Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Case of the Pederast's Wife by Clare Elfman

The year is 1895, the place is Victorian London. Famed wit and playwright Oscar Wilde is quite the scandal. His dalliance with Lord Alfred Douglas is poised to destroy all that he has achieved, change his fame to infamy, and lead to criminal charges and a prison term. No wonder his wife, Constance, is falling apart.

Enter Martin Frame, an ambitious young gynecologist fascinated by the burgeoning science of psychology, but burdened by an old-fashioned father who thinks hysteria is best treated with ice water, morphine, or, as a last resort, a hysterectomy. Martin, however, prefers to take a gentler approach with his patients; he talks to them, and, more importantly, he listens, trying to discover what distress is presenting itself in the form of physical symptoms.

When a mutual friend, Robbie Ross, asks him to see what he can do for Constance Wilde, Martin agrees to see her. He becomes convinced that the terrible back and leg pains Constance insists are the result of an accidental fall are in fact symptomatic of her emotional turmoil and denial of her husband’s homosexuality. But the clock is ticking, a quack surgeon, more butcher than healer, is trying to convince Constance that a simple operation to remove a troublesome bone that is pressing against a nerve in her back will cure her completely.

This was a very interesting little novel, I loved the way it used a well-known subject, Constance Wilde, and her situation, as a case study to illustrate the nascent practice of psychotherapy and what it might accomplish against the often barbaric and unfeeling horrors of Victorian surgery and gynecology, a world where doctors believed operating on a woman was no worse than a farmer neutering a pig and that women would flock to a handsome young doctor for the sheer pleasure of the pelvic exam. If you have an interest in Oscar Wilde and his wife or the evolution of medicine I highly recommend this novel.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How The West Was Worn Bustles and Buckskins On The Wild Frontier by Chris Enss

This is a fun little book for anyone interested in the history of fashion. I've read and reviewed several of Ms. Enss books over the years and I think this is my new favorite. It’s a unique and delightful look at the way people dressed in the Old West where function, out of necessity, took precedence over decoration and calico dresses and denim jeans replaced velvet and silk.

Here we learn about resourceful pioneer women sewing lead shot in their hems to keep their skirts from billowing up immodestly in the prairie wind, and men wearing their colorful blue and cowboys wearing bonnets to keep the sun out of their eyes before the Stetson came into fashion. Distance and slow communication led to a certain backwardness in fashion, and everyone was always eager to know what was being worn in the fashionable East, every issue of the Godey’s Ladies Book that came their way was eagerly devoured and the styles depicted in it copied as best they could.

This slim volume is packed with wonderful vintage photographs and advertisements and also explores the impact celebrities had on the fashions of the day, like Lillie Langtry, Oscar Wilde, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill Cody, and the Madonna or Lady Gaga of her day, Adah Menken who created quite a scandal when she appeared onstage in the role of Mazeppa wearing a “nude” body stocking. And there are stories about the creation of blue jeans and cowboy hats by Levi Strauss and John B. Stetson. Another thing I liked about this book is that it is so well-rounded; it does not focus on one sphere of society, but gives space to the clothing worn by rich and poor, famous and ordinary, cowboys, miners, and Native Americans.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 Castle Walk by DeWitt Bodeen

This novel is a thinly veiled fictionalization of one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders. In 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was discovered dead in his home with a fatal gunshot wound in his back. Two famous actresses of the era, Mary Pickford wannabe Mary Miles Minter and popular comedienne Mabel Normand, were rumored to have been romantically involved with Taylor and had their careers tarnished as a result of his murder. Since some of the cast of players and suspects and known associates were still alive at the time it was published in 1975 (the year I was born) all names and many identifiable characteristics have been changed in the novel, but if you know the case it’s still possible to tell who’s who, and even if you don’t know a thing about it you can still enjoy this book for what it is—a novel about an unsolved murder mystery from Hollywood’s silent screen era.

The book begins with Hannah Winters being paroled from prison. The young woman, whom many regard sympathetically, was condemned for the mercy killing of her terminally ill husband. Her parole officer arranged a job for her as a live-in housekeeper/secretary/companion for the eccentric elderly former silent movie queen Jennie Jill Jerard.

Still a lovely blonde from the neck up, after Jennie disappeared from the screen in the aftermath of the scandalous demise of her director, and the only man she ever loved, Andrew Riley Rutherford (the thinly disguised William Desmond Taylor), she became an obese virgin recluse, living in her opulent Hollywood villa at 13 Castle Walk, alone with a succession of housekeepers, her memories, prize-winning rose garden, the perpetual See’s candy box, and her white Persian cat.  Jennie is obviously modeled on Mary Miles Minter whose virtuous image was destroyed after her romantic involvement with or romantic idealization of (depending on what you believe) William Desmond Taylor became public knowledge.  Both the Jennie Jill Jerard of this novel and the real life Mary Miles Minter wore their hair in long golden ringlets a la Mary Pickford, dressed in beautiful lacy Valentine gowns, and had faces you might find on the lid of one of the beribboned candy boxes of the day, and specialized in playing demure, sweet, and pure heroines on the silver screen.

