Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 192 pages; 2002.

What a beautiful little gem of a book this one turned out to be!

Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard is set in Wall Street during the 1990s and tells the story of an outsider — Cath, an Australian “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” — who works at an investment bank by day and looks after her ill husband by night.

Previously a freelance writer, she’s sold her soul to make big bucks as a speechwriter for the mid-level bank known as Niedecker Benecke. She needs the money to look after her husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

She knows nothing about finance but she can craft a sentence, although she finds the sexist world — and the politics — of the investment bankers and the communications department a challenge. Her only “friend” in the firm is Mike, a fellow cigarette smoker, with whom she spends her breaks, sitting outside in the plaza sharing confidences.

The book was reissued by Text Classics in 2015

Stark but beautiful prose

The story, which spans roughly six years, from Bailey’s diagnosis to his death, is told in forthright prose undercut with dark humour.

It reads like an insider’s guide to investment banking — its risk-taking, its greed, its unwritten rules, protocols and unfettered belief in the market — based on the author’s own experience working for Merrill Lynch. But it’s also an honest look at the challenges facing those who must look after loved ones* with chronic illnesses while juggling their own lives and careers.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between both worlds.

I was commuting between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder value.

The morality of greed

In fact, Bailey’s slide towards the loss of self could also mirror Cath’s own changes in values, her need to “play the game” to get ahead, to understand the tickings of the financial world and the increasingly risky behaviour of those around her.

While Moral Hazard is set more than a decade before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the cracks are already there and the shadow of the Barings Bank collapse, caused by employee Nick Leeson’s unauthorised trading, looms large, so when Mike tells Cath about a hedge fund that is likely to collapse, she has a moral dilemma: follow protocol and keep quiet, or speak out and tell her superiors?

She is similarly conflicted when Bailey insists she euthanise him should he become too ill even though they both know this is against the law.

Interestingly, in economics, moral hazard occurs when a business increases its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk. The concept could also apply to Cath’s care of her husband whose behaviour becomes wildly unpredictable and unmanageable as the story progresses, so much so that she has to put him into full-time care and hand over responsibility to others.

There are other metaphors in this short, sharply observed novel — the way the financial authorities bail out failing hedge funds, for example, and make no changes to the rules could be seen as if they, too, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Portrait of office life

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Moral Hazard is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year. As well as its twin themes of illness and finance, I loved its portrait of office life, a subject that is rarely addressed in fiction despite the fact so many of us spend our working lives sitting at desks surrounded by others sitting at desks.

And it’s a lovely counterpoint to Jennings’ debut novel, Snake, which was set in the Australian outback as far removed from New York’s financial district as it is possible to get!

For another take on Moral Hazard, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

*  Jennings’ husband, the graphic designer Bob Cato, died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1999, so those aspects of the novel must surely be based on experience, too.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand last year. 

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Daunt Books, Fiction, general, Kathleen Rooney, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

Fiction – Kindle edition; Daunt Books; 302 pages; 2017.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

As she takes her evening stroll en-route to a party she’s been invited to, she meets and interacts with ordinary New Yorkers and recalls the highs and lows of her extraordinary life and career.

It’s an easy read and nothing too taxing, the exact kind of story I was looking for while I nursed a sore mouth having undergone some rather invasive oral surgery recently. I simply switched the brain into neutral and enjoyed accompanying Lillian around the streets of New York.

Said to be inspired by the life of Margaret Fishback, who worked at R.H. Macy’s and was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, the book is as much about one woman’s rise to the top of a male-dominated industry as it is about the changing fortunes of Manhattan, from the Prohibition era in the 1920s to sky-high homicide rates in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I didn’t much warm to Lillian, whose tone of voice is forthright and arrogant (what you might call brimming with chutzpah), but her story is such a fascinating one it hardly seemed to matter. Plus, her tale is laced with plenty of self-deprecating humour and great one liners so it’s a fun read — and the advertising poems dotted throughout give a light-hearted tone to the narrative.

Mind you, there are some heart-rending moments, too, which knocks the self-confidence out of Lillian and lets the reader see her in a new, more human, light.

A quotable story

I had a grand old time highlighting passages that appealed to me: the book is dotted with “wisdoms” and viewpoints that chime with my own. I’m a great believer in walking to clear my head, boost my creativity and find solutions to problems. It seems Lillian is too:

Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problem I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

And Lillian’s preference for living in the city, as opposed to the suburbs, but liking the ability to go on little escapes could have come out of my mouth:

I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not to just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun. And were I catching the subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray. But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.

