A remarkable story of a mother whose “ingenuity and talent and dogged pursuit of happiness made possible [her family’s] beautiful home, brimming refrigerator and quality education.”
Fannie Davis was an amazing woman. Sharp and unwilling to be hemmed in by the dual restrictions of race and gender, she did what it took to raise a family and to uplift a community. In 1960s and ’70s Detroit, she ran the “Numbers,” an illegal lottery that was nonetheless central to many urban and especially African-American communities, especially in the era before states realized that licit gambling could be a lucrative trade and even as they cracked down on the gambling they defined as illicit. Above all, Fannie Davis was a mother. In this admiring and highly compelling memoir, Bridgett Davis (Creative, Film and Narrative Writing/Baruch Coll.; Into the Go-Slow, 2014, etc.) tells the story of her beloved mother. The author knew that her mom’s role in the Numbers had to be kept secret, but she also knew that it was not shameful. Placing her subject in the larger historical contexts of the African-American and urban experiences and the histories of Detroit and of underground entrepreneurship embodied in the Numbers, and framing it within numerous vital postwar trends, the author is especially insightful about how her mother embodied the emergence of a “blue collar, black-bourgeoisie.” Although there was considerable risk in running the Numbers, it also provided a path forward to a comfortable lifestyle otherwise nearly unimaginable. While critics liked to paint the game as a path toward dissolution, for the author—and many others—it was anything but. This is not a story about capitalizing on degeneracy. It is one of hope and hustling in a world where to have the former almost demanded the latter.
This outstanding book is a tribute to one woman but will surely speak to the experiences of many.
A cultural fixture in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s, Eve Babitz (b. 1943) eclipsed the label of groupie. She was a socialite who managed to intertwine herself with Steve Martin, Warren Zevon, Jim Morrison, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol, a Hollywood High graduate–turned-author whose teen years defined her writing. She was well-known but also dismissed by some, including novelist Julia Whedon: “I discern in Babitz the soul of a columnist, the flair of a caption writer, the sketchy intelligence of a woman stoned on trivia.” However, Anolik shows that Whedon was shortchanging the woman who famously posed nude over a chessboard with Marcel Duchamp (he was clothed). The author is entirely up front about her obsession with her subject. A love for Babitz’s writing turned into a deep dive to uncover the woman who pitched her first novel, Travel Broadens, in 1961 to Catch-22 author Joseph Heller with a letter that read, “Dear Joseph Heller, I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.” As Anolik shares, the provocative message was classic Babitz: “playing the sexy, boobalicious girl.” That character certainly made a significant impression during her heyday, but it was Babitz’s style and fictive memoirs that defined her as something of a female Hunter S. Thompson, a drugged-out sex kitten with brains. Throughout the book, Anolik shares deep cuts from Babitz’s writing and influence over the major players of the era. But as with any dishy tale, there are times when the narrative gets caught in its own name-dropping cyclone and feels just as shallow as some of the stars it portrays. Fortunately, the author counters this problem with a poignant rendering of Babitz’s tragedy: a freak fire that destroyed her once-renowned beauty—but not her chutzpah.
Come for the LA intrigue; stay for the surprising moral of the story.
A lively biography of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), provocateur, polymath, and central figure in the French Enlightenment.
Ironically, the philosopher whose name is strongly associated with freethinking kept his freest thoughts under wraps: Thanks to an early lesson in the consequences of candor, he intentionally left mountains of unpublished writings to be discovered after his death. Early writings skewering organized religion and questioning God’s existence earned him public book-burnings and a three-month prison stint. In the ensuing years, he would save his most provocative thoughts about sex and politics for the drawer; his posthumous novel The Nun questioned the immorality of incest and adultery. But he put some of his most challenging ideas in plain sight, if subtly, through his life-consuming, multivolume Encyclopédie, which tweaked the sensibilities of religious leaders while also striving to “pull back the world’s curtain” through anatomical and mechanical illustrations that were rarely available to the public. Curran (Humanities/Wesleyan Univ.; The Anatomy of Blackness, 2011, etc.) gamely sifts through the mountain of Diderot’s output—he was a prolific art critic, lead writer of the Encyclopédie, and an inveterate correspondent—without for a moment making it feel burdensome. Rather, he ably balances the details of Diderot’s life with thoughtful considerations of the source and depth of his philosophical byways, taking his more peculiar ideas seriously but not literally. Curran’s mission is served by his subject’s wealth of experiences: In addition to his run-ins with state and religious leaders, he found a patron and intellectual sparring partner in Catherine the Great and corresponded with Benjamin Franklin before the American Revolution his writings helped inspire. As Curran writes, Diderot argued that kings and religious leaders “were complicit in running a massive illusion factory”; a more skeptical world may be Diderot’s greatest legacy.