Hannah and her employer instantly hit it off. They quickly become friends, not just employer and employee. And a handsome reporter, who sympathetically covered Hannah’s trial, and also just happens to be curious about the decades old mystery, also comes into their lives, and quickly becomes Hannah’s love interest.

In this novel, taking the place played by the real life Mabel Normand is the fictional Molly Carfax, who is modeled on Mary Pickford. Since Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand played different types of roles onscreen, they really could not be seen as rivals, except possibly for William Desmond Taylor’s affections, so this makes a very interesting substitution. In this novel Molly Carfax and Jennie Jill Jerard were both the girls with the golden curls, playing the same kinds of roles, both backed by ruthless, ambitious stage mothers willing to do anything to further their darling’s career. Retired from the movies, Molly lives in her mansion, and her brother, a hopeless alcohol, lives in the guest house with a retired boxer as his caretaker to keep him out of trouble.

Molly’s brother, and Jennie’s occasional costar, Johnny Carfax is also a prime player in this work of fiction. Obviously modeled on immature, hard-drinking party boy Jack Pickford, who lost his beautiful Ziegfeld Follies showgirl bride Virginia Knight (inspired by Olive Thomas) to an inexplicable suicide on their honeymoon.

The past comes back to haunt Jennie when a man, claiming to know the truth about Andrew Riley Rutherford’s death, tries to blackmail her and then is found dead, shot through the back, in her front yard at a time when both she, and her new housekeeper, are getting a fresh start in life, Jennie through an unexpected return to the screen, and Hannah when love comes into her life.

SPOILER ALERT! Because 13 Castle Walk is a rare and pricey book, at the time I’m writing this used copies range from $75 and up, I am going to break my usual rule and reveal the rest of the story. If you don’t want to know the solution to the fictional mystery please skip to the final paragraph.

Gradually the truth is revealed. The blackmailer and corpse in Jennie’s front yard turns out to be a forgotten actor who drifted into a life of obscurity and petty crime after his career fizzled with the advent of sound. Andrew Riley Rutherford was (as William Desmond Taylor was also rumored to be) a discreet homosexual. In this novel he infected Johnny Carfax with a particularly virulent form of syphilis, which he unwittingly passed on to his bride. This led her to take her own life and Johnny, unhinged by grief, took a gun and shot the man he held responsible. Molly Carfax, and her protective mother, covered up the truth, even submitting to blackmail, to protect Johnny.

Overall, this was an interesting but not remarkable read, certainly not worth the high price used copies usually go for, which I fortunately didn't pay. I only have this because of my longstanding interest in the William Desmond Taylor murder case and the lives and films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If this review has aroused your curiosity, I recommend the highly readable, nonfiction account A Cast of Killers by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick; real life movie director King Vidor became intrigued by the Taylor case and launched his own investigation and this book details it in a lively manner that reads almost like a novel. A Deed of Death by Robert Giroux, though it draws a different and much less dramatic conclusion, also makes interesting non-fiction reading. Both of these can be found at much more reasonable prices than 13 Castle Walk. There are a couple of other fictional treatments of the Taylor murder case which I have, but have not yet read, so watch for those in the hopefully not too distant future. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tiger, Tiger A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso

This sad and disturbing memoir tells the story of the author’s fourteen year relationship with a pedophile. In 1985 when Margaux was seven years old, living with a mentally ill stay-at-home mother and a tyrannical, belittling father with a temper like a bomb that could go off at any time at the least little touch, she met Peter at a public swimming pool. He was fifty-one, with aqua eyes and sandy-silver hair worn in a Beatles cut, he lived in a home that was a wonderland of animals, including a variety of birds, black-whiskered catfish, iguanas, dogs, rabbits, and turtles, guinea pigs and hamsters, goldfish, and even a small alligator. He was kind and sympathetic and immediately charmed Margaux and her mother, who came to think of Peter as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But to Margaux, he was the perfect friend. His home became paradise to them and they would visit every week.

But Peter was a pedophile. The games and stories soon lost their innocence. Tickling advanced to fondling and kissing and then games of hide-and-seek first in underpants and then, upon his dare, in the nude. He manipulated Margaux. He convinced her that theirs was a very special relationship that outsiders could not understand. That they were in love and would one day marry.

After a lifeguard at the pool reported seeing Peter kissing Margaux on the mouth she was forbidden to see him. First came tantrums, then she sank into a deep depression, accompanied by insomnia. She stopped eating and her grades dropped. Margaux’s mother persuaded her husband that the kiss was entirely innocent and had been blown all out of proportion and soon the weekly visits resumed.

But Margaux was growing up. Childish pastimes were now firmly in the past as Peter introduced Margaux to French kissing and oral sex. Violence began to creep into their relationship. But fueled by books such as Lolita and the works of V.C. Andrews, about younger girls seduced by older men, Margaux bought into the fantasy. To please Peter she shaved her pubic hair and hoped her breasts wouldn’t grow larger, she tried to stay a little girl instead of becoming a woman. She created a fantasy alter ego, naughty girl Nina, who was everything Peter desired and even studied porn in order to please him.

