Monday, June 24, 2019

Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry

By Richard Kirshenbaum

St. Martins     2019
320 pages    Historical Fiction

This is a fun romp through the early days of the cosmetics industry, loosely based on the rivalry of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Kirkus calls it “a vivid portrait of glamorous, feisty women contending for the crown of cosmetics queen.” I had just seen the musical War Paint, about the lives of Rubenstein and Arden, when the advanced copy of Rouge came to me, so I had a great time comparing plot lines. Loved War Paint; loved Rouge.

Here is the description from the publisher.

“Rouge is a sexy, glamorous journey into the rivalry of the pioneers of powder, mascara and rouge. It gives readers a rare front row seat into the world of high society and business through the rivalry of two beauty industry icons (think Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden).

This fast-paced novel examines the lives, loves, and sacrifices of the visionaries who invented the modern cosmetics industry: Josiah Herzenstein, born in a Polish Jewish Shtlel, the entrepreneur who transforms herself into a global style icon and the richest woman in the world, Josephine Herz; Constance Gardiner, her rival, the ultimate society woman who invents the door-to-door business and its female workforce but whose deepest secret threatens everything; CeeCee Lopez, the bi-racial beauty and founder of the first African American woman’s hair relaxer business, who overcomes prejudice and heartbreak to become her community’s first female millionaire. 

The cast of characters is rounded out by Mickey Heron, a dashing, sexy ladies' man whose cosmetics business is founded in a Hollywood brothel. All are bound in a struggle to be number one, doing anything to get there…including murder.”

Rouge begins in the early part of the 20th century and closes near the end of the century. The characters are richly developed and the rivalry daunting. One interesting true fact about the cosmetics industry was that Victorian women did not wear makeup, and the inventors of the industry had to fight the stereotype that only hookers wore makeup. But under the guidance of these forthright (and also conniving) women, soon every woman in America was wearing makeup,and the novel’s two protagonists had become rich beyond measure.

Kirshenbaum is an advertising executive/author. His specialty is writing about the one percent that live in his neighborhood. Kirshenbaum must have had a great time recreating wealthy Manhattan through the eyes of Josephine, Constance, CeeCee and the others as they built their beauty empires. The reader finds herself thrust into the very heart of the city, its shops, and its nightlife. As one reviewer said, “it’s glitz, greed, and glamor.”  

Rouge is released tomorrow. Get a glass of wine, grab a lawn chair, settle down by the pool and enjoy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Putnam     2018
384 pages     Literary

Despite some implausibility, which my book club friends were happy to point out at book club last night, I absolutely loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Primarily, I was entranced by the descriptions of the marshlands of the Outer Banks and how Kya Clark learned to live by herself and become an expert in the life of the marsh.

When Kya was a small child, her mother walked away from the shack in the North Carolina marsh where the family lives, unable to endure her abusive husband any longer. All the children leave as well, leaving Kya alone with her drunken father. When her father leaves for good, Kya must fend for herself. As she grows, she becomes a sort of mystical character to the residents of the small nearby village. Called “the marsh girl”, she successfully is able to fend off attempts to get her to go to school, get sent to an orphanage, or in any way become part of the community.

As much as Kya hides from society, she misses human contact. Tate, a brilliant young man of the village, becomes her primary contact with other humans. He loves the marsh as much as she does, and over several years, he teaches her to read and write and study the environment. Additionally, a black couple who run the convenience store and gas station become the people who seem to watch out for her the most and protect her.

The story-line weaves back and forth between Kya’s growing up in the 50s and early 60s and the death of a young man in the village. Chase has been Kya’s off- and-on lover, and after his apparent murder, Kya is accused of causing his death. The trial is absolutely breath-taking. I found myself having to pace my reading and my breathing. The climax of the book is equally heart-stopping.

The parts of the book where Kya learns to forage, to live off of nature, and observe everything around her are so beautifully and skillfully written that I became completely enmeshed in the imagery. I found myself underlining many passages beginning with the first paragraph. “The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon.” Or in an especially vivid description of the village, the author writes, “Mostly the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged.” Can’t you just see it!

