Thursday, March 28, 2019

Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, by Sherry Jones. Gallery Books, 2018

Josephine Baker, born in 1906 to a poor family in St. Louis, was used pretty much as a slave from the time she could walk. Her mother put her out to white families as a live in servant, with Josephine’s pay going to her. Josephine never saw anything of it. Worse, she was sexually abused starting at an early age. But she was determined that she would be a dancer and singer; it was the one way she could see out of her impoverished situation. She just needed to get a chance….She was told by producers that she was too skinny, too dark, and didn’t have a strong enough voice to be a chanteuse. She was relegated to the chorus line in all people of color reviews.

But in 1925 she sailed to Paris and started breaking down barriers. She was the first woman of color on a Paris stage, the first to star in a movie, the first to sing in an opera. But her most famous act is, sadly, something that started as sarcasm. She was designing her own costumes in Paris. The man in charge, however, thought she was trying to dress too elegantly. So she drew her next costume as a skirt (a belt, really) of bananas and nothing else. That, of course, is what the costume maker produced and that is what she danced in for many performances, and that is the picture that will come up first when you Google her.

In Paris she was received as an equal, not some subhuman servant like she was see in the US. She was the center of any party, the star of the stage. She rubbed elbows with the American ex-pats. Of course, the Nazis came and everything went to hell. So she did what any rebel would do- she joined the French Resistance. As a star and party giver, she had access to the Nazi bigwigs who didn’t know she spoke German. She risked her life giving information to the Resistance- and then spent time flying supplies for the Red Cross.

This was all exciting. After the war she led a much quieter life. She adopted 12 children, of different races and cultures. She tried to come back to the US, but found herself denied service in restaurants and denied rooms in hotels. She was treated like dirt.

I loved the book, but the last part of her life was rushed over. What became of all her children? What kind of relationships did she have with them? After her last big performance- a production that frames the story- what did she do? I know she worked for equality.  How did she die? Who was with her then? But it’s still a five star book, because I couldn’t put it down. She was a fascinating woman, and lived her life to the fullest.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Woman in the White Kimono, by Ana Johns. Park Row Books, 2019

Tori Kovac, in present day America, watches her father die right after he gives her a letter that was written by him to someone in Japan, and it was returned in the mail. Who is it to, and what does it mean?

Seventeen year old Naoko Nakamura, in 1950s Japan, is being pressured into an arranged marriage to improve her family’s financial stability. But she is in love with someone else… an American sailor, Jimmy, a gaijin still hated in this decade after the war. And, furthermore, she’s carrying his child. This does not go over well with her family. With only her frail mother for an ally, she does not realize how far her father and grandmother will go to prevent losing face.

In alternating chapters, Naoko and Tori narrate their stories. Naoko relates her trials of the next year of her life, which include people she thought she could trust betraying her. After a quick wedding that isn’t binding, Jimmy/Hajime is taken away from her by naval maneuvers, and without him to protect her, a tragedy puts her back into her family’s hands. Tori’s story is how she unravels the mystery of Naoki and her father.

It’s not a spoiler to say this doesn’t end happily for Naoko and Jimmy; it’s right there in the beginning. But the road that Naoko has to travel is not easy, and her story is quite suspenseful. I was really cheering for her! Tori I didn’t care so much for- the author didn’t put as much into her, I felt. Four stars for a good tale and a plucky protagonist.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Ash Family, by Molly Dektar. Simon & Shuster, 2019

As someone who came of age in the late 60s/early 70s, I’ve always been fascinated with communes. Not fascinated enough to ever even think about joining one, but being torn between admiration for the hard work it took to make a successful one and astonishment at how people could fall for the blatant mind control that held others together. In this story, the author creates a cult that includes both those traits.

Nineteen year old Berie’s mother thinks she’s on a plane to college, but she’s not. Berie is waiting at a bus stop when an intriguing man named Bay strikes up a conversation with her, telling her about the farm in the North Carolina mountains he lives on with other like-minded individuals. The live in the ‘real world’, rather than the ‘fake world’ of most people. They share everything, there are no couples and no children, they live in poverty, and produce all their food from the land. She is welcome to visit, but the rule is: you can visit for three days and leave, or stay for the rest of your life. No other way. No one leaves; in fact, people who leave tend to not survive. After meeting the family and their charismatic leader, Dice, she throws in with them. They are, she feels, are just what she’s been looking for.

Of course there is culture shock. Her clothing is all taken away from her, and she is given clothing from the common pool, which is filthy. Renamed Harmony, she is immediately put to work herding the sheep, something she knows nothing about. She even has to sleep in the barn with them. The family only bathes once a week (if that), and they owe strict obedience to Dice. There is to be no asking of questions. There is no medical care. No one is to speak about their own past. And, as it turns out, things aren’t quite what she is told. They ‘live off the land’, but go into town to steal and go dumpster diving. They are for peace, but blow things up.

I loved parts of this story. The descriptions of the land, and the work they do, is written in loving, beautiful detail. It’s a very dark story, though. And in some places it really drags. I didn’t much care for Berie- frankly, she was boring- and certainly not for Dice and some of the other family members. There were a couple who I took a liking to- firstly Pear, the 60ish healer and bread baker. I would have liked to have read about how she, who would supposedly be older and wiser, got sucked into the family. I liked Berie’s ex-boyfriend. I liked Queen, another family member. I give it four stars because while I couldn’t put it down, there were some places where I really wished the story would move faster.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

In 1888, five women were killed by the person who would be called Jack the Ripper. The killings were horrific- they weren’t just killed, but disemboweled- and the newspapers of the time made a mint writing sensational stories about them. They characterized the women as ‘prostitutes’, and nothing more was known about them. The image was that they were out on the street and were slain while working. In reality, while all the women were frightfully poor, only one was a sex worker, and she was killed in her bed at home.

