Thursday, May 14, 2020

Review: A Way of Life, Like Any Other

A Way of Life, Like Any Other A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first laid eyes on A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O'Brien, the book was in the fifth position of a “five Hollywood lives” list compiled by author Susanna Moore for the Wall Street Journal. I was surprised to see only two familiar titles on said list in a nonfiction genre that I’m as familiar with as the back of my hand. Well! I would have to see just what this was about. Turns out, the semi-fictionalized memoir of O’Brien’s Hollywood adolescence is just a treat from first page to last—that rare combination of a subject I wanted to read about written by someone with a singular position to have witnessed and a singular talent for describing *just* that. Some of the raunchier passages aside, I was dazzled by O’Brien’s ear for dialogue and admired the dry, deadpan wit of his observations of life in the movie colony as his actor parents’ respective stars began to fade and then blink out altogether.

O’Brien’s parents were George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, two silent movie stars who, to put it kindly, had limited success in the talkie era. By the time the book opens, sometime in the early fifties’, the two former celebrities are navigating a messy divorce and a transition to civilian life, neither able to accomplish this pivot with any particular degree of grace. Our narrator, grade-school aged, finds himself caught in between helping his mother plan boozy dinner parties and picking her up from her occasional suicide attempts, while his father is mostly exiled from his life by his mother’s resentment over the divorce. This material, in less capable hands, would be the stuff of a Jerry-Wald-produced soap opera style tearjerker, à la I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Instead, O’Brien makes the occasionally lurid episode seem oddly mundane with his detached, trenchant insights into his mother’s behavior. Her overfrank discussions with her son about her sex life, her problems with her ex-husband, and her own disappointments in life feel as inappropriate as they do real. After Churchill’s second marriage, to a Russian sculptor, falls apart spectacularly in Rome, O’Brien is sent home to California to live with his father, whose Gary Cooper-isms  and sincere good-naturedness are a sea change from the constant hysteria of the first several chapters of the book with his mother. George O’Brien, too, is a broken character—listlessly existing from week to week in an “after the parade’s gone by” state of nostalgia for his career in westerns and burying himself in volunteer work at the local Catholic church for lack of other obligations. However, O’Brien’s father seems like a much calmer broken character, and you develop an odd affection for him and his aw shucks manners, compared to the mild antagonism I felt towards Churchill for just how little she seemed to care about anyone besides herself.  

Later, O’Brien goes to live with a schoolmate’s family at their palatial Beverly Hills estate, and sees first-hand the behind the scenes life of Sam Caliban, a B-picture mogul who seems to be an amalgam of several old Hollywood directors/producers. Caliban balances gambling debts, production overages, his son and wife, and a starlet girlfriend with a juggler’s grace, and his brief dominance of the middle third of the book makes you wish he had his own spin-off. There’s a liberated, sexy love interest in the form of Linda, O’Brien’s would-be girlfriend whose contradictory endorsement of the free love movement and the looming presence of her actual steady boyfriend keep the two at arms-length. In spite of these focus shifts and a few cameos, including a well-read if monocular John Ford, the two real stars of the book are O’Brien’s parents, who feel as flawed and realistic as if they were sitting in front of you. George O’Brien’s occasionally cowboyish dialogue in particular (“I want you to know there’s always a bunk for you here and all the chow you can eat”, he tells his son at one point) reads half-humorous, yet wholly earnest—you get a feel in some of the less folksy, more formal aspects of pater O’Brien’s speech for a lost time, of someone born at the turn of the century. A scene between father and son over a small inheritance in the book’s last scene is as strangely moving and mildly disturbing an observation of character as anything you’d read in a classic novel, it really took my breath away.

If you’re looking for a star-studded tell-all, this is definitely not the right book for you—but as a terrifically unique, brilliantly well-written period piece, A Way of Life, Like Any Other 's sense of time and place is transportive and just really a lot of mordant fun to read. O’Brien wrote several other fiction and nonfiction titles before his premature death in 1998 from cancer, and I’m so excited to discover more from this highly original voice in literature.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Review: Nobody's Child: Poverty, Justice, and the Insanity Defense in America

Nobody's Child: Poverty, Justice, and the Insanity Defense in America Nobody's Child: Poverty, Justice, and the Insanity Defense in America by Susan Nordin Vinocour
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Nobody’s Child: A Tragedy, a Trial, and a History of the Insanity Defense", by forensic psychologist Susan Nordin Vinocour, effectively covers exactly what the title implies it covers—and you, as the reader, mostly get what you were promised. Mostly. Vinocour sets out in her book to examine what exactly constitutes an insanity defense, both in legal terms and practical application, through the lens of a child abuse/murder case in which she was a key defense witness. The actual execution of the book, however, in terms of its persuasive power and writing level, is less successful than its lofty (and honestly, noble-minded) goals. I started the book riveted to the case study that makes up the bulk of the frame narrative, but gradually lost interest in the book entirely as the story was bogged down by a series of contextual history lessons that neither particularly illuminated the case at hand nor contributed greatly to my understanding of a complicated psycholegal concept.

The book opens with the story of Dorothy Dunn, an intellectually disabled black woman in her forties’ who is accused of horrific child abuse and neglect leading to the death of her grandson, Raymie. Raymie is found on the kitchen floor of his grandmother’s dilapidated home in a state of rigor mortis—he had been dead for three days when Dunn called an ambulance from a pay phone to come “fix” her predeceased grandson. When authorities arrived, the oddly distant woman had trouble answering basic questions and asked if she was “going to jail”. Indeed she was—to await trial for the second-degree murder of her young charge. Did the boy suffer a head injury following a fall (a theory supported by the crime scene), meaning the grandmother’s prolonged delay in seeking medical attention caused his death? Was he beaten by the grandmother, whose disregard for the child’s wellbeing went as far explicitly denying the child medical care, which resulted in his death? What exactly happened in that kitchen three days earlier, and what was Dorothy Dunn’s state of mind when it happened?

Enter Vinocour, contacted by Dunn’s public defender lawyer to psychologically assess Dunn’s mental state both presently and at the time of the alleged crime. Vinocour’s job was not so much to determine whether or not Dorothy Dunn had committed a crime, but to decide whether Dunn’s mental instability at the time of Raymie’s death would support an insanity plea. Though the term is bandied about often in fictional legal dramas, I’d never really considered what the actual legal definition of the term was, or how it would affect a criminal defense. The author, a former lawyer herself, attempts to interweave chapters on the history of this term and its evolution, from the middle ages to the present, with chapters of somewhat straightforward reportage of the Dunn case and its progression through the legal system. It’s in this call-and-response, history-versus-case-study approach that an otherwise engaging and affecting book loses its way.

Vinocour provides historical background in these alternating chapters in much the dry, pedantic way a poorly written literature review at the beginning of a research paper would. The information is synthesized from a variety of historical sources and cases and presented as evidence for the everchanging nature of the legal definition of insanity—from whether or not the defendant had a guilty mind to whether or not the accused party could tell right from wrong to whether the criminal could tell what they were doing while committing the crime, etcetera. All these arguments are incredible interesting—it’s just that the author seems unable to present them in a way that is interesting. The facts of each case are laid out on the table, briefly discussed, and then the tide of the text moves along, without really engaging the reader in a meaningful philosophical inquiry into the implications of the each of these different criterion for a person to be deemed legally “insane”. The cases she uses, while classic, are also ubiquitous—not being a legal scholar by any means, I was already familiar with several of her historical case studies, and as there was no insight into the cases, merely a presentation of the facts, I didn’t learn anything particularly from these portions of the book, and just had to kind of wade through to get back to the true-crime portions of the book. In more deft hands, the cases would have provided thought-provoking material for considering the change, over time, of what was considered “insane” versus simply “morally bankrupt” or “evil”, and whether or not those definitions served the process of “justice” in its many possible definitions. As is, these chapters grind the momentum of the book to a halt at times, and felt both stale and drawn-out.