Lillian’s at her most poignant when she reflects on how time moves on and things change.

The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; it has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.

And:

‘The city is a city,’ I say. ‘But it is also a house. This city is my house. I live in this city, and this part is being remodelled. The ceiling of the highway has been pulled down, and the floor’s been extended, and the water’s farther away. But this is my house. It is still my house.’

I also loved her love of literature — she becomes a published poet alongside her advertising career — but she’s also acutely aware of how quickly fame and success can disappear:

In certain instances, walking alone in Manhattan is actually safer at night. Passing by the Strand, for example, at Twelfth and Broadway. I usually walk past that bookstore with intense ambivalence: delight because I have been frequenting it since the 1930s, when it was over on Fourth Avenue, just one among nearly fifty similar shops; dread because on more than one occasion in the past two decades I have found my own poetry collections derelict on the sidewalk carts, on sale for mere cents, and with no one watching over them because if they get stolen, well, who cares? At night, at least, the carts have been rolled away and there’s no chance I’ll be confronted with evidence of my grim literary fate.

But probably my favourite quote is this:

Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

Thanks to blogger Susan at A Life in Books for the recommendation.

Author, Book review, Daunt Books, Fiction, Leonard Michaels, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Sylvia’ by Leonard Michaels

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 144 pages; 2015.

If literature “ought to be depressing” — as this NYRB Tweet shared by my friend Armen suggests — then Leonard Michael’s 1992 novella, Sylvia, has truly fulfilled its function.

A portrait of a dysfunctional marriage in 1960s Manhattan, this story is about as depressing as they get.

Said to be semi-autobiographical and based on the author’s own bad marriage, it’s a beautifully crafted novel, written in short, to-the-point sentences, but it’s also a terribly sad one.

A fateful relationship

When the book opens we meet the young 20-something nameless narrator. He’s just returned to New York after two years of graduate school in Berkeley “without a PhD or any idea of what I’d do, only a desire to write stories”. He’s now living at home with his Jewish parents in Lower East Side Manhattan, where his mother pampers him and his father thinks he’s a disappointment.

One day he visits his friend Naomi, who lives in Greenwich Village. She’s sharing a rather squalid apartment with a dark-haired Asian woman called Sylvia and it is from this one meeting that a fateful relationship is set in motion.

After being abandoned by Naomi and her boyfriend on a walk through Washington Square Park, the narrator and Sylvia “continued together, as if dazed, drifting through dreamy heat”. They return to the apartment “like a couple doomed to sacrificial assignation” and “made love until afternoon became twilight and twilight became black night”. And that’s when Sylvia nonchalantly mentions she already has a boyfriend.

Infidelity and lustful sex aren’t Sylvia’s only tropes. Our narrator soon learns that Sylvia, who has no immediate family and is essentially all alone in the world, is also wildly unpredictable, argumentative, prone to violent outbursts, jealous rages and self-harming. And yet, for all the difficulties and drama she creates, he cannot seem to say no to her.

He encourages her to go to university, while he struggles to find any paid work. Against his own wisdom, the pair get married. They spend their spare time hanging out in bars, conducting screaming matches or having angry, compulsive sex. Neither of them appears to be happy. It all seems doomed to failure.

A toxic marriage

Written as a retrospective narrative, the book is interspersed with diary extracts of the narrator’s innermost thoughts at the time which includes quotes from Sylvia’s  diatribes to show how cruel and mad she could be. Sadly, these extracts are not laid out any differently to the rest of the text so it’s easy to mistake them as part of the main narrative until you see the tiny date stamp at the end. Using a different font would have easily solved this problem.

That aside, the most interesting thing about Sylvia is its focus on a toxic marriage from the husband’s point of view (instead of the wife’s).

In Sylvia, the narrator is a passive male character, who is constantly manipulated by his “crazy” wife. She uses emotional blackmail to harangue him and makes idle threats to end her life to gain his full attention. It’s heart-rending to read knowing the narrator is caught between the social mores of the time — his parents believe he should stand by his wife no matter what — and his inability to get Sylvia to seek the medical help she so clearly needs.

This is a fast-paced stylish read. Its undertone of latent violence makes it feel like a noirish thriller, but there’s also a raw melancholic power that gives it a mad intensity, almost as if you, the reader, is living through the self-destructive love of this doomed couple. It’s not an easy read, nor a comfortable one, but its shock ending with its nod to redemption makes it worth the effort.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mary Costello, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello

Academy Street

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate Books; 193 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street won the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards — and it’s my book of the year, too.

