Monday, March 20, 2017

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton

The story of Lily Bart, the main character of this novel, is one that is particular to her time, but also strangely specific. Many of the events in the novel are based around outdated social customs and mores that we don't follow or adhere to today - nor should we. On the other hand, at its heart the book is about wanting to live above or beyond your means, and how you can thereby make poor decisions that ultimately ruin you. And it's a rather wicked satire on the so-called "upper classes," who buy things just for the sake of buying things, but who are hypocrites without consciences who are actually very uninteresting, and have no interest in the world around them, despite being able to afford to see that world.

Something about this book reminded me a lot of one of my favorite novels, Frank Norris' McTeague. Both books seem to be about people wanting to escape the class their family was in, but in the end becoming trapped at the level to which they were born, incapable of escape. One main difference is that Lily Bart is portrayed as someone who refuses to surrender her principles, while some of Norris' characters are willing to toss theirs aside if it means they will get what they want (or what they think they want).

What struck me most about the book was that the real tragedy of the story is that so many people were constrained by the silly "rules" and were unable to be who they wanted to be. More than once  while reading I thought to myself, why don't these characters just run off and live someplace else? Why are they so attached to this setting and these other people? Maybe I'm too much a product of my times and don't understand things as well as I should, but I feel like I'd rather be myself than have to put up with a lot of nonsense in order to have something different.

All in all I see why this book is a classic. Recommended.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Dangerous Animals Club - Steven Tobolowsky

This is yet another of my interesting Library Sale shelves finds, which I grabbed because I like the author, arguably America's most recognizable character actor. Possibly most famous for his role as insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in the wonderful comedy Groundhog Day, he pops up in virtually every movie and TV show. I wanted to read something light today, so I grabbed this from the pile and settled in.

Several hours later, I confess I have mixed feelings. The writing in this book came off as sort of pretentious. Before I started reading, I didn't quite realize that he was a Baby Boomer, but it made the writing make more sense once I figured that out. There was also what I can't help but view as bragging by said Baby Boomer that in his day one could move to a big expensive city like Los Angeles and find a reasonable, decent, affordable apartment as an out of work actor. For Pete's sake, we get it, in YOUR day, these things were possible, but strangely enough, they aren't any more. Go figure! Sigh. I also got tired of hearing about his ex, Beth. It's evident that he is working through his feelings about this long term relationship, but it's unclear to me why they were together for so long. Honestly, she just sounded exhausting, and I would love to hear her side of it.

In any case, this was a relatively fast read that kind of went all over the place. It wasn't a bad read, but wasn't great. So this is a mixed review, I guess.

On the plus side, I am claiming it for my "brown" book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge, based on the cover (see photo):


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Gypsy: A Memoir - Gypsy Rose Lee

Yet another fortuitous Library Sales shelves find. I had heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, and of course the award-winning Broadway musical based on this book, although I've never seen it. After reading this book I am not sure how much I actually know, and how much of it is made up, or at least embroidered.

All the same, it's a very entertaining book. It chronicles the early lives of the author and her sister (who ultimately became actress June Havoc). The sisters shared a stage mother that couldn't have been more on the nose if she had been sent over from central casting. Equal parts con artist and ambitious show biz wannabe, the mother looms large in this book, and her presence even sort of overshadows Gypsy Rose Lee as the star of her own book.

The tales are amusing and well told, and the author paints a picture of life in show business as vaudeville was succumbing to the "talkies" and then the Depression, and performers often had to switch to burlesque and similar specialities to keep performing. I feel like I can picture with great clarity what this life was like, and can also understand the allure of the transient life of "show folk" - and also be grateful that I am not dealing with people trying to cheat me, sleeping in fleabag hotels (if you're lucky), getting lice, and other perils of life on the road.

The book has less detail in the later parts, and in fact we gloss over such events as the birth of her only child, son Erik - we don't even learn who Erik's father was. The book ends sort of abruptly; maybe the author was adhering to the show biz mantra of "always leave 'em wanting more." If you do, it turns out Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a couple fiction books and many short stories before penning this memoir; she's a good writer so I would like to check those out. All in all this was a memorable read that paints a picture of a bygone era of show business. Recommended.