Far more successful are the author’s chapters describing her participation in the pre-trial and trial aspects of the Dunn case. Vincour vividly retells the story of a woman and her family who were let down by social service safety nets again and again, forming a compelling counter-narrative to the prosecution’s accusations of Dunn’s intentionally callous disregard for her children’s safety and wellbeing. From CPS’s lack of intervention in Dorothy Dunn’s own bleak childhood (in which she was born mentally challenged, and was physically and emotionally scarred by parental abuse and neglect), to its continued disinterest in pursuing what seem in hindsight to be glaring, actionable problems within the Dunn family (children with high lead levels from lead poisoning, malnutrition, Raymie’s mother’s mental instability and drug use, Dorothy’s attempt to put one child in foster care only to have him returned, Raymie’s essentially being “left” at Dunn’s doorstep by CPS when there were no alternative arrangements available for his care), there’s a continual feeling that this family was allowed to fall through the cracks, and only the fact of a homicide case brought attention to a group of people who could have used the help and public interest well before the tragedy occurred. Vincour succeeds in painting a grim picture of a woman living on the margins of society and left with very limited intellectual and physical resources, to fend for herself “as best she could”. When her best was shown to be inadequate, even by her own standards, still Dunn was expected to just carry on somehow, caseworkers willingly turning a blind eye to the limitations of her childcare abilities because her children and grandchild didn’t fit the very narrow criteria to be removed from the home. An admittedly overworked, underfunded system that was ostensibly designed to protect children, support caregivers, and keep families together in the end did none of those things for Dorothy Dunn and her family.

Vincour takes special care to highlight the possibility of the media’s influence on the trial’s outcome, in spite of the promise of an impartial jury trial. The judge in this case declined the defense’s request to place a gag order on the media, leading to media coverage emphasizing the more salacious aspects of the crime that was fully accessible to the jury via the nightly news or their daily newspaper. It was easy for me, just an uninvolved party well after the fact, to read these headlines and the descriptions of the crime scene in the beginning of the book and have a knee-jerk reaction to Dorothy Dunn’s culpability in her grandchild’s senseless death. How much harder would it be for a jury in the courtroom, looking at autopsy photos of the child’s broken body, to NOT form an emotional rather an analytical reaction to the incredibly emotionally upsetting idea of a child dying in such circumstances? This was one of the more interesting takeaways I had from the book—that a public whose interest skews towards the ghoulish (read: yours truly) can often assume a false sense of being “certain” as to what must have happened based on media reporting that is well-aware of that taste for the Grand Guignol aspects of the case and caters to it specifically, in the interest of ratings/selling newspapers. If all you hear are the more nightmarish aspects of a crime, how can those evocative details fail to color your impartial view of a crime and the person accused of committing it? Now, sometimes a murderer is just an out and out murderer, legally caught dead to rights-- but in these more ethically murky waters, it’s interesting to consider how our own biases and the media’s support of those initial natural feelings of repulsion to horrible events that make us more likely to judge people whose shoes we’ll never have to walk in.

All in all, and in spite of its flaws, a stimulating look at an aspect of the legal system that, considering the everchanging nature of mental health issues and their public perception in America, deserves frequent revisiting.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Review: Apropos of Nothing

Apropos of Nothing Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn’t even know Woody Allen was writing a memoir until I read in the news a few months ago that Ronan Farrow had taken to Twitter to denounce the project and its alleged lack of factchecking, rekindling in the media for the umpteenth time the decades long bloodfeud between the eighty-five year old multi-hyphenate filmmaker and what could loosely be termed his family. Stating that he was unaware, while working on his much acclaimed nonfiction bestseller, Catch and Kill, that a relationship existed between the publishing house and his estranged father, Farrow decried Hachette’s “lack of ethics and compassion for victims of sexual abuse” in pursuing the project and cited this “breach of trust” as a factor in his decision to part ways with the publisher. I got the same uneasy feeling I always do when someone mentions Woody Allen in the media—a momentary lurch of excitement (he’s one of my favorite directors) followed by a chastened feeling that I shouldn’t be excited (he’s the center figure in a messy child abuse allegation that continues to play itself out in the media lo, these many years later, with no real resolution in sight). After an employee walk out in protest of l’affaire Allen, Hachette folded and announced that they were no longer publishing Apropos of Nothing, as it was titled, returning the rights back to the author. Well, hell, I thought. I wonder what was in the book. Days later, I found an article on DailyMail using some of the more salacious portions of the Allen autobiography as pull-quotes—wait, how did they get a hold of this? Turns out, Arcade Publishing picked up the title and quietly released it in print and a number of e-platforms two weeks after Hachette cancelled his contract. I dutifully plopped down my $9.99 for the Kindle edition and there it sat in my queue for a few days before I plucked up the initiative to read it. Would it be awful, justifying Ronan Farrow’s public criticism? Would it be wonderful, highlighting the injustice of trial by media? Which was worse?

In a way, Apropos of Nothing meets both of my very different projections. Allen tackles the subject of his life story with characteristically mordant humor, covering his childhood in Brooklyn and his miraculous ascent from wunderkind comedy writer to stand up comedian to acclaimed auteur filmmaker in you-were-there detail. The first two hundred pages or so are as immersive, interesting, and witty as anything in his motion picture catalog, peppered with Woody-isms (“I’m eighty-four, my life is almost half over” was a good one) and well-employed but performatively florid vocabulary (“cynosure” comes up twice in the text, if that gives you any idea of what I’m talking about, when “envy” would have been perfectly serviceable both times). There’s a page or two devoted to exposing ellipses or idiosyncrasies in his knowledge/taste as a moviegoer (the man has never seen Wuthering Heights or Now Voyager and “loved” Irene Dunne but only “enjoyed” Carole Lombard, which just blew my mind). He takes special care to describe his relationship with troubled actress and second wife Louise Lasser, and though he does mention at length his brief affair and lifelong friendship/working relationship with the fabulous Diane Keaton, it’s more guarded and less candid (not kiss-and-tell, just candid) than you’d hope for in a book about his life. I have no complaints for the entire first half of the book, or if I do, they’re very, very minor. I felt like I was listening to an old friend talking, and hung on every word. It’s when Allen gets into his association with and subsequent dealings surrounding Mia Farrow that things go off the rails.

