Friday, March 14, 2014

A Mother’s Love - Mary Morris
Halfway through this novel I did some research and learned that Mary Morris grew up in circumstances quite unlike those of her protagonist. Whereas Ivy has a hardscrabble life, Morris was (at least looking at her bio) blessed with every advantage. I felt a bit resentful about this. When I recovered my senses, I realized that I should give the author credit for creating so authentic a character. If any young woman sees single motherhood in a romanticized light, they need to read this book. Little Bobby poops and sucks and screams. Little? For all the attention he demands, Bobby could be the size of a bungalow. Ivy diligently fulfills her duties, but it’s grueling and is breaking her down emotionally and physically. The father of the boy is no help. Matthew thinks Ivy should have gotten an abortion; at any rate, he’s just not ready for parenthood and won’t even assist her financially. That she has sympathy for this jerk’s “problems” shows her passive, weak side (which coexists with her angry side). Bouts of fear and depression are the predictable offshoot of her isolated existence in a grubby apartment in New York City. She’s beset by memories, most of them involving her own mother, who ran off when she was seven, taking with her a younger daughter. The “Why” of this event – why run away and why take Sam? – is unsolvable and is something Ivy struggles to come to grips with. Of her father we get little; he’s well-meaning, but his gambling problem leads to an itinerant lifestyle in the western deserts. Memories of the past intermingle with present-day facts and with Ivy’s imaginings. In the present, things begin to brighten; she finds a supportive friend in Mara and the perfect babysitter in Viviana (she’s a babysitter in the sense that Einstein could solve really difficult equations). At the end of the book one is left feeling that Ivy has gone through the roughest stretch, and that shes become stronger for it. As for the mother who abandoned her, she thinks, “I miss her, but not really the one I lost. Rather I miss the one I never had, the one I am trying to become.”

One for the Books - Joe Queenan
I thought I might get chummy with a fellow lover of books; I should have known better. As early as page seventeen, when he lumps A Fan’s Notes with Dune (both books that are, in his opinion, “impossible to enjoy”), I began to question his taste and intelligence. But on page seventy-two we irrevocably parted ways over Vanity Fair, which he calls “implacably precious.” “I hated it. Despised it,” he writes, then he goes on to attack the “lantern-jawed” Reese Witherspoon who plays Becky Sharp in the movie version. Mean-spirited gibes run throughout the book; Queenan considers many people to be ignoramuses, dinks, cretins, etcetera. While he’s flippantly dismissing works of substance (usually with no reason given), he devotes much of his time to light fare and outright junk (such as the biography of Sonny Bono and the “voluptuously vulgar” Va Va Voom). We all need escape reading occasionally, but thirteen Ruth Rendell mysteries in a row? Some books he won’t abandon (he’s spent pretty much of his entire adult life struggling with Middlemarch and Ulysses) and others he rereads repeatedly (The Best of Roald Dahl nine times). He claims that he’s able to consume many books simultaneously (presently he’s “blasting away” at thirty-two, but the number has been much higher) and he can read anywhere (on a subway, at a prizefight, waiting in line at the supermarket, at a wake). He seems mighty proud of these feats, which struck me as the literary equivalent of a carnival sideshow act (“The Amazing Queenan!”). He’s been a columnist for top magazines and newspapers and has published eleven books. He’s talented – his writing style is pleasurable and he can be amusing. Actually, of the enormous number of titles that he cites, we agree on the worth of more than half. Still, I don’t like the guy, and I don’t think he much likes himself or his life; despite his success and his claim that he has “sixty-five close friends” he seems to be a discontented man. Reading was his form of escape from a boyhood blighted by an alcoholic, abusive father (once again we see how abusiveness begets abusiveness, though the form it takes may vary). His addiction to books was, he writes, the reason why he didn’t make any headway in his career until his mid-thirties. “Well, that and the fact that the people were appalling.” Since he did build a career, he must have started cozying up to these “appalling” people. Just an observation.

The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
As I read this novel images from the movie played in my mind. John Huston wisely followed the storyline closely and used much of the author’s smart, snappy dialogue. The fact that Hammett’s Sam Spade is tall and has light brown hair didn’t bother me; I always saw Bogart. In both book and movie Spade is tough and efficient, like other fictional private eyes, but we’re never clear as to what makes him tick. Is he capable of dishonesty? Is he emotionally invulnerable? What feelings does he have for Brigid O’Shaughnessy? This element of ambiguity makes Spade intriguing. The most lively interactions are the ones involving the effeminate Joel Cairo and the grossly fat Casper Gutman (Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are perfect matches for Hammett’s characters). The novel is superior to the movie in one important aspect. I got a grip on who and what Brigid was because she’s shown with her hair down; she’s a woman who can – and does, often – use her sexuality to manipulate men. Spade turns her in not only because she murdered his partner (“just like swatting a fly”), but also because he won’t “play the sap” for her. Like Spade, she’s an enigma, but he (and we) know enough about her to understand how dangerous she is. This wasn’t clear in the film version, in which Mary Astor was too prim. The book and movie end differently (Hammett never wrote the line “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of”). In the book we’re back in Spade’s office the day after he delivers Brigid and the others over to the police; he greets his secretary Effie (who may be his real – and platonic – love) with a bright “Morning, angel.” He soon has an unwelcome visitor: his partner’s wife. He had an affair with her and she’s clinging to him. He shivers when he hears her name, then tells Effie, “Well, send her in.”

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