There are reasons why Where the Crawdads Sing has been at the top of the NY Times bestseller list for thirty weeks. Delia Owens spent many years as a nature researcher in Africa, so she can relate to the isolation of the wilderness, whether it be the Savannah or the marsh. In a very interesting interview, she mentions that she picked North Carolina as the setting for the novel because its temperate climate would allow for foraging all year. Owens has written several nonfiction books about Africa, but this is her first foray into fiction. Reese Witherspoon has picked up the rights. We’ll see what can be done to make it into a movie.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Murder in Bel-Air

By Cara Black

Soho Crime         2019
312 pages     Thriller

Murder in Bel-Air is the first Aimée Leduc Private Investigator mystery I have read. This is book #19. How is it possible that I have never met her nor visited the Paris she investigates? I looked back and realized that the publisher had sent me an advanced reader’s copy of the 2016 book, Murder in the Marais, but I hadn’t taken the time to read it. Ah well!

It was fairly easy to get into Murder in Bel-Air; it is not one of those series that the author has to spend several chapters bringing the reader up to speed. Aimée Leduc is the owner of a detective agency in Paris, and the novel is set in 1999, when technology is seeping into the world of crime, as well as the world of private detectives. 

Aimée’s American mother is a thorn in her side. A supposedly retired CIA operative, Sydney doesn’t seem to be changing her ways. She was scheduled to pick up her baby granddaughter, Chloé, from her play group, when she disappeared once again. Aimée is called by the day care, and she must leave a technology meeting, where she is to deliver the keynote address, in order to pick up her daughter. Everything goes downhill from there. Sydney is missing, and is somehow connected with the body of a homeless woman from a nearby soup kitchen. As Aimée searches for her mother, she gets caught up investigating a potential coup in the Ivory Coast, a creepy Legionnaire, and a cadre of international spies.

All this happens as Aimée stylishly swishes her way around Paris—places I knew about, but many places I wish I knew about. She wears her vintage outfits as well as the stylish outfits of her best friend, and always has high heels or classy boots on her feet. Several times a day, she checks in on Chloé, who has a variety of babysitters, all the while keeping in constant contact with Rene and Saq, who run the Leduc Investigations agency.

Although there are some slow spots, as soon as Aimée figures out what is going on, things start to move fairly rapidly, and it becomes a very fun page turner. There is a great final confrontation and a fitting denouement.

I loved all the French phrases and Paris scenes. I knew very little about the history of the Ivory Coast and its fateful relationship to France, which is one of the subplots. I also really enjoyed seeing an extremely skillful author weave all of Paris into the plotline. It was a very enjoyable couple of days.  

Here is an interesting look at Cara Black and the Aimée Leduc franchise over the last 20 years. Murder in Bel-Air was released two weeks ago.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Deep Water Blues

By Fred Waitzkin

Open Road Media     2019
160 pages     Literary

It is always a lovely experience when you open a book with no anticipation, and then find that it matches your reading ideals. Such was the case with the novella, Deep Water Blues by Fred Waitzkin. It is the story of a paradise island in the Caribbean called Rum Cay that becomes paradise lost. It is the story of greed and misplaced expectations, love and lust, and great loss.  

While the author himself is a character in the book, the main character is an expat named Bobby Little who has created a small paradise on a remote island in the Caribbean. The boat dock, the restaurant where Bobby is the chef, and the entertainment are all courtesy of Bobby. But then, suddenly, things change. Tragedy strikes when a boat carrying Haitian migrants capsizes in the harbor, and the grisly shark-eaten bodies cast a pall over the island. Bobby struggles to regain his footing and becomes threatened by a business partner, Dennis, who conspires to take over Bobby’s kingdom.

What makes the story unique is the insertion of Fred Waitzkin, the author, into the story line as an observer to the plot. He acts as a quasi-narrator, although he is not in every scene. He is on his fishing boat, the Ebb Tide, with a couple of buddies and an artist, John Mitchell, whose drawings become an integral part of the book. He says, “Many times I’ve made the long ocean voyage to Rum Cay to troll off the southeast corner of the island. But my fishing ardor has often been dwarfed by surprises onshore, where breezy sensuous nights plunge me back into the yearnings of a younger man and where I’ve met maimed and beautiful people on the dock and a few that were evil beyond redemption.”