As I said, I spent the first two hundred pages of the book going, “It’s a travesty this almost didn’t get published, this is one of the best books I’ve read about being a young comedian in New York in the fifties’ and sixties’. So fascinating! So forthcoming with the details!” When Mia Farrow enters the picture, the keen eye for storytelling goes right out the window, and what follows is a seemingly interminable rant about the miscarriage of justice that he insists occurred at the abrupt end of his personal involvement with Farrow and beginning of the notorious relationship that has seen him into his twilight years. You’re probably familiar with the story of Woody Allen leaving Mia Farrow for her twenty-two year old daughter, Soon-Yi, and subsequently facing a firestorm of press coverage over allegations that he sexually molested his adopted seven year old daughter, Dylan. This section of the book, though I knew it was coming, was difficult for me. Regardless of who did what, I struggled with the relentless vilification of Mia Farrow (and occasionally her children) that dragged on for pages, and pages, and pages, and pages. Mia has a troubled family history, including a brother in prison as a convicted pedophile. Mia was erratic, impulsive. Mia locked one of her kids with a disability in an outbuilding overnight as punishment for something trivial. Mia neglected her kids, ignoring some and favoring others depending on her whim. Mia was verbally abusive. Mia hit Soon-Yi with a phone (back when phones were big, heavy, landline affairs). Mia coached her kids to say things happened that didn’t to exercise control over and discipline them, an abusive behavior that Allen says culminated in her alleged coaching of Dylan to describe the molestation he maintains never happened in any way, shape, or form. Allen quotes extensively from a recent piece written by Moses Farrow, the only pro-Woody supporter among Mia’s children, and incorporates statements from the two (two!) child abuse investigations that took place in the early 90’s. Even if every single accusation Woody Allen makes about Mia Farrow was factual and not seemingly partially-true, partially the product of almost thirty years of being deadlocked with Farrow in this ugly deathmatch bent on personal annihilation, it still feels slimy to wade through this constant mudslinging. It gets tedious after, say, fifty pages of him circling the same subject (“didn’t do it, look how crazy Mia is, how on earth can people not see my innocence”, ad infinium). As in Mommy Dearest’s treatment of Joan Crawford, there’s no “person” there in his description of Mia Farrow, just a relentless bogeyman with no motivation other than the senseless destruction of her ex’s life. In rendering Farrow two-dimensionally evil, he weakens his own credibility, and in perseverating on the subject of his total blamelessness in this section, you feel like you don’t want to believe him as much as you would had he explained what happened and continued in the same even handed vein as the first section of his book. I feel like if the book had been properly edited and not come out under cloak-of-darkness as this notorious subject, a good editor would have made Allen either make his point about “his side of the story” and not keep getting licks in at the expense of his audience’s increasing discomfiture, or somehow shaped this section into something more revealing than an endless polemic on how wronged and innocent-above-all-things he is. I like him (in spite of myself) and came out liking him less for this giant hunk of the book being about settling scores more than telling the story of what happened to him during this explosively contentious period of his life.

The rest of the book is patchy and never regains the momentum of the first half—Allen describes people he knows or worked with in a disinterested string of adjectives and glides over his movie output with the shorthand of whether or not it was well-received, whether or not it made any money, whether or not it was a hassle to make. Anecdotes are weak at best. There are a few tidbits here and there (Michael Keaton was originally cast as the lead in one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, the magical-realism steeped Purple Rose of Cairo, but Woody found him “too contemporary” to fit the 1930s matinee idol part—he was replaced by Jeff Daniels), but for the most part, it’s almost like “well, I came and said what I had to say, let’s wrap this up”. Barely any mention of his two children in his marriage with Soon-Yi except that he has them and they’re in college. Soon-Yi is aggressively described as “bright and witty” but we get very little sense of her as a person so much as a cause throughout the book. Talk about a let-down. I didn’t need a tell-all, but I would have appreciated a “tell-some”. I felt like I was rewarded for having slogged through the middle part with this half-hearted, blasé denouement that left me very, very confused as to whether or not I could say I “liked” the book. Again, if you asked me two or three hours in, it would have been a RESOUNDING yes. After the Mia Farrow hit job and the wishy-washy final fifty pages, including these almost chidingly written passages about his recent public woes related to an Amazon deal gone south and several actors distancing themselves from him during the MeToo movement, I can’t say I overall recommend the book. If you can, read the first 200 pages and when you see things turning for the worse, go ahead and bail. I kind of wish I had. I can’t say the book diminished my esteem for him as a tireless creator of finely made, sensitively wrought movies, but as a writer and a person, he may have lost some points with me.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: Ghost Wall

Ghost Wall Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Ghost Wall" had a beautiful cover and a constant flashing banner advertisement on the Lit Hub website, so when I saw that my library’s online collection had a copy, I said let’s give it a whirl. And what a whirl. Even at a brief 152 pages, this book flies by so quickly and is so densely packed with forceful writing that it feels less like a snack and more like a meal. While it had every opportunity to skew YA fiction rather than adult lit (teen protagonist, forays into bildungsroman style flashbacks), the tone of this novel is as mature as blue chip stock. I LOVED it, even as I was unnerved by some of the behaviors of the characters and eventually shocked by the denouement. Good shocked, but shocked.

The story is told in first person from the perspective of Silvie, a twenty-first century teenager on an Iron age re-enactment trip with her parents, an archaeology professor, and a handful of students from a local university. The group is living in an encampment in the English countryside and attempting to follow ancient folkways practiced by the Britons in the time period—hunting and foraging for food, wearing long itchy tunic shifts over bare feet, sleeping in a communal hut, cooking by a fire. Silvie’s father, Bill, is not an academic, but an almost obsessive amateur enthusiast, who has dragged his family along for the experience. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Silvie’s normal life is not all that normal, lived in the shadow of her physically abusive, emotionally manipulative father and a cowering, complacent mother. Her parents’ behavior on the trip mirrors their home dynamic, just with even less places for Silvie to go to escape the scrutiny and the threat of discipline. She makes quasi-friends with one of the college students, a free-spirited girl named Molly who questions many of the strictures placed upon them for the immersion experience, sneaking off to a gas station when the mood strikes her to get some very non-period junk food snacks. Molly’s confidence and carefree attitude seem to both attract and frighten Silvie, who worries constantly about “getting in trouble” even when no one is watching or should care. Something about the idea of Silvie seeing a possible version of herself, stripped of the worry and doubt that comes with being under the thumb of a domineering, abusive parent, in Molly is very touching at the same time as it is very sad.

I was interested in some of the class differences explored in the book— the parents speak in a strong Mancunian accent from the north of England which seems accurately reproduced in the book without feeling like you’re wading through a soup of regional dialect. Silvie several times mentions the students’ accents as “sounding posh” as if they were somehow putting on in a way that Silvie and her parents were not, and Molly at one point makes a stab at imitating Silvie’s mother’s accent, which is not well received by Silvie herself. The students all seem relatively disinterested in their studies in spite of the opportunities they’ll afford them as university graduates, while Silvie mentions that she doesn’t see a point to going to university, and will probably just start a job after she finishes high school. Silvie’s father’s place in the field trip, as a lower working class, weekend aficionado of the armchair variety rather than a practicing professional, leaves him open to a kind of posture-off with the actual professor on the trip, and you can’t make out if the blustering is part of Bill’s bullying personality or an effort to establish his authority on the subject despite his lack of formal education. A particularly telling exchange happens when he brings up an obscure Celtic warrior queen in the midst of a historical discussion and the professor corrects Bill’s pronunciation before responding. “Boudicca, said the Prof, we call her Boudicca these days, it seems a more accurate rendition.” What a pill, I thought. The man drives a bus five days a week and somehow still finds time to know as much as you do about something you have a terminal degree in, Professor Whateveryournameis. But I digress.

As the book progresses, you can almost feel a knot tightening in your stomach, as nothing so much about the circumstances but everything about the voice and style of the writing points to dread. I remember being shocked/weirdly thrilled by this sentence in the second chapter, which is casually dropped in between some lines about the roughly built period-correct shelter: “Some of the Iron Age people kept their ancestors’ half-smoked corpses up in the rafters, bound in a squatting position, peering down empty eyed. Some of the houses had bits of dead children buried under the doorway, for luck, or for protection from something worse.” Well! This macabre tidbit gives you good idea of some of the tone of the book, which in some sections has the eeriness of a dream coupled with the banality that comes with spending a large portion each day walking the countryside searching for edible berries or setting traps for rabbits… the days seem as boring as they are surreal, in a way, each action or plot point strangely seems to anticipate the next. Also, the frequent references to the bog bodies—human cadavers that become mummified by peat bogs and are present an invaluable resource to the archaeological/anthropological community in reconstructing the lives of Iron Age (and later) peoples—don’t really do anything to lighten the aforementioned kind of ghastly vibe. The story is semi-haunted with the idea of death and brutality of a time period long since passed.