It’s a debut novel but has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. Unsurprisingly, the author is an accomplished short story writer — her work has been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly and her first collection, The China Factory, was published to critical acclaim in 2012.

One woman’s life

The book charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person: she’s reticent, lacks self-confidence and never really knows “what to do or how to act”.

Occasionally she thought about retiring, moving house, taking a trip back to Ireland, but she did none of these things. There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.

Throughout this short, powerful novel, we follow Tess’s ups and downs — her occasional periods of happiness, her heartbreaking disappointments, her successes, her failures — and throughout it all her forbearance and stoicism shines through.

But aside from a friendship she develops with a female neighbour, she always feels at a distance from others and is unable to create the kinds of connections she so desperately craves:

All evening long she smiled and mingled, but she felt remote. It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.

Like many lonely people she finds solace in books, and some of the most touching scenes describe her very strong feelings towards novels and literature.

Tess found a new life in books. […] The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of character — his trials, his adversity — took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. […]The things she hankered after — encounters with beauty, love, sometimes the numinous — she found in books. […] She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.

A distinctive voice

Because Academy Street condenses one woman’s life into just 193 pages, some aspects feel a little rushed or skipped over, but that’s a minor quibble.

I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

It so encapsulates the human condition — our desperate desire to fit in, to make meaningful connections with others, to feel as if we are worth something to someone — it’s easy to identify with Tess’s situation. Adrift from her own family — and her own country — her sense of isolation resonates off the page. But while it’s quite a sad story, it’s more bittersweet than depressing and is never sentimental or cloying. It’s poignant and has an undercurrent of melancholia, but is punctuated with quiet moments of joy.

Tess Lohan’s life might be quiet and understated but the impact on the reader is nothing less than devastating.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, satire, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Beautiful You’ by Chuck Palahniuk

Beautiful-You

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 242 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel is like stepping into a parallel universe: everything seems familiar but it feels more edgy, more surreal, more over-the-top. I should know: I’ve read quite a few over the years.

His latest novel, Beautiful You, is no exception. This is a bold, brash, completely filthy, X-rated tale — definitely not one for the prudish — which blends science fiction with eroticism and throws in a smattering of fairy tale and myth into the bargain. It’s a bit like Cinderella — if Cinderella discovered pornography and had a really potty mouth.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and some of you may not even want to read this review, so let me keep it relatively brief — and as G-rated as I can.

The world’s richest man

Basically, the story is about the world’s richest man who has made his fortune from sex toys — specifically a bestselling product range for women known under the brand name Beautiful You.  He’s called C Linux Maxwell, but most people refer to him as Climax Well (geddit?)

Maxwell has had a string of high-profile girlfriends, including an Oscar-winning French actress and the current female president of the United States, but all his relationships end badly after just 136 days and his “cast offs” become ill and begin behaving in wholly inappropriate ways for unexplained reasons. When he chooses a new girlfriend, a “plain Jane” type, called Penny Harrigan, she has no idea that she is going to become his next lab rat, “conned” into testing products that promise ultimate sexual fulfilment for women.

What ensues is a rather hilarious (bedroom) romp that catapults Penny into the world’s spotlight and allows her to reach untold heights of erotic pleasure. Meanwhile, thanks to Penny’s testing and feedback, the products become so successful that society basically falls apart as women lock themselves away to use the toys in a frenzy of “arousal addiction”.

But where will it all end? Will the human population die out now that men are no longer needed? Will Penny’s relationship with Maxwell last beyond his usual 136-day limit? And if not, will she succumb to the illness that has plagued his former lovers? What is the secret behind Maxwell’s success and his multi-billionaire status? Is he a philanthropist genuinely interested in helping women to discover sensual pleasure, or is he a megalomaniac with evil intentions on his mind?

X-rated and absurd

Despite the X-rated content and the absurd story at its heart, there’s a moral message here, too — that women are enslaved as consumers and society conditions them to put other people’s needs (sexual or otherwise) before their own.

However, this isn’t the kind of book you would normally read for what it might tell you about our modern-day consumer society. You read it for the laughs — and the sheer absurd escapism it offers.

Beautiful You is ultimately a fantastically funny tale told in a fantastically funny way. I laughed a lot while reading it — at the sex scenes, which are cheesy (and dirty), at the behaviour of the ridiculous over-the-top characters, at the bad science that underpins the novel’s premise and at the whole preposterous nature of the tale. At times it is genuinely shocking and a bit juvenile, but the storytelling is so compelling it’s like witnessing a car accident: you know you really shouldn’t look but you just can’t tear your eyes away…

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lemur’ by Benjamin Black

The Lemur

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 2009; 185 pages.