The author brings the five women to life. I was amazed at how much could be learned about these women from existing records. Census records, records in the old workhouses, prison records, pension records, ledgers for various businesses, military discharge papers, school records, registers of births, deaths, and weddings- she must have spent a huge amount of time, combing through these primary resources. Then a huge number of books that were about conditions in Victorian days, which painted the backdrop for the lives of these women. It turns out that they led hard lives; that they had been homeless at times and had to sleep outside, they had been in workhouses, that they were all victims of alcoholism, and that society was pretty much set up against them from the start. The poor rarely had access to schooling, so jobs other than manual labor were closed to them. Women were paid very little for their labor; they almost had to have a man for the income if they wanted to live inside. If their man cheated, beat them, spent all the money on alcohol, or left them, they were up creek. One of the women *did* have a man, but on her last night there was only enough money for one of them to sleep inside, and it was her turn to sleep outside.

This book portrays them women who didn’t always make the right choices, but they had precious few to choose from. They had all the hopes, dreams, and cares that everyone has; they were not just put on earth to be victims of the Ripper. It’s about time they are shown to be human beings. ‘The Five’ does this admirably.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Mosquitoes, by William Faulkner. Horace Liveright Inc. 1927

“Mosquitoes” was the second novel Faulkner wrote. It’s a satire set in New Orleans, and while it’s amusing it’s not really laugh out loud funny. It’s a sort of “Ship of Fools” but with a smaller boat and possibly more foolish people.

A woman of means, Mrs. Maurier, who wields power in the art buying world, arranges a boat party for a few artists and writers. Her niece and nephew are also included, and they snag a couple of other people they’ve never even met before, right off the dock. This mismatched group, who apparently didn’t think things through, finds themselves on Lake Pontchartrain for several days. Mrs. Maurier seems to expect artistic conversation and jolly dances. Instead she gets people who stay consistently drunk and who try and seduce each other. And complain about the fact that they are served grapefruits at every meal. The boat runs aground, some of them try and swim to shore and walk back to the Big Easy, another someone disappears.

These are some of the most annoying people on earth. If I were stuck on a boat with them for days, I’d go overboard, too. It’s fun to read about them at times, but I have to admit I was bored part of the time, too. There is a good bit of repetition. I had trouble remembering who was who- three of the men seemed interchangeable (one was even called “the Semitic man” instead of named most of the time!) and a couple of the young girls did, too. They are the true parasites of the story, not the mosquitoes which, while biting constantly, are never named. None of the women are portrayed in a good light. Three stars.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Vanishing Box, by Elly Griffiths. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018

Set in 1950’s Brighton, this fourth installment in the authors Magic Man Mystery series gives us Max Mephisto- one of the Magic Men- and his daughter, Ruby, playing a gig at the Brighton Hippodrome. On the same bill is Vic Cutler’s tableaux vivante, where almost naked young women stay perfectly still while arranged in various historical or artistic scenes. Meanwhile, in the boarding house where two of Cutler’s ‘girls’ live, another tenant has been found murdered and posed to ape a famous painting. This brings the other Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, into the story. Bodies quickly start piling up, as Cutler ends up dead, followed by a girl in the show, and soon there is nearly a cast of thousands, or so it seems. There are a lot of twists in the story; the guilty party wasn’t anyone I suspected. I did find myself getting confused with so many characters and their various relationships; I think in part because I haven’t read the earlier books in the series. But it’s a fun read, with the theater sections adding something unique. Four stars.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Student of History, by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books, 2019

Grad student Rick Nagano’s life isn’t going well. He’s been stuck on his thesis for months and sees no future for it, his grant is about to run out and not be renewed, and his girlfriend has dumped him. Then things turn better: his friend is leaving the country, and leaving her job as a research assistant to a rich woman. She’s recommended Rick for the job. When he auditions for the role, Mrs. W_ takes him on. His money woes, at least, are cured for the moment.

His job for Mrs. W_ is to read through her old journals and make a computer document out of them. This, he realizes, may also solve his thesis problem: to a historian specializing in Los Angeles history, the journals are a heretofore unseen look at the lives of the upper crust in the early and mid-20th century. Of course, Mrs. W_ has sworn him to never reveal anything in the journals... but he’ll worry about that later. Meanwhile, Mrs. W_ is also using him as a ‘walker’- a man who a rich woman/celebrity uses as an escort to social functions. She sends him to the finest stores and dresses him up. Behind the walls and hedges of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, the rich and beautiful people- people known as ‘street people’ because the streets of Los Angeles are named for them- mingle and exchange gossip. These are not media celebrities; these are the descendants of the oil barons and land developers of yore. Rick is surprised when one young married beauty, Fiona Morgan, takes an interest in him. Could things get any better for him?

This is a mystery on the surface, but it’s also statement (a damning one) on class and money. Rick brings up his mixed race heritage frequently, but nothing is ever done with that thread. There is frequent reference to the fact that everyone is very, very white. Rick is almost unbelievably na├»ve. While I didn’t dislike Rick, I couldn’t manage to like him, either. He’s a narrator that things happen to, without him making much effort. He’s a tool, in a couple of meanings of the word. The other characters… not much to them, and I think that might be intentional. These people have nothing real to them! It is a good depiction of the over the top excesses of the very rich, and what LA history might have been like for those very rich. But I can only give it three stars, because I never found myself really invested in the story.