The book builds to a climax which, as I said before, makes sense in the context of the story but is shocking in its execution—I won’t spoil it for you, but get ready for weird to meet weird to meet unreasonably weird. I thought at the beginning of the book I might like to go on a similar field trip and experience what it was “really like” during such a different time period, but I now decline any going offers, thanks the same. If you’re looking for sensitive, incredibly well crafted storytelling with a sidecar of can’t-put-your-finger-on-it apprehension, "Ghost Wall" is your book.

View all my reviews

Monday, March 2, 2020

Review: In the Dream House

In the Dream House In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House” is technically a memoir, but don’t expect to open to the table of contents and detect a linear path from Machado’s childhood to her current status as happily married graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. What Machado has done with this book is a truly expert level of deconstruction, to both the story of her own tortured love affair that forms the basis of the book and the structure of memoir itself. I was equal parts intrigued and delighted by her efforts and if you’re at all interested in the subject, you will be too.

Sectioned off into one page, one paragraph—sometimes one sentence—long gulps of prose, the book is formatted into capsules titled “Dream House as _____” (Dream House as Epiphany, Dream House as Lesson Learned). Each title is a wry statement on the subject of the confession, criticism, recollection that follows, lined with witty footnote references to fairy tale tropes. The capsules piece together and pore over the details of a relationship Machado had in her twenties’ and the nightmarish psychological and verbal abuse that accompanied it—the tense feeling of dread you get as she falls in love with a beautiful girl who adores her, and as that girl gradually becomes a monster, is as unnerving as an actual horror story. Yet, because it’s real life, there are horrible moments followed by mundane ones, and peaks of ridiculousness (arguments that start over nothing and end with Machado literally having to lock herself in a bathroom away from her girlfriend like Shelley Duvall in The Shining) followed by plateaus of semi-normalcy. The book gives you a teeth-clenchingly realistic idea of what it is like to be in the slow boil of non-physical abuse—because Machado’s girlfriend never hits her, and because Machado truly wants to hang on to the relationship and the love and acceptance she’s found in it, she thinks she can manage her behavior and change her reactions enough to make the girlfriend stop losing her everloving mind on Machado for such tiny indiscretions as “falling asleep while watching a movie with her roommates and not immediately answering her girlfriends calls”. As any survivor of this kind of a relationship could tell you, it was never about the unanswered calls, and it would never not be about SOMETHING.

Taking advantage of the dip and dive of the story structure, Machado incorporates everything from literary and film criticism (discussing Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Gaslight, for example, a movie that lends its name to the current psychological term for being manipulated into questioning your sanity by someone for their own gain) to research into the issue of underreported domestic violence among lesbian women into her narrative. To the latter point, I thought of just how many heterosexual, male-on-female stories of violence there are in mainstream literature, news headlines, etc—how the battered-by-a-man battered woman is a familiar trope in books and media. Conversely, I had trouble trying to think of a famous case of a lesbian relationship shaded by violence (though Machado brings up several in an insightful section on historic cases of female-on-female abuse or murder). She goes on to consider how personhood, and the right to even BE in a public or legal binding relationship, is such a comparatively new concept in the lesbian community that the more nuanced, and even negative, views of members of this group have yet to come to popular acceptance. Hopefully, with this book and with the encouragement of other voices from people with similar experiences, that will begin to change.

By telling her story in such a rivetingly original way, Carmen Maria Machado has created with In the Dream House both an intensely personal and a compulsively readable account of her attempt to “make sense” of a love affair gone wrong, and a thought-provoking meditation on the idea of the way in which a fairy tale romance can turn into a nightmare. Once I started reading it, I had to stay up to see what happens, and if that isn’t the highest form of praise an author can get from me, I don’t know what is. Check it out.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 28, 2020

Review: Romance in Marseille

Romance in Marseille Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up “Romance in Marseille” based on some buzzy reviews from LitHub and New Yorker—a lost classic from a giant of the Harlem Renaissance? Sign me up, man. After reading several pop lit titles in a row, I have to say Claude McKay’s writing was like a cool drink of water— I was a little worried that something pulled out of the archives unfinished after ninety years might have languished in obscurity for a reason, but I could put those fears to bed within the first five pages. This is a GREAT book. I don’t know that that it quite lives up to the breathless hype of the reviews, but it was a wonderful introduction to the work of a truly talented author and a brisk read at 90ish pages.

"Romance in Marseille" opens with the amputation of protagonist Lafala’s lower legs and feet, which, way to start the book off with a bang. Originally from West Africa, Lafala was discovered as a stowaway on a French freighter bound for New York—the shipmen punitively locked him in an unheated lavatory for the remainder of the voyage, resulting in frostbite to his feet and their subsequent amputation. It says something about “what we’ve come to expect from protagonists” that I already started wondering if this was some kind of device, where Lafala might wake up and realize it was all a dream, but no, he actually goes through the entire book as a double amputee, and that’s one of the really interesting parts of this novel. In the (unnecessarily voluminous) introduction, there’s a quote from McKay about how he wanted to treat Lafala’s disability without the usually heavy strings and maudlin overtones. Lafala, soon outfitted with prosthetic limbs and crutches, is no Tiny Tim--thanks to an enormous settlement from the ship’s owners, he becomes attractive in his affluence and more envied sans feet than he was with them. While the subject of his legs is never all the way out of sight, it’s treated with a distinct lack of pity and so much more naturalness than the usual writer from this time period would handle a similar situation.

After winning his lawsuit, Lafala returns to the port of call he initially stowed away from—Marseille. He picks back up with a prostitute, Aslima, who stole all his money the last time he was in town and instigated his departure in the first place. She has a change of heart towards him in his newly disabled state, feeling partially responsible for his misfortune, and refuses to take money from him like her other clients—they begin a kind of is-she-or-isn’t-she-going-to-rip-him-off-again pas de deux, a situation triangulated by Aslima’s white pimp, Titin. At the local café, Tout-va-Bien, a colorful assemblage of misfits pass in and out of focus— there’s a feeling of a more diverse, more French version of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin, as gay and straight, black and white, middle class and poor figures mingle. Some of this gets a little too character-sketchy, where the flash portraits of new people get in the way of the narrative, which is essentially a story of Lafala and Aslima, but I think some of this could be chalked up to the book not being “finished” by McKay before its way-posthumous publication.

My only real complaint with the book is the long, long, LONG introduction and the EVEN LONGER and even less useful explanatory notes presented in this edition. The introduction gives a bit of an overview of the history of the manuscript, contextualizes the idea of the “stowaway” narrative, draws connections to possible real life inspirations used by McKay to form the backbone of the novel and some of its characters, and presents some ideas on how forward thinking the themes were for their time. I appreciated being clued in on these concepts but it felt stretched for length and overly pedantic. What I said about the intro goes twice for the explanatory notes—I mean, it would be useful to know that a muezzin is a term for the person who recites the call to prayer in a mosque, but can I not Google that? Did they have to explain what a Morris chair is? Spoiler: it’s an Arts and Crafts movement style chair designed by William Morris—not that that has hardly any bearing on the narrative, it’s just a descriptive term used for a chair you would see in the time period of the book. It felt a little like the notes at the end of a Shakespeare play, where you really would be lost if you didn’t understand a particular Renaissance-era reference or word, except this is the 1920’s and you won’t die if you don’t know what a pianola is…you can infer based on the context that it’s some kind of musical instrument, and I didn’t really need them to tell me it was “a type of mechanical player piano, introduced in the 1880s, that lost ground to the gramophone beginning in the 1920’s.” I already knew that from reading a lot of books from the 1920’s, but if YOU didn’t, YOU would be fine, trust.

Short and long of this—skip the introduction until after you've finished the book, skip the explanatory notes altogether, and dig your teeth into this lushly written novel by a somewhat forgotten, but hopefully not for much longer, voice of early 20th century African American literature.

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Long Time No See!! (Book Reviews are Coming)

Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya. How ya been?