Somehow, Waitzkin’s addition of himself into the plot lends authenticity to the story. What is true? What isn’t? This is a great plot device and kept me reading through a lot of grisly stuff. What was going to happen next? How would it end?

Deep Water Blues is not a book I would have picked up to read on my own, which made the surprise of good writing and fascinating plot all the more desirable. Thanks to the publicist for introducing me to a a very interesting read.

 Fred Waitzkin is the author of the memoir, Searching for Bobby Fischer, which told the story of his son Josh, a child prodigy and chess expert. Many will remember the movie based on his book. This is his website.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

By Gregory Boyle

Simon & Schuster     2017
210 pages     Spiritual

Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that works with gang members. It is the largest gang-intervention program in the world. His first book, Tattoos on the Heart, described the development of the organization, and this book, Barking to the Choir, fervently describes what Boyle has learned about faith, compassion, and the enduring power of radical kinship.

The key word to the entire book is “Kinship.” We learn early in the book that we are all kin; that even though our life experiences can be very different, at our core, we are very much the same. He says, “The moment one says, ‘This is what it was like for me’, a rebirth occurs. Locating our wounds leads us to the gracious place of fragility; the contact point with another human being. When we share these shards of excavation with each other, we move into the intimacy of mutual healing. Awe softens us for the tender glance of God, then enables us to glance in just the same way.”

Another important word is humor. Boyle tells story after story of people collapsing in laughter—sharing something silly, something stupid, or something ironic—while at the same time building community, building kinship. I was really struck by the glorious good humor by which Boyle faces the challenges of Homeboy Industries and the people who come to him wanting to make changes in their lives. He helps them facilitate change, but at the same time, he has to manage a very large operation with myriad numbers of volunteers as well as hundreds of participants. He has also had to bury over 200 participants who have died because of gang violence.

One thing he cannot tolerate is judgment. He says, “We must try and learn to drop the burden of our own judgment, reconciling that what the mind wants to separate, the heart should bring together. . . judgment, after all, takes up the room you need for loving.” He has been known to ask volunteers to leave if he sees them being too judgmental or exhibiting too much moral indignation.

Barking to the Choir is a great book for a church book club. It is easy to read, and full of relatable stories, quotable thoughts, and meaningful summaries to keep everyone talking. Additionally, I found that it followed very nicely two other books I have recently read, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton.

Here is the website for Homeboy Industries and a link to a delightful article about a speaking engagement of Father Gregory Boyle’s in the Los Angeles Times when Barking to the Choir was released.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Devil.Comes to Town

By Paolo Maurensig

Translated by Anne Milano Appel
World Editions     2019
120 pages     Literary

Well, for sure, I have never read this book before! Here is the brief description from the publisher.

“Everyone’s a writer in Dichtersruhe (Switzerland). The residents have one thing on their mind: literature. So when the devil turns up claiming to be a hot-shot publisher, unsatisfied authorial desires are unleashed, and the village’s former harmony is shattered. Taut with foreboding and Gothic suspense, Paolo Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories.”

In only 120 pages, Maurensig weaves a story of ultimate menace and anxiety, layering detail upon detail with such skill that the reader is left breathless—when they are not smiling in amusement at the vanity of the residents of the village, and the scurrilous image of the devil.

Frankly, it took me a while to get into the story, and when I finally figured out what was going on, I had to go back and begin again with some AHA moments now more present in my mind. How easily the human psyche can be flattered! How easily the human mind can be convinced that it has something special to share with the world! How easily the human will can be led down the wrong path! As the narrator notes, “It is incomprehensible how people who are more than mature—the burgomaster, too, is by far over seventy—can behave like children lured by a stick of candy.”

Maurensig’s depiction of the devil in the guise of a publisher is spot on. “. . .everything about his person reeks of excess, his laugh is raucous, his gestures theatrical, his hair, slicked back and rather long and greasy, is dyed black; his lips are purple and thin, the corners turned up to mimic a perennial smile. . .and the voice, that voice. . .”