An intellectually dense and well-researched yet brisk journey into one of history’s most persuasive dissenters.
First-time author Land chronicles her years among the working poor as a single mother with only a high school diploma trying to earn a living as a minimum-wage housecleaner.
The author did not grow up in poverty, but her struggles slowly evolved after her parents divorced, remarried, and essentially abandoned her; after she gave birth to a daughter fathered by a man who never stopped being abusive; and after her employment prospects narrowed to dirty jobs with absurdly low hourly pay. The relentlessly depressing, quotidian narrative maintains its power due to Land’s insights into working as an invisible maid inside wealthy homes; her self-awareness as a loving but inadequate mother to her infant; and her struggles to survive domestic violence. For readers who believe individuals living below the poverty line are lazy and/or intellectually challenged, this memoir is a stark, necessary corrective. Purposefully or otherwise, the narrative also offers a powerful argument for increasing government benefits for the working poor during an era when most benefits are being slashed. Though the benefits received by Land and her daughter after mountains of paperwork never led to financial stability, they did ameliorate near starvation. The author is especially detailed and insightful on the matter of government-issued food stamps. Some of the most memorable scenes recount the shaming Land received when using the food stamps to purchase groceries. Throughout, Land has been sustained by her fierce love for her daughter and her dreams of becoming a professional writer and escaping northwest Washington state by settling in the seemingly desirable city of Missoula, Montana. She had never visited Missoula, but she imagined it as paradise. Near the end of the book, Land finally has enough money and time to visit Missoula, and soon after the visit, the depression lifts.
An important memoir that should be required reading for anyone who has never struggled with poverty.
Muscular study of Sam Peckinpah’s groundbreaking 1969 film, “the last Western.”
Texas journalist, historian, and poet Stratton (Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion, 2012, etc.) charts the evolution of Peckinpah’s classic and perhaps best-known movie at the half-century mark. Peckinpah had had glimmerings of the story years before making it, with a script and cast that grew and changed considerably owing to several influences, not least of them the violent time in which it was finally made. Stratton pulls together big strands of story: the history of the Mexican revolutionary period, Peckinpah’s own fascination with Mexico, the history of U.S.–Mexico relations, the history of moviemaking itself. On the latter, the author draws a straight line from John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach, to The Wild Bunch 30 years later, both for its less-than-virtuous heroes and its paving the way for “a stampede of Western movies with increasingly sophisticated characters and plotlines.” Peckinpah wrote the movie with Lee Marvin in mind as the central figure, Pike Bishop, but Marvin’s agent wasn’t enthusiastic; in any event, Paramount lured Marvin with an unheard-of $1 million fee for another Western, the painfully terrible Paint Your Wagon. Peckinpah and his producer, Stratton reveals through some careful filmic detective work, considered Robert Mitchum, Sterling Hayden, and Charlton Heston before landing on William Holden, “a first-rate actor but also a deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself.” Holden wasn’t the easiest actor to work with, but with Robert Ryan, who had “a deeply lined face that seemed to be cut from boot leather,” he anchored what Stratton doesn’t hesitate to brand “a love affair between two men”—a “bromance," that is, one that broadened to include such players as Ernest Borgnine, L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Jaime Sánchez, and Ben Johnson. And a blood-soaked, protest-inducing bromance at that….
Essential reading for fans of the epochal (and reportedly soon to be remade) movie as well as movie-history and Western buffs generally.
Award-winning Brazilian/Hungarian essayist, historian, and critic Bán's fiction debut presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek student textbook.
Within dryly titled sections—"French," "Chemistry/Physical Education," "English/Home Economics," "The Foundations of Our Worldview"—strange stories unfold, sprinkled liberally with interjections and assignments for the student: "CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless," or "WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?" There is a meditation on the Mathematics of Randomness, a "blog opera" based on Fidelio, a love story found in a bottle on a Borneo beach, an account of the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife. Flaubert travels in Egypt with his friend Maxime, and years later a literary scholar devotes his career to the great writer's "deletions." Lesbian lovers meet clandestinely at a Night Zoo where a tapir "liked to plop right down on the tracks in front of the little zoo train like some despairing heroic lover." Bán inverts the primer model, giving free rein to a restless and inventive intellect and delighting in unexpected angles on the seemingly familiar. Characters from Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons correspond by email, undergo IVF, and meet up in NYC, where their stories intersect with 9/11. In "Drawing/Art History," the strong-willed model for Manet's Olympia dictates her conditions for posing to the artist: "You will never be free of this painting....All your life, you will be successful but wretched." In "Self Help," a teacher instructs her pupils what to do if they find themselves in a tsunami ("Grab your surfboard and paddle out at an angle until you reach the point where the wave is cresting but hasn't yet started to break") or if threatened by domestic assault. An idyllic childhood summer day in "Singing/Music" ends in sexual violence. The roving pedagogical voice is feminist, earthy, erudite, and subversive. "Don't take anything for granted!" the reader is exhorted. "Ask, and ask again!" The book's most moving section, "Teacher's Edition/Russian," is narrated by Laika, the dog sent into space by the Soviet space program in 1957. "This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS." Later Laika adds, "Learn that accepting the explanation there is no explanation is one of the most difficult and noble lessons."
Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our varied and unsettling times.
A brilliant meditation on time, mortality, and the limits of memory.
Ullmann is a journalist, a literary critic, and the author of several novels—most recently The Cold Song (2014). She is also the daughter of the actor Liv Ullmann and the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This memoir in the shape of a novel—or novel based on memoir—began as a series of conversations the writer had with her father shortly before he died. While much of the book is devoted to her early life—when her father was fit and commanding—a sense of loss permeates the narrative. Ullmann recounts the precise instant when it became clear that the man she knew was gone: The studiously punctual Bergman is late to meet her for a movie showing, a daily ritual that has been part of his life for decades. Ullmann is shocked in the moment, but it’s only in retrospect that she recognizes it for what it is. The recordings Ullmann made—which appear in transcript form throughout the book—function more as talismans than as documentary evidence of the man her father was. The sound quality is poor. The conversation is halting, and there are gaps in Bergman’s memory. What Ullmann wants to capture is already in the process of disappearing. So, she’s left with her own memories. Certainly, her memories are singular. Bergman had multiple wives and mistresses and many, many children and grandchildren, all of whom come and go on the isolated island where the director has made his home. Ullmann’s situation is exceptional, but the emotional experiences she describes are poignant and accessible. When she recounts scenes from her childhood, she sometimes speaks in the first person and she sometimes calls herself “the girl,” underscoring the sense in which past selves are constructions we create in the present. And, of course, her memories of her father as a younger man may be vivid, but they are no more reliable than those garbled digital recordings of her father in his decline. Ullmann’s prose is elegant (her translator deserves some credit for this), sharp, and occasionally funny. But the mood of this work as a whole is elegiac. “Can I,” she asks, “mourn people who are still alive?”
A kaleidoscopic portrait of America in the years leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy—and a chillingly prophetic vision of how we got to where we are.
This is a novel that Bowman, the author of Let the Dog Drive (1992) and two other books, left unpublished when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2012. But unpublished does not mean incomplete. Bowman articulates a vivid point of view in this novel, or, more accurately, a series of points of view, beginning with a prologue in which a variety of historical figures (Norman Mailer; Elvis; J.D. Salinger’s young daughter, Margaret) react to the killing of the president. From there, the action shifts to Mexico City in 1950 and the confluence of some unlikely expatriates, including William S. Burroughs and E. Howard Hunt. “The novel you are about to read is true,” Bowman writes. “All the people who are mentioned—just as Bob Dylan sang—I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name. Still, this novel is true history.” What Bowman is saying is that history is itself a story, one we tell as much as live. His juxtapositions of incidents and individuals are, in that sense, as much constructions of his imagination as they are mashups of overlapping events. Albert Camus and Maria Callas carry on an affair. JFK and Aristotle Onassis commiserate—and strategize—over the Kennedys' stillborn child. Bowman is sly about acknowledging his inspirations: Mailer, as established in the opening, and also Don DeLillo, whose Underworld this novel resembles and who appears as a young advertising copywriter. And yet, to call the book derivative is to miss the point. Instead, it is sui generis, the kind of novel that invents its form out of its own frenzied convocation of voices and moments: the 20th century in all its majesty and fear.
Bowman’s testament is both lament and celebration—for the betrayed promise of the United States as well as the tragedy of the author’s premature demise.
Call no one happy until after he is dead, goes the old Greek adage. Hall (Classics/King’s Coll., London; Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind, 2013, etc.) takes a rosier view, drawing on Aristotelean philosophy to cheer us up in grim times.