I have been gone a VERY VERY long time from this space, but in case you were wondering, yes, I am still digging up vintage goodies and blithering on about them like my life depended on it, just mainly at my instagram (which is 50% kids, 50% things I saw at Goodwill) and my personal Facebook page. I live! Why am I surfacing for air after a such a long period of inactivity?  I thought it might be fun to dip my toe back into the world of online writing via this blog publishing app on GoodReads. Lemme tell you the plan.

For the past year, I've been trying to put writing and reading back into a place of prominence in my day to day life. It's not easy with two kids under four, a full-time job, and a household to run, but I know lots of people make it work with even more going on, and I'd like to join their beleaguered but happy ranks. I have a GoodReads account (feel free to befriend me!) and I've been trying to log and review every book I've read this year. Of course, because resolutions are so, so hard to keep, I am already behind but trying to catch up on the review portion of that aspiration. I was telling Matthew today that I know the audience for people blogging about things that aren't very influencer-y is practically nil, but it makes me feel more like "me" to think and write critically about things, so by Godfrey, I might as well give it a shot. And it would be nice to be able to look back on the year of books in a better-laid-out-format (don't tell 'em I said that, but wow, GoodReads's layout is for the birds). 

So, hail my triumphant return to blogging!! :p Joking aside, I am excited to try to reclaim some of that creative energy I once had here at She Was a Bird. If you like to read book reviews, I'm going to tell you the good word about everything I've been reading. I used to skew heavily nonfiction with my reading shelves, but I've been getting more and more into fiction (that didn't show up in a sixties' horror anthology, lol) for the first time since probably college, thanks to my job. When I'm not treating French titles for francophone Canadian libraries, I'm working on what we call "hot titles" in the library collection development world-- books with media mentions, starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus, etc. I'd love to hear from you if you have recommendations or you've read any of these titles and you want to bat about big ideas like "did they seriously kill that dude a hundred pages into the book with a hundred to go" or "if this woman uses one more adverb in this book I'm going to scream". Book talk is second only to thrift store talk in my recent conversational habits, and I'm here for it.

If you're still out there, thank you for reading in the past, and I hope some of these new book reviews (and who knows, maybe more topics if I get up the gumption) will be of interest to you. What have you been up to! Have any artistic endeavors you may or may not be able to keep up, like me, haha? 

Talk soon, take care.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Undercurrent (1946, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum)

Good morning!!

How's tricks?

Undercurrent was part of a multi-disc set of Katharine Hepburn movies I bought circa 2007, back when I was a single gal working in a fully grown up job with hardly any bills and I used to trawl for good eBay deals on classic box sets (bid time return, lol). It's hard for me to remember back to a time when I was actively collecting dvds, but there you go-- fossil record evidence of the pre-streaming days. I remember having liked the movie more than I thought I would back then, but ten years later, in the throes of this Robert Taylor kick I'm on, I thought I'd give it another spin. And oh, what a spin it was.

The movie follows scientist's daughter Katharine Hepburn, at first glance messy in slacks and a shapeless shirt, who falls for dashing industrial millionaire Robert Taylor when he comes to discuss some mineral's commercial possibilities in government contracts with her father. Taylor pitches woo, Hepburn unstupidly marries him, and they fly off back to his home-base of Washington, DC to start their happily ever after. However, the introductory cocktail party thrown in honor of the happy couple is a nightmare for Hepburn as she is dowdily dressed among the swans of political high society and out of the loop for all the Congressional shop talk, and things only go downhill from there. Everyone keeps mentioning "Michael, Michael, Michael" as they congratulate the newlyweds-- where's Michael? Has anyone seen Michael? What about Michael? The young man is revealed to be Taylor's brother, a presence that hangs spectre-like over the onscreen proceedings. Did Taylor have something to do with his disappearance...or dare we say it, possible MURDER? What connection does the sultry, sleepy-eyed caretaker (played by OH HELLO ROBERT MITCHUM I FORGOT YOU WERE IN THIS) at Michael's ultra modern cliffside hideaway have to the mystery? Why does an increasingly more agitated Robert Taylor react so violently to the mere mention of the brother's name?

While I was deeply invested in the midcentury women's magazine story going on here (which, indeed, was adapted from a story by Thelma Strabel that was serialized in Woman's Home Companion magazine between 1944-5), Undercurrent is a bit of a mess. A beautiful, well meaning mess, but a mess just the same. 

For one, the movie owes a substantial debt to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which made a more successful transition to the screen only a few years earlier, and in that sense, also to Rebecca's spiritual predecessor, Jane Eyre. Both Rebecca and Undercurrent follow the plot impetus of an inexperienced woman who marries hastily and finds herself ill-at-ease in the soignée circles to which her new husband belongs-- each features a husband harboring some dark past that yet haunts the marriage by way of an unseen character is continually brought up to stir the mystery. In Rebecca, no less a luminary than the fresh-off-the-set-of-Gone With the Wind Vivien Leigh was turned down for the role of the timid second Mrs. de Winter in favor of a more believably maladroit Joan Fontaine. No such favors were done in the casting of Undercurrent. My GOODNESS could they have chosen a more ill-suited actress to fill the unsure shoes of the protagonist in this than Katharine Hepburn, who, in spite of her extraordinary acting chops, is by very definition brimming with brash self-confidence.

At a turning point in her career by 1946, Hepburn had already clocked two distinct phases in her onscreen persona. Her 1930's body of work, in which homegirl won not one, but TWO Best Actress Oscars, was defined by a dewy, vulnerable, unusual-but-lovely-in-her-way Hepburn, always playing an endearingly odd duckling, full of vigor and strident self-assurance but also secretly susceptible to showing real hurt in a way that would bring tears to the moviegoers eyes as they did to her own (see: Morning Glory, Alice Adams, Stage I just start crying thinking about them). In the 1940's, the ingenue gave way to the brassy society/career girl, who traded well-enunciated barbs with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story and tackled taming sportswriter Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year. The brisk, assiduous spinster/semi-spinster roles she was to play in the latter half of her career (Summertime, Desk Set) were yet to come. And so why not, well-meaningly enough I'm sure, plop our Kate into one of the LEAST believable characterizations of her career (yes, I'm counting this as only third behind her role as an Ozark mountain hillbilly in Spitfire and her role as a native villager in rural China in Dragon Seed...because those really did happen somehow). Even 1930's Hepburn in this role would have been too headstrong to play Ann Garroway-- she's EVERY kind of wrong for this role, and yet somehow, I guess through the magic of consummate professionalism, she manages to make the best of things and comes off only just "wrong" and not "embarrassingly wrong". 

Now this hat, on the other hand-- that may actually be embarrassingly wrong.
There's a shift in her costuming after the disastrous dinner party when  the character begins to care about her appearance and suddenly her blade-of-grass-slim figure is hung with designer clothes instead of sloppy slacks and untucked blouses...some things go well on that front, and some not so well. I would like to mention in a special category though the ankle-strap wedgies she wears for a large portion of the movie, which should have got their own line in the credits. Ahem:

Robert Taylor, freshly returned to the screen from war service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps, is very good excepting the occasions in which he is very bad-- he has a habit of darting his eyes around like some kind of cartoon villain to telegraph caginess, which...could be better than it is.  Nobody's perfect! However, it's a credit to his charisma and a fault with the casting in that you can't really dislike him in the way that's necessary for you to dislike him to make the part work. This is a Cary-Grant-in-Suspicion type husband role, where you should be charmed by him at the same time you're distrustful of him. Cary Grant had a kind of darkness to him, which made him a great Hitchcock leading man, and believable as someone who is only *pretending* to be as sans souci on the exterior while nursing some strange grudge, and Taylor just doesn’t have it in him to be as convincingly layered as the role demands.  

