Where's the book?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

#24 girl on a boat

I do like a good thriller, even if it has "girl" in the title. In this book's case, the girl is upgraded to a woman, but it's the same idea. The only other change is the female in the title, the actual woman in cabin 10, is not the narrator or even the main character. She's a young woman, seen briefly in a cabin on a cruise ship by our story's narrator. No one else sees her. No one else seems to know she ever was there. In fact, the woman is cabin 10's existence is strenuously denied by everyone involved. Hence the mystery.

The only proof that the narrator has is the tube of mascara she borrowed from the woman in the next cabin. But the tube mysteriously disappears -- and that disappearance ironically proves that the woman in cabin 10 did exist. Because if she didn't, and if she hasn't met with foul play, then why would anyone need to disappear the mascara?

It's a twisty, turny book, decently (not brilliantly, not even very well) written, with a neat resolution that's mostly unexpected. My only complaint is why do the narrators of these types of books have to be such pathetic wrecks? The main character in The Girl on the Train, this main character, and so many others -- they drink too much, they wallow in self-loathing, they're clinically depressed, they have sex with the absolutely wrong men. At lease the gone girl in Gone Girl was confident and powerful, although she was a total sociopath. Can't there be a sane, smart, together female who comes across a crime and attempts to solve it? Whatever happened to stories like the one I read a few books back, Compromising Positions? Decently written (as good as this one or The Girl on the Train for sure), and the heroine is smart and confident. And that was the eighties! Have women gotten more delicate and depressed and drug-addled since then? Maybe. Miss Marple was more of a strong, "modern" woman than these gals.

Friday, August 26, 2016

#23 and 24 are by the same author

They may be written by the same author, but they are very different books. #23 is the latest in the series of #1 Ladies' Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine. It's a gentle, delightful read, mainly because McCall Smith's characters feel as familiar as slippers, even to someone like me who has only read a couple of other books in the series. The plot ambles along, it's interesting...enough. But the point is to get to hang out with Mma Ramotswe and her friend and co-worker (and sometimes thorn in her side) Mma Makutsi and all the other endearing folks the author has created. Of many charming moments, my favorite might be when Mma Ramotswe uses her "traditional build" as a method of self defense by sitting on an opponent. It's a gentle, lovely read that carries you along like floating down a river. The perfect escape. 

The second McCall Smith is his take on Jane Austen's classic, Emma. Being a big fan of the original, I was curious to see what he would do in this modern setting. Unfortunately, I think he got it all wrong. And for so many reasons. One is that there's way too much backstory. Austen manages to get us to the meat of the book with economy and brevity. McCall Smith takes ages to get there, meandering uninterestingly through Mr. Woodhouse's marriage, the source of his wealth and his phobias, how Isabella (Emma's sister) met her husband and the Knightleys' background. Not that this author had to stick slavishly to the plot lines of the original, but all that stuffing isn't needed, and it dilutes the important tale, which is about Emma. 

But the main flaw is that he manages to turn Emma herself from a flawed but charming character into a distinctly unlikable one. And if Emma isn't appealing, the entire story falls apart. She is a young woman learning how to be an adult, how to identify and try to overcome her flaws, and, basically, grow up. Yes, she has unpleasant characteristics, but this Emma is just flat out awful. It's unimaginable that Mr. Knightley is in love with her, or that anyone tolerates her at all. 

While it was fun seeing what he did with it and how he twisted himself into knots explaining why Emma has a governess (why bother? just turn her into an aunt, or an older friend, or get rid of her altogether) and why Frank Churchill has been sent off to live with an aunt and uncle (still hard to believe), as an overall read it lost the humor and humanity of the original. Amy Hecklerling did SO much of a better job in Clueless. Her Emma, a/k/a Cher, was adorable and warm and funny and lovable in addition to being controlling and a snob -- and she learns her lessons and becomes a better human being. McCall Smith should have paid more attention to that Emma and he might have learned a bit or two about how to modernize a classic. 

P.S. Many thanks to E. for lending me both books. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

#22 a theatrical biography

I've often read that Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One, is one of the best, if not the best story of a life in the theater. As I theater lover/geek I thought it was high time to read it.

To tell you the truth (I always do), I wasn't exactly sure who Moss Hart was. I'd heard the name, but I had him mixed up with Lorenz Hart, as in Rodgers and Hart, as in composer and lyricist of Pal Joey and On Your Toes and a bunch of other renowned musicals. Silly me. Moss was one of the theater's most famous writers (with his partner, the legendary George S. Kaufman, You Can't Take it With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner) and directors (My Fair Lady, Camelot), as well as being a Hollywood screenwriter (the Judy Garland A Star is Born, Gentleman's Agreement). But the book is not about his great success, it's about the struggle that led up to it.

It starts with his childhood, spent in poverty in the Bronx and Brooklyn, in his family of immigrant Jews--although not the immigrant Jews we're used to--these came from Britain, hence the odd family name, "Moss." This poverty wasn't charming, or warm, or funny. It was debasing, grinding, and grim. They took in boarders, his father struggled to find work, and Moss dropped out of school at 14 to try to add a few pennies to the family coffers, working a horrific job in a fur vault for two years. He paints the family portraits beautifully, including his younger brother, his beaten-down parents, his overbearing grandfather, and his aunt Kate, a theater-lover who kindles his interest in and devotion to the stage.

Hart pursued his dream of success in the theater with single-minded devotion, through jobs as an office boy, years at Catskill summer "camps" entertaining the guests and mounting plays, to directing tiny theater companies in Jersey, to his first disastrous play, and then, finally, to his first success (after an incredibly long period of revising, reworking, opening out of town, and reworking some more), Once in a Lifetime, written with Kauffman. Kauffman also acted in and directed the play, and is one of the fascinating characters that Moss brings brilliantly to life.

It's at that point that the poverty finally ends, and the day after the play's successful opening night Hart celebrates by insisting that his entire family pack one bag (total!) and walk out of their grim Brooklyn apartment, get in a cab, and move to a hotel in Manhattan, leaving everything, every stick of worn furniture, every piece of outdated and mended clothing, even their toothbrushes, behind.

It's also at that point that the book ends, unfortunately, and Hart was working on Act Two when he died, way too young, at the age of 57 in December of 1961.

One of the things about the book that most interested me was something I discovered while reading about it. One of the most indelible characters in the story was Hart's Aunt Kate. She lived with the family and, despite their extremely miserable poverty, never worked. Not only didn't she have a job, she didn't do anything in the home to help out. Somehow the family members accepted this as an inevitability, which Hart doesn't really explain. But after years of Aunt Kate swanning around the house like a Rockefeller forced to live with savages, Hart's father, a quiet, self-abasing man, loses his temper over some books she has given away and kicks her out. It's years before Moss is able to find her again. She is the mistress of linens at a home for girls, where she lives, and one the most moving scenes in the book is of Moss taking his aunt, already dying of cancer, to the theater and escorting her to a seat in the orchestra--a pleasure she has never before been able to indulge. She dies shortly thereafter, before Hart's first big hit.

It's very sad, and also completely untrue. Aunt Kate survived for many years after Hart's first success, gradually descending into mental illness. She vandalized his home, wrote threatening letters, and even set fires backstage during rehearsals for one of his plays.

He writes in the book that one of the reasons he became a writer is to make life into better, happier, more entertaining stories. I guess that included his own.