By the author’s account, Aristotle was the first philosopher to consider the question of happiness subjectively and, from that consideration, to offer “a sophisticated, humane program for becoming a happy person.” The active quality of that clause should be kept in mind, for the process of happiness is ongoing and involves effort on the part of the person who wishes to be happy, requiring that one work on controlling the baser qualities and highlighting the better ones. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Hall points out in her nontechnical but deeply grounded discussion, Aristotle writes that happiness “comes as the result of a goodness, along with a learning process, and effort.” That a person can “think herself into happiness” works on a principle that is profoundly democratic: Anyone can do it, and after doing so, happiness becomes a matter of “self-conscious habit” and resolution. Hall charts the evolution of the idea of happiness as the exercise of virtue into the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who was quite deliberate in the use of the term “happiness” as the goal of an inalienable right. What works against happiness? There are several agents, among them weakness of will and “sheer bad luck,” though recognizing that this bad luck is (usually) beyond one’s control is key to creating a better mood. Other aspects of happiness, as Hall’s lucid account demonstrates, include generosity, ongoing education and appreciation of the arts, the study of history and literature (as a vehicle for understanding, or, as she puts it, “a gymnasium for developing our ethical muscles”), and the application of one’s intellect to real-world problems such as landing a job.
Can happiness come from virtue? This lively book makes a good argument in the affirmative.
To the spate of novels investigating the lives of famous artists and their relationships with the people who loved them most, add this intriguing take on Tennessee Williams and his lover of 15 years, Frank Merlo.
Nicknamed the Horse by Williams for his stocky build, Merlo was a man from a working-class Italian family in New Jersey who rose to elite echelons of society through his relationship with Williams, becoming friends with, among others, Anna Magnani and Truman Capote (whom neither he nor Williams cherished). Castellani’s Merlo, with a heart that’s “big and simple and practical,” is the focus here. Merlo is fulfilled by his work for Williams—arranging the details of the scatterbrained playwright's life—but also plagued by doubts about his own purpose (“If Frank could not be the fountain, he could at least feel the spray,” Castellani writes). In portions of the novel set in 1953, Castellani imagines that the couple meets a glamorous Swedish mother and daughter, “these fierce and delicate greyhounds, with their taut slender necks,” the younger of whom, Anja Bloom, they take under their wings. She will become an international star known for her work in art house cinema, but her fame won’t soften her “haunted and hard” heart. Castellani (The Art of Perspective, 2016) shuttles between 1953, when Williams was collaborating with Paul Bowles to write the screenplay for Luchino Visconti’s Senso, and now, when Bloom’s star has faded but she is still in possession of Williams’ (imaginary) last creation, a terrible one-act play, Call It Joy, that he wrote to assuage his guilt for not visiting Merlo in the hospital in 1963 as he was dying of lung cancer. Will Bloom allow the play to be performed? In an ambitious act of ventriloquism, Castellani includes the entire script of the play here. There are only a few missteps in the novel; it is not clear, for example, why anyone would fall in love with the petty and cantankerous writer John Horne Burns.
Humane, witty, and bold, this novel imagines the life of a loving but tortured couple.
A welcome sequel to one of last year’s most exciting debuts.
The first chapter of Beagin’s second novel is called “Poop.” Readers familiar with Pretend I’m Dead (2018) will not be surprised. Readers approaching Beagin for the first time should consider it an honest advertisement of what’s to come. Mona is a cleaning lady, which is to say that her business is filth. As she did in her debut, Beagin takes advantage of the peculiarly intimate relationship in which we engage when we pay other people to clean up our messes. Mona’s clients include a blind psychotherapist and her husband, who happens to be the man Mona calls Dark, someone she met once and can’t get out of her mind. There’s also a Hungarian couple, for whom she becomes a nude model. Mona’s complicated entanglements with these people are inevitable. She has some serious boundary issues, which we grow to understand in some detail in the chapter called “Mommy.” Mona is a tremendously engaging narrator. She’s sharp but not unkind. By the time this novel begins, she’s turned Fresh Air host Terry Gross into her imaginary sidekick, someone who "interview[s] her about the day-to-day hassles of being a cleaning lady in Taos" and sometimes acts as her "coach, therapist, surrogate parent." This is both funny and poignant—funny because it’s so unlikely, poignant because Mona could use a levelheaded friend. Indeed, Beagin excels at mixing comedy and pathos in a way that dilutes neither. This novel is ultimately a story about the meaning of home. Mona grew up shuttling between her grandparents’ apartment and her stepfather’s place. Neither was a great place for a child. She was institutionalized for a time. And then she was sent to live with a foster mother in Massachusetts. In Pretend I’m Dead, Mona follows a junkie to Taos. Here, she follows an innocuous nice guy to Bakersfield. What she discovers, though, is that the place she truly wants to be is the place she has created for herself.
Beagin secures her position as a new writer to watch.