frye boots from the 1970s, an apron from the 1950s and a sweet little baby bonnet from the 1940s.
For the most part, Vintage was just a fun, inoffensive book, fully adequate for lazy dog days of summer. I just wish it wrapped up in way that was more classic Chanel suit and not a pilled acrylic sweater.
Jennifer Morales is a former Milwaukee-based activist focused on education, and once acted as a board member for Milwaukee public schools. Now she can add published author to her list of accomplishments with the release of her interconnected collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories.
Meet Me Halfway opens up with “Heavy Lifting.” In this story, Johnquell, an African-American teenage boy, is mortally wounded when helps his white neighbor, Mrs. Czernicki move a heavy piece of furniture in home. Feeling fully, responsible, Mrs. Czernicki feels compelled to connect further with Johnquell’s family that goes beyond attending his funeral. She becomes friendly towards Johnquell’s grieving mother and learns more about Johnquell from his siblings, learning though there are differences that divide us, there are also shared experiences that explain our shared humanity.
Thus, Meet Me Halfway, uses “Heavy Lifting” as a launching pad to share intermingling stories about various Milwaukee residents in one of America’s most segregated cities-Milwaukee.
In “Fragging,” a still alive Johnquell describes his experiences as a black student from a lower middle class family in a mostly white, wealthy suburban highschool.
In “Revision” Stu Reid’s limited ideas on young black men change when he feels compelled to attend Johnquell’s funeral after dealing with him in class as a substitute teacher. Perhaps Milwaukee’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, Clark “Psycho” Sykora, doesn’t have all the answers after all.
When flowers are “Misdirected” and accidentally sent to Johnquell’s mother Gloria that are meant for another woman, Gloria learns a long-kept secret of Donna Tillet, a white suburban matron, a secret that kept Donna estranged from her children for far too long.
And in the final chapter, “Pressing On,” Tarquan, Johnquell’s surviving brother navigate the difficult aftermath of his brother’s death, putting up with the questions from concerned adults, his siblings, and high school friends and peers. If adults can’t explain life and death, how can Tarquan? Perhaps, some day he’ll have the answers.
Morales’s empathetic and vivid writing is both thought-provoking and inspiring. In a city like Milwaukee, so segregated amongst all races, Morales is able to fully evoke the multi-dimensional characters with wisdom and grace. She doesn’t just feel for these men, women and children; Morales’ feels with them as truly masterful writers should and do. Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories is a slim book that spoke to me in volumes. And I hope it is not the only book Jennifer Morales has within her. I want more books from such a talented writer.
Published in 1954, when French author Françoise Sagan was a mere 19-years-old, Bonjour, Tristesse tells the story of Cécile, a well-off teen girl who has been kicked out of university and is now vacationing with her widowed father Raymond along the French Riviera. Joining them for a long summer along the gorgeous blue waters of the Riviera is Elsa, Raymond’s mistress. Cécile doesn’t actively loathe Elsa, but she does find her to be a bit gauche and noisy. But being widowed since Cécile was a little girl, Cécile expects her father wants to have fun and by now, she is used to her father collecting women and then doing away with them once he has grown bored.
Cécile, like a lot of teen girls, is blossoming into womanhood and is trying to figure out who she is. She often comes across as an old soul, and at other times, a petulant child. She hangs out at casinos with her father and his older friends, and has an affair with Cyril, a man in his twenties. But she also pouts and rebels when she is expected to study so she can continue her education.
Cécile expects to have a carefree summer, spending time on the beach, dancing and drinking at nightclubs, spending time with her father and his friends, and yes, learning the ways of horizontal love with Cyril. But then someone joins this scenario, Cécile’s father’s long-time lady friend, Anne.
Anne is everything Elsa is not. She is closer to Raymond’s age and has an impressive career in fashion. She is sophisticated, wise and refined. And soon Raymond turns his affections towards her, and it is not long before he asks Anne to marry him. Cécile is not too happy about this. Though she has long admired Anne for her grace and intelligence, she thinks of Anne as an interloper, not welcomed into the world Cécile and her father have created for the two of them. And when Anne counsels Cécile on how she should behave with her lover, Cyril, and implores that she devotes more time to her studies, Cécile can’t help but get touchy. Who does this vieille dame think she is?
What seems to be an over-riding theme for Cécile during this summer is a sense of loss, everything from the loss of her father to Anne (and his affection) to the loss of her sexual innocence to Cyril. And though Cécile tries to put on a brave face, you sense her vulnerability, her melancholy, hence the title of this book Bonjour, Tristesse-Hello, Sadness, is very approprié.
Cécile learns a great deal at this tender age. She learns that the adult world can be very confusing, but she also learns about herself. She doesn’t know everything, but every day she is learning more.
Bonjour, Tristesse is a slim novel, pretty much novella. It is an exceptionally well-written piece of literature that captures the timeless essence of what it is like to be a teenage girl. Though this book was published long before I was born, and I spent my summers at the mall and the movie theater, I found myself relating to young Cécile thoughts, ideas and opinions. Yes, I was once so very young; I thought I was so sophisticated but non, I was still such an unformed girl.
Sagan writes in a spare, yet detailed style I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the descriptions of idling along the French Riviera, the stolen moments of love making with Cyril, frustrated moments with the adults that structure one’s life and in the end, Cécile’s quest to find meaning in a confusing world. Bonjour, Tristesse is stand-out in the world of literary debuts.
Darling readers. I was hoping to have a book review up by today, but due to a bit of a head cold, I put that on hold. Hopefully, I will be feeling better soon and have it up next week. Enjoy the following books marks I have found for your reading pleasure.
What happened at the Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris chills me to my tailbone. As a reader and writer, I’m a huge proponent of free speech and free expression, even if I disagree with someone or find certain speech ignorant, tasteless or silly. Huffington Post has some good articles on the happenings regarding Charlie Hebdo.
Publisher’s Weekly announce the most promising debut books this upcoming spring.
CBS Sunday Morning’s delightful interview with Jeff Kinney the creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.
The 2014 releases Salon book critic Laura Miller chose not to read and why.
Fellow writers, do you need some dos and don’ts when it comes to meeting deadlines? Here is a handy list.