My biggest gripe from the movie (SPOILERS AHEAD, stop reading if you haven't watched it yet) is the ending. There's a weird clash between the married Garroways about twenty minutes from the end that makes no sense, where Hepburn is suddenly afraid Taylor is going to kill her, and also inexplicably "in love" with Michael. I understand how this makes sense from a "ooh, wouldn't that be a fun way to end an already kind of histrionic movie" point of view but in terms of the development of the characters, what in the Sam Hill were they thinking?

"Wait we're what? I'm doing...wait, who am I in love with?" -KH in the end of this movie

What happens in the end of the movie: Robert Taylor either inadvertently or purposefully caused the death of the immigrant scientist upon whose work his company's fortune is founded, Robert Mitchum threatens to reveal him as a murderer/fraud, Taylor threatens to off Mitchum, Taylor and Hepburn argue, they go off on a horse trail together with their neighbor, Taylor schemes to get Hepburn alone and tries to force her horse off the cliff, Hepburn is thrown from the horse and the horse tramples Taylor to death. Mitchum comes to visit Hepburn in the family home where she's recuperating from her accident and there's a kind of understanding that they may get together sometime after the credits roll. Me, eyeballing the "the end" card like "WHAT. DO YOU MEAN."

What should have happened: Robert Taylor inadvertently caused the scientist's death but thought covering it up was better than being accused of murder and ruining the family name-- his weird neuroses come from being under the strain all these years. Mitchum threatens to reveal Taylor as a murderer, Hepburn continues to press Taylor about his brother, Taylor continues to act weird and lashes out at Hepburn. Taylor and Hepburn argue, they go off on a horse trail together and Taylor has some kind of complete mental breakdown because he's been kind of neurotic the entire time and now the added stress of Mitchum and Hepburn dips him over the edge. Time skip (calendar pages fly, fall turns to winter turns to spring, etc). Hepburn visits a sanitarium where she meets with a doctor in his office. The doc says Taylor's doing much better, but the delusions he's been suffering under will only improve if he has the love and support of his wife and family. Hepburn and Taylor have a scene in his room where he's in some very sharp pajamas in which he's obviously much better and contrite/vulnerable and Hepburn pledges to see him through this illness. She runs into Mitchum in the lobby who's coming to visit Taylor, they have a little mini-resolution scene, Hepburn has some great line referencing the "undercurrent" mentioned earlier when they first met, music swells, end credits. Me: "Ahhh. MUCH better."

Unfortunately, no one consults me in these matters. WHY. WHY. I'll have to go soak my head, I guess-- you guys check out all these contemporary-to-the-time press clippings, courtesy of the archives over at the Media History Project, while I do.

So! Seen any great, little-seen movies lately? Had a crush on an actor or actress that had flown under your radar previously? What's your take on Katharine Hepburn? Let's talk!!

That's all for today, but I'll see you again soon! Take care!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Confessions of a Plant Killer (Plantscape Inc. Interior Landscape Review)

Good morning!!

Tell the truth-- are you a low down plant murderer like myself or are you one of the blessed few of my acquaintance who could keep an orchid alive in the Kalahari? And if you're in the latter category-- how on earth do you do it? 

I feel like "plant tending" is one of those adult competencies no one mentions to you until you're far too far behind to hope to catch up-- nothing looks as grown up as a room full of floor-trailing leafy limbs and ferns and palm sprouting things in full verdant splendor, but good golly, it's hard to keep those green things green. I had a nice, Victorian-looking palm plant in a big pot that I proudly bought at Home Depot some years ago, whose green fronds turned yellow and then brownish and then just shriveled up and died without so much as a pause in between color change stages for me to ask myself what I was doing wrong. I'm not sure if I was overwatering, underwatering, or just putting too much of my faith in the Lord Jesus to keep the plant alive if I couldn't...but in whatever case, that plant in heaven now (RIP).  However! Oddly enough, this inauspicious beginning and taste of plants in my house didn't discourage me-- it only convinced me that I needed a more forgiving plant in my life. And so far, I have two-- a Christmas cactus I bought heavily discounted after Christmas, and an Easter Lily, both of which are alive if not totally thriving in my back bedroom after getting kicked out the living room by an overly inquisitive toddler. I do wonder, though, if the real answer is in Dustin Hoffman's dad's friend's advice from The Graduate: "One word. Plastics."

To dreeeeeam....the impossible dreeeeam..... (source)
Plantscape Inc, which describes itself as a "leader in the manufacturing of interior landscaping related products exclusively for commercial projects and the wholesale trade", contacted me via email the other day, and was I pleased! All my blogger friends back in the heyday of personal blogs would get offers from eShakti and the like and all I ever got were weird offers to "organically increase traffic on my website" or "order metal bracket pulls at commercial prices" (I wish I was kidding). When Plantscape offered me a plant of my choice to review for the blog, so you'd better believe I snapped one up tout de suite. The process took less than I think a week or so from ordering to having the plant in a large box I originally mistook for a flower delivery on my front porch.

Here's what the plant looked like on the website (minus the hearts...the hearts are mine):

And here's what it looks like at home with me:

Sorry about the unintentional camouflage, outside on the patio was the only
place bright enough to photograph this guy!

Not bad, huh? I honestly think it looks a little better than the photographs, and how often is that the case (trick question: never). I also always worry that the plant will be smaller than I imagined it when I ordered it online, but this one was about exactly the size I expected it to be, and packaged safely enough that none of the leaves were bent or broken in transit. All I had to do was "fluff" some of the leaves and I honestly am ready to have it on display.

I was impressed with the quality of the plant. I feel like the field of plastic plant-making must have come a long way since my memory of very noticeably fake ficus trees and the like in the dentists' offices of my childhood. I can remember, too, my mom putting together flower wreaths for family plots at the cemetery that, in spite of her good eye for color, bore about as much resemblance to a real flower as Velveeta to Wisconsin cheddar. This, however, minus a few little places where the glue shows and I might need to scrape a bit of the excess, looks like a very realistic plant!

I think the key to good fake indoor plants, beyond buying one that isn't egregiously fake looking, is just blending it in where a real plant would look reasonable or WITH other real plants. Sometimes, reading interior design blogs, I'm shocked to find that the fiddle leaf fig I was drooling over and wondering if the owner misted every day with a perfumed spritzer or exactly HOW they'd managed to coax such an exotic thing into living in a non-climate-controlled Nashville sitting room, was not from a nursery but from Overstock's large selection of fake indoor houseplants (as in Elsie from ABM's guide to fake plants in ya own home environment). Color me impressed.

Image result for decorating with fake plants
Now if I could only get that midcentury wall unit AND that possibly real, possibly fake fiddle tree, I would be so happy. Source
Now, the thing left to do, and the thing I should have already done before I committed to writing a blog about the new fake plant in my life, is to find a suitable pot to put it in, and then I think I'm going to put real dirt in around the ersatz stuff in the plastic container the plant came in. Usually, landscaping rocks and dirt together would look better in my opinion, but having a toddler around with curious hands who likes to put anything/everything in his mouth, I feel like dirt is less likely to trigger a visit to the emergency room than smooth river stones. Though, I mean, ideally, he'll just leave it alone ( ha, ha, HA, I can hear you's ok, I say it to myself, too). The last fake plant I had, which I kept in the living room and loved DEARLY, I had to eventually surrender back to Hobby Lobby because I felt bad about having this $100-ish dollar home decor object that Remy was 400% going to destroy before the end of the year. He liked to take each of the approximately 24" leaves and pull on them as if they were something in a ribbon twirling competition. While this mischief hadn't caused any major damage yet, I knew it was only a matter of time (glad I kept that receipt).