As I reread the devil’s description, I was remembering a time in my life when the devil came to town. I was seeking to manage the insurance money that came from my husband’s estate, when a young man came to town. He had impeccable credentials and was from a prominent Michigan family. He had a plan to expand a pizza empire, since his family was friends with the chain’s founder. A coworker introduced me (as well as several other  coworkers), and we all invested in his proposition—which turned out to be a devilish scheme. Chaos ensued when he skipped the country with all our money. Eventually, we had to hire a lawyer, and the family returned all our investments. How easily we were suckered in!

Vanity and money are two guiding principles for the devil. Maurensig tells his tale with no feelings left intact. We are all vulnerable. The Kirkus reviewer said it best, “In this very creepy novella, the award-winning Italian novelist Maurensig (Theory of Shadows, 2018, etc.) constructs a mystery with the structure of nesting dolls, folding story within story until it’s impossible to separate technique from narrative.” 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Young Jane Young

By Gabrielle Zevin

Algonquin Books     2017
294 pages     Literary

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an interview with Monica Lewinski, and as I was watching, I kept thinking, “How can someone survive such a scandal, put on a brave face, and come back out into the light again?” Gabrielle Zevin tries to answer that question with her novel, Young Jane Young, which is the story of a young woman, Aviva Grossman, who suffers through a scandal, similar to the Lewinski/Clinton scandal, and survives by changing her name to Jane Young, reinventing herself, and moving half a country away—from Florida to Maine.

The brilliance of the novel is not just the story line, which moves along rapidly, but also the way it is presented. As my sister said, “We haven’t read this book before.” The book is divided into five sections, each with a woman telling the story from her perspective, at different times, and in different formats. Rachel, Aviva’s mother begins the story by telling most of the background to the scandal in a traditional manner. This is followed by Jane Young narrating her life as an event planner in small-town Maine, a single mother, raising her elementary school-age daughter, Ruby. Ruby’s section of the book consists of emails to a pen pal in Indonesia. At this point, the book really gets interesting as Ruby tells her story in email messages. Up until now, Ruby has no notion about who her father is or that her mother has completely reinvented herself. Ruby is very smart and  with the help of the Internet, and a few misplaced words that become clues, she decides that her father must be Congressman Levin, and she sets off for Florida to confront the congressman, using all the tools she has developed as her mother’s business assistant. The most surprising section of the book is narrated by Embeth, the wife of Congressman Levin. Told in the third person, Embeth is much more feisty and humorous than you would expect; her narration enhances the story dramatically. Finally, Aviva tells her own story in a “choose your own adventure” style. This is an utterly delightful way to describes the choices she made and why she made them.

The “choose your own adventure” narration describes to perfection the choices that people make as they embark on their lives, and how each choice—good and bad—plays a role in the next choice that has to be made. Told completely from the woman’s perspective, we totally understand how men generally get away with more crass behavior than women can. Embeth, for example, talks about how she had to choose exactly the right suit to wear when her husband is confronted by the press regarding his affair with Aviva, so she can stand beside him like the dutiful wife. Of course, the congressman is affected not at all. Additionally, we have become so impacted by technology, and Young Jane Young shows the impact that the Internet and social media plays in every aspect of our lives.

Initially, Young Jane Young reads like a typical woman’s fiction beach read, but as the story develops, we are invited to delve much deeper in our thinking about women’s roles and how life evolves. I am sure we will have a great discussion at book group tonight.

Zevin is the author of another favorite book of mine, The Storied Life of AJ Fickry. When Young Jane Young was released in 2017, NPR had an excellent interview with Gabrielle Zevin.

Recently my 7-year-old granddaughter told her parents that her teacher looked just like one of the “chicks” in the Avengers movies. Her dad questioned, “Chicks?” “Yes,” she responded. “I refuse to say the word, ‘woman’ because it has ‘man’ in it.” At some point they will have to discuss the use of the word, “chick,” but it looks like there’s another Ruby in the making.