Ghostwriters or journalists who get themselves into trouble while researching the books that they are writing is not a new idea in fiction — think Robert Harris’ The Ghost and Alan Glynn’s Bloodland for a start. Into this “genre” comes The Lemur, a stand-alone novella by John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

But this is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Fast-paced and full of classy prose (and classy characters), it has all the hallmarks of a book that could have been written any time in the past 60 years: it feels like a good old-fashioned classic, with a nod to the likes of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, but is set in modern day Manhattan, with its glass canyons and chaotic streets ringing with the constant sound of police sirens.

The story is a slight one — a biographer hires a researcher who uncovers a dangerous secret but is murdered before the secret can be told — but in Black/Banville’s hands it feels like a much grander narrative.

A man with a secret

Essentially, The Lemur goes something like this: John Glass, a renowned Irish journalist, has married into a rich American family headed by billionaire William “Big Bill” Mulholland, a former CIA operative who has made his money in spyware electronics. When Mulholland discovers that another journalist, Wilson Cleaver, is planning a hostile biography of him, he hires his son-in-law, Glass, to pen the official version for the grand sum of $1million.

But Glass, feeling slightly out of his depth, decides to hire a researcher to help him on the project. And this is where he meets the “Lemur” of the title — a young researcher by the name of Dylan Riley, who already seems to know a lot about Mulholland. Glass is immediately suspicious of him, not the least because “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, he bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents”.

Things take a turn for a worse when a day after their first meeting Riley tries to blackmail Glass for $500,000:

“No, you look,” the Lemur said, in a new, harsh and suddenly unadolescent-sounding voice. “You used to be the real thing, Glass. A lot of us believed in you, followed your example. Now look at you.” He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, sell out to your father-in-law the spook if you like. Tell the world what a sterling guy he is, the unacknowledged Cold War conscience of the West, the man who urged negotiations with Castro and a safe passage for Allende to Russia — as if he’d have wanted to go, the poor schmuck. Go ahead, write his testament, and peddle your soul for a mess of dollars. But I know something that will tear you people apart, and I think you should pay me, I think you WILL pay me, to keep it all in the family.”

But the next day, the Lemur is found dead, shot through the eye with a Beretta. What is the secret he knew? And has he told anyone else? And why are the police suddenly asking Glass a lot of questions?

Edgy and filmic

The Lemur might be a relatively simply tale — there’s nary a red herring to be seen and the narrative is far too short to twist and turn in the way of a conventional thriller — but it definitely holds the attention, probably because the author makes every scene, no matter how small, feel edgy and combative: you’re never quite sure which character in a given situation is going to come off the worse for wear.

As one would expect from a Booker prize-winning author, the prose is rich and alive but Banville reigns things in beautifully: there are no literary flourishes, just good writing with a distinct filmic quality to it.

Likewise, the characters are exemplarily drawn — the bullish but aloof father-in-law; the impeccably dressed and successful wife; the intriguing and artistic mistress; the arrogant “young pretender” step son; the once-famed journalist wrestling with his conscience and afraid to lose all — while the razor-sharp dialogue moves things along at a clipping pace.

The ending, while plucked from the usual “family secret” book of cliches, is satisfying in its own little way. But this is not the kind of book you read for the denouement; it’s the pleasurable journey you experience along the way that makes The Lemur such a beguiling read.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Manning, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘My Notorious Life by Madame X’ by Kate Manning

My-Notorious-Life-by-Madame-X

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 448 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s funny how movies often come in pairs — think Braveheart and Rob Roy, about Scottish historical heroes; Capote and Infamous, both biopics about Truman Capote; Flight 93 and United 93, about the same plane hijacked on 9/11.

The same happens with books, too. Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work and Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life by Madame X both deal with abortion, albeit 150 years apart, and were published on the same day earlier this month. But despite the similarity in subject matter, they are very different novels in terms of plotting, prose style, tone and narrative voice.

I read both back-to-back and found they complemented each other rather nicely, but it was Kate Manning’s novel that made more of an impression on me.

Grand, sweeping drama

My Notorious Life by Madame X  is a grand sweeping drama set in Manhattan. Written in the first person,it charts the extraordinary life of Axie (Annie) Muldoon, who is born to impoverished Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, forced to beg for pennies on the street, who rises to become one of the richest — and most scandalous — women in Manhattan.

Together with her