Look how cute that plant looked. God speed, fake plant from Hobby Lobby.
I'm hoping to put the new Plantscape plant in exactly the place of the old one, but what kind of planter should I use? I think all of these look great. I might just run out to World Market or Hobby Lobby and grab something this weekend.

one, two three, four

So! If you're a green thumb, what are your tips for keeping a plant this side of the land of the living? If you have fake plants in your house, how do you style them to keep them looking less like "80's resort lobby" and more like "I can't believe that's not real!" ? Let's talk!

Back to movies next week, but we'll talk again soon! See ya then.

For more on Plantscape:

interior landscape design

interior plant service

This is a review post for Plantscape Inc. All opinions are my own. I was compensated for this post with a product supplied by them.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ebay Shopping: Vintage Celebrity Letters edition

Good morning!

How's March treating you? I am still kicking. Today I thought I'd pop back in and show you a few of the things I've been drooling over in my free time (such as it is) that I in no way shape or form can afford-- letters from classic Hollywood celebrities on eBay!

Many, many moons ago (or not that many, maybe like a year and a half ago), I came across a letter from Tyrone Power to a screenplay writer back in Hollywood on eBay. Power was filming a movie in Spain and, to say the least, having a bad day. Typed out under his scrolled initials on his personal notepaper, he vented for two pages about the lackluster scripts and the general listlessness that has settled in on him after forming his own production company a year or two previous. He went on to describe how he felt everything had been for "f-cking nothing" before apologizing for being in such a black mood and closing with some tidbits about what he would be doing in the next month or so. The content itself, the fact of the letter existing was riveting to me-- homeboy has been dead since 1958, and here, I think maybe five or six years before his untimely death from a heart attack while filming overseas, was a letter from a person who didn't know how his story would end, who wasn't the two dimensional almost obscenely handsome guy from all those Loretta Young or swashbuckler pictures, but a real person with feelings and moods and all the rest. This was someone who sounded like me gmail chatting at the end of particularly crummy shift at the library. And you could own it! You could have in your hands the same letter written by the same guy the letter so plainly illustrated. I was hooked! And I was disappointed-- I think it had a buy it now of $300. I may be profligate with my money in the service of a good, selfish cause sometimes, but that's $150 a page, guys. It sold, and my heart was sad...but ever since, when I have a free half an hour or so to binge, I stalk around on the Movie Memorabilia listings looking for similarly revelatory evidence of the lives movie stars lived in and around their famous careers.

1) Charles Boyer, 1946

One of France's best Hollywood exports, I've spoken before at length about how Charles Boyer is near the top of historical mystery dates I'd like to open the door to-- I have an original autograph of his in my collection, but wouldn't I give my eye teeth for this two page letter, currently. Only $600! Or $28 for 24 months-- it sounds so much less expensive like that (also if I start buying on celebrity autographs on time I would never stop). The letter is in French, which is less difficult for me to decipher that Boyer's tiny, elegant handwriting, which sometimes makes m's that look like w's and forms q's as p's. Nevertheless, I got out my magnifying glass and made good progress with what the letter said. Here's a taste for you, an exclusive transcription and traduction by yours truly:
Je ferais à vous dire combien ma femme et moi étions près de votre peine. Puisse le destin favoriser la cause pour laquelle Raoul s’est battu avec tant de ferveur jusqu’à son dernier jour. (I would have you know how much my wife and I feel your pain. May fortune favor the cause for which Raoul fought with such feeling to his last breath).
Interesting stuff, right? Boyer wrote this letter in 1942, to the mother of a friend, Raoul, who it sounds like was killed in action during WWII. It's very beautifully written in a way that reminds you of how eloquent people used to be in print (as opposed to say my habitual "where you at you've been gone forever don't forget fries" text sent to my husband during his time at the grocery store). I wish I could find out more about who Raoul was but the context clues (including a mention of Geneviève Tabouis and the French language newspaper Pour la victoire) have turned up goose eggs so far. I appreciate that Boyer is as beautifully spoken off screen as I would have imagined him to be, and that this heartfelt condolence letter made its way to eBay where I could read it.

2) Claude Rains, undated
2 Page Letter By claude rains
This letter is far less literary, but I'm obsessed with it because of who wrote it-- my OTHER, and possibly top of the list, crush, Claude Rains. It's $500 or only $45 for 12 months (this is obviously a shorter loan term and seems more expensive, lol). In searching for an autograph of his for sale online, I've found many examples, all of which were in the high three digits or low four...but god willing, I'll locate some less pricey cocktail napkin or coaster he scribbled on eventually and add that trophy to my autograph wall. I think Rains may have the worst Hollywood handwriting I've seen so far-- his autograph is usually just a hasty scrawl at the bottom of an 8 x 10 (or, cheekily in this case, along the collar of his photographic self's dress shirt). This, however, is a full on letter, on his personal stationery! It reads (I think) :
Dear Charlotte [?? something "man"],
Your treatment of Mr. Johnson is a beautiful work of art and I shall treasure his works even more! Here is your check. I have an idea—culled from your library (such a lovely place for work)—a glass case for maybe the open book. If and when you can, could you give it a thought and tell me where to go for such a rarity? Always my most grateful thanks and real appreciation. You are a great packer too. 
Sincerely, Claude Rains 
I love how excited he sounds about this glass case to display her book on (probably) Ben Jonson, an early modern playwright. Can you just hear him reading this letter aloud?

3) Errol Flynn, 1956

This one is a pip simply because Errol Flynn is POPPING. OFF. on a producer of his mid fifties' tv show, Errol Flynn Theatre. Don't be fooled by the letterhead and may look like slash WAS official correspondence, but the tone is decidedly unprofessional (and FANTASTIC as a result). Lots of celebrities had anthology tv shows in the fifties'-- Boyer was part of Four Star Playhouse, which included Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, and David Niven to round out the quartet; The Barbara Stanwyck ShowDouglas Fairbanks Presents, The Joseph Cotten Show, and Robert Montgomery Presents all featured the title presenter as an occasional actor to bring new faces to the screen and try to hang on to the relevance of their forties' motion picture stardom. What surprises me is that I've never even heard of this one, in which Flynn and third wife Patrice Wymore would turn in thirty minute live performances of adapted material (I found an episode on that I plan to watch after posting this). I've never heard of it (or retained memory of it) and I've been through AT LEAST four or five books on Flynn, he's one of my favorite movie stars! You can read the letter itself, but in sum, Flynn is up to here with the lack of quality and corniness of the scripts presented pre-production for this series... throwing around terms like "old hat", "corny", "ordure", "mediocre" in a scathing but somehow still lighthearted memo. Speaking as someone who has watched a lot of 1950's tv in my day, I can attest to the low grade material that was sometimes placed in front of tv dinner eating maybe this was more of the same. However, the hilariously literate way Flynn, a published author in his own right outside of his acting work, lights 'em up makes me wish there was a book collecting his correspondence-- if this was a throwaway business communication, I'd love to see some of the personal stuff.

Whoever bought this for $220, kudos! You have a treasure on your hands.

4) Katharine Hepburn, undated
Katharine Hepburn Letter Signed

The jerkiness of Hepburn's imprecise script in this letter seems to mimic to me her own idiosyncractic speech pattern...I like to think of all those either ellided or staccato tones as recreated here by the individual letters. Look at the e's in "feel" and the general rectangularness of each line! I'm no graphologist, but that has to mean something to a handwriting expert. Ebay seller "historydirect" transcribes most letters, God bless them , so this is an easy one to read if you're looking at the listing:
"I came back from Florida to be greeted by your huge Stowaway treat - then found the grapefruit & the tangerines - You are obviously quite insane & must be going broke rapidly. They are all so good but I worry that you spend too much on me- Your letters always make me feel fine & your story of the broken dish - oh how often i've done just that. Trying to catch up with the endless letters. Affection." 
"You are obviously quite insane and must be going broke rapidly" is such a cheeky little line, I love it. I revere Katharine Hepburn...but I hated...hated... HATED her autobiography, "Me". One, for its ersatz ee cummings tone and composition-- two, for the fact that, considering this is someone who had to have lived THE MOST AMAZING LIFE, she was surprisingly tight lipped on anything I had any interest in, and all too open with things I had no interest in. The audiobook was a little better because you could hear her perform the otherwise almost too self-indulgent text, but I still give it failing marks-- Garson Kanin's book about Tracy and Hepburn was about a million times more interesting. Just FYI. Yet another person I wish had a book of letters collected so that we could see more of "the real [insert name here]".