When Peter’s health worsened, Margaux found herself assuming the role of his caregiver when she was still in her mid-teens. She was convinced he was the only one who truly loved her. Even after the sex stopped, due to his health problems and her growing up, Peter continued to manipulate Margaux. When she was twenty-two Peter committed suicide and left Margaux devastated. Her life had been so entwined with Peter’s she scarcely knew where one ended and the other began. She didn’t even know what she really liked and which desires had been cultivated in order to please him. It was a long, hard struggle to reach the point where she could see the truth and write this very frank and unflinchingly honest book.

This book gripped me from the start and would not let me go until I had finished it. Reading it was a real experience for me, as some of the men in Margaux’s life resembled men I have known, though I never encountered a pedophile in my own personal life, I am no stranger to manipulative, verbally abusive men with tempers like time bombs, and pretenders who are not really what they seem, and this memoir affected me like no other I have ever read. I wish the author well and hope she has found happiness and peace of mind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

This dark, disturbing family saga, spanning the years 1898-1953 tells the tragedy-laden story of the Piper family of Cape Breton Island, a coal mining town off Nova Scotia. And I warn you right now, it’s not a pretty story, and if you’re prone to depression, reading this won’t help you any. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, it’s not, but the tale it tells is dark, disturbing, and bleak.

When the story begins James Piper is an eighteen year old piano tuner who grew up reading the classics to improve himself and longing for life’s finer things. He falls in love with Materia Mahmud, a Lebanese girl, and elopes with her, only to regret it later when he finds himself ashamed of his wife’s dark skin and weight gain.

Their first daughter, Kathleen, is born with the twentieth century, in 1900. In fact, the doctor has to be dragged away from a New Year’s Eve party in order to deliver her. She’s a beauty from the start, milk-white skin, red-gold hair, and green eyes, and an angel voice that’s a gift from God that James sees as her ticket to fame and fortune. Determined to give Kathleen the best of everything, a convent education, and musical training, he sends his wife out to work as an accompanist, playing the piano to silent movies, and does what he swore he would never do and takes up the pick and goes to work in the coal mines. But when Materia becomes popular, he insists that she quit.

As the story progresses, a dark, unhealthy, incestuous undercurrent ripples through James’ relationship with his firstborn. Materia senses this, and does all she can to save Kathleen. She gives James a second daughter, Mercedes in 1912, then Frances is born eleven months later, and, lastly, Lily. When Materia finds she can’t protect Kathleen, she tries to bargain with God; she’s willing to let the Devil take Kathleen, if He will only spare her other daughters.

The sisters all have interesting, well-developed personalities; the author really did a marvelous job creating her cast of characters. Mercedes is the religious one, a prim, perfectionist who later assumes the mother’s role in the household, while Frances is the wisecracking tomboy.

When James is caught up in World War I, Materia secretly hopes he will be killed; that’s really the only way to save Kathleen from him, but he returns from the war unscathed.

At eighteen, Kathleen is sent to New York to study music. There she falls in love with her accompanist Rose, a doubly forbidden attraction, as it is not only a same sex one, but Rose is black. When an anonymous letter alerts James to the affair he rushes to New York to bring Kathleen home. He is so angry with Kathleen that he rapes her. She dies several months later giving birth to her incestuously begotten twins. The boy dies but the little girl, Lily, survives and it is publicly given out that Kathleen died of influenza. The family passes her off as Materia’s child, the baby sister of Mercedes, Lily, and the late Kathleen. Materia feels so much guilt for so many things that she takes her life, but this too is covered up with a lie about a sudden stroke seizing her while she was cleaning the oven.

As the 1920s come roaring in, James becomes a bootlegger and gives all his love to little Lily. Sixteen-year-old Frances idolizes Louise Brooks, bobs her hair in the same style, and gets a job doing stripteases in a speakeasy, while Mercedes, always the prim and proper one, becomes a schoolteacher, an old maid hoarding money in a cocoa tin, saving to send Lilly to Lourdes in the hope that a miracle will cure the polio-crippled child. And there’s a lot more melodrama, sins, and secrets ahead, so fasten your seatbelt, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Despite the darkness, and the sadness, that hangs over it all, this really is a well-written novel with a vivid and memorable cast of characters. You may or may not like them, but you probably won’t forget them.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

This novel tells the story of novelist Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth,” her life as a blonde outsider and missionaries’ daughter in China and her enduring friendship with a Chinese girl named Willow.

 It’s an excellent tale of history and the power of a friendship that endured despite lengthy separations, the clash of cultures and religions, politics and rebellions, and marriage and the woes that go with it, that also shows the various influences that shaped and inspired Ms. Buck’s writing. 

 If you enjoy novels about literary figures from the past, or are interested in Chinese culture and history, I think you will enjoy this one.