5) Clark Gable, 1938
Clark Gable Typed Letter Signed 1938
I thought this would be a boring letter because it's typed, but it's pretty interesting! Lots of typed correspondence like this is strictly business-- contracts, "I hereby do" whatevers, etc etc. Or else professional blurbs under the guise of letters-- I've seen ones from silent star Colleen Moore and another from the aforementioned Tyrone Power that was really less a personal letter and more a press release for an upcoming project. However! "The King" wrote this letter on his personal letterhead to the editor of Sports Afield magazine, in November of 1938, a little more than a year ahead of the release of Gone With the Wind. It reads:
"I hate alibis and this isn't an alibi-ing letter. I feel as though I have no good excuse for not having written sooner. I arrived home Sunday morning going directly from the station to the studio and haven't been idle one day since then. This has been the busiest and most difficult picture I have ever made. Still have three weeks to go. I am writing this between shots on stage. Needless to say I had a marvelous time up there with you and all the fellows from Minneapolis. Haven't been duck shooting down here but once. There were no ducks as usual. The pictures they sent to me I have distributed around the local duck hunters just to let them know there are ducks in some parts of the country. When I told Harry Fleischman about all the ducks and mallards he looked at me with a movie studios eye; however, having seen as many as I did I had a convincing ring in my voice, I know, because now all the guys here are saying, 'when you go up there again, take me with you.' Received Clara's letter giving me all the news. Are Murphy and Walt still working out in the club house every afternoon after the shoot? Give them my regards and tell them I hope to bend the elbow again with them next year. Are you going to spend the winter here in California or in Florida? If you are coming out here let me know because I'll have to kill the Fatted Calf'. Had a letter from Nick Mahler the other day regarding some skates that he was sending to me. Nick is a swell lad and never seems to stop doing things for someone. That was a swell party he threw and I enjoyed meeting all of his and your friends. Quail season opened here today but unfortunately I am stuck here as usual. All the gang went up by Bakersfield to warm up their guns. I think they will get their limits as quail seem plentiful here this year. Imagine the ducks are in at your place by now pretty thick. Wish I could be there for a couple of days shoot with you, however I am grateful for the fine shoot that I had. Kindest regards to all the gang and to yourself and Clara." 
Is that not a great letter? Like the others, can't you just hear him saying it? I love the jocular tone and the little jokes like "The pictures they sent to me I have distributed around the local duck hunters just to let them know there are ducks in some parts of the country." Gable was an avid outdoorsman who was frequently shot for Photoplay and other fan magazines in full hunting gear, tramping around his farm or up the country with his gorgeous wife Carole Lombard or friend Gary Cooper in tow. I'm always surprised and heartened to see my movie idols turn out to be kind of like they are in the movies-- doesn't Gable seem like a hail fellow well met? Somebody wire me $2,200 so I can keep this encased in lucite under my pillow.

6) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. , 1987
This is one of my favorites because the idea of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Laurence Olivier being good enough friends to play little jokes on each other even into their respective eighties' is adorable to me. DFJr, former husband of Joan Crawford, wrote this letter to Crawford's former personal secretary. In it, he reveals that he and "Larry" used to pal around with frequent Crawford co-star Robert Montgomery (the often tuxedoed-in-1930's-movies father of Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery), but apparently hated him. DFJr thought it would be a lark to send Olivier a picture of Montgomery made out to him personally and asked if the secretary had one of "any size, kind or description" for him to follow out his little prank. I live for it. The handwritten postscript is funny too: "PS. How and where are you!" Above, I've added pictures of Olivier and Fairbanks with Lillian Gish at an awards ceremony in the late 80's, Robert Montgomery in his prime, and Betty Barker, the assistant and recipient of the letter. I'm still getting a kick out of how cheeky this is days after I initially found it, so there.

7) Natalie Wood, 1974
This is a GREAT and suitably bubbly letter from a pregnant Natalie Wood, on holiday in the south of France with her husband Robert Wagner. The addressee is Dr. Joseph Milstein, an LA ob-gyn who I think may have been her doctor...hence all the details on the pregnancy? It's very friendly either way.

The letter reads:
Dear Joe,
Greetings from the South of France & Happy New Year! R.J. had 2 ½ weeks off so we flew here for a terrific holiday! It’s gorgeous here & London is absolutely pre-war, miserable, cold, & everyone has a tight lip! I might mention that before we left London I weighed in at 143 and when Gordon Bourne finished fainting he recorded the baby’s heartbeat, announced that since the heartbeat was 130 it would be a boy, and gave us the cassette. After R.J. and I finished fainting we wondered if he could be right & decided he had a 50/50 chance to be – or 106 to 100 if my current readings are correct! Here in France they have all kinds of special creams for the prevention of dreaded stretch marks & so far much of my holiday has been spent in the religious application of the aforementioned creams! I’ve been feeling great and we have a lovely flat in London & only 1 more month to be there so all goes well! Hope you had terrific holidays and every good wish for health, happiness & all good things for you & your family for ‘74
Love from R.J. and Natalie
Spoiler: the doctor was wrong, and Courtney Wagner was born March 9, 1974 (three months after the letter was written!). Only slightly creepy for the way things ended up for Wagner and Wood. :( Still, I love seeing her very legible handwriting and reading about how excited she was to have this baby, having been through the same myself what seems like yesterday.

8) Cary Grant, undated

Ugh! This may be the one I wanted the most out of the whole batch. An Affair to Remember: My Life with Cary Grant is the ne plus ultra of celebrity girlfriends/wives memoirs, in equal parts romantic, dishy, and well-told-- I have read it at least four times, and that's coming from someone who never likes to re-read anything. Its author, Maureen Donaldson, is the intended recipient of this note on Faberge letterhead, written to her it sounds like slightly after the breakup of their four year relationship. The handwriting! The writer! (As I just sigh my dreamiest sigh). 

It says:
This-- the enclosed-- will relieve a little of the pressure. Now concentrate on your work, your reputation, and the daily [promise?] of self pride! You looked well and I was very pleased to see you.
I know, from several biographies I've practically committed to memory as well as Donaldson's book, that the man was probably no picnic to live with in real life, but my GOODNESS the suavité. "You looked well and I was very pleased to see you", coming from Cary Grant? Stop IT. I think this must have originally included a check ("the enclosed") and was probably a nice gesture from a very wealthy (though notoriously tight fisted) man to his ex girlfriend, who was at the time starting a career in photography. Speaking of, I googled "Maureen Donaldson" in Getty Images to see if I could spot any photos of her and Grant out on the town, being stalked by paparazzi-- instead, it came up with A BLUE MILLION late 70s/early 80s publicity photos she took of some people who took off, and some who didn't! Click here to see early Jim Carey, Jodie Foster, Heather Locklear, and more.

Well! I think I have talked your ear off enough for today. What did you think? Which is your favorite letter? Is there an old time Hollywood actor or actress you'd just love to snag a memento of? What kind of weird things do you look up on eBay when you're not really looking for anything in particular? I'd love to hear from you!!

I'm glad to be back on the semi regular and hope to keep in the habit of writing. Take care, and we'll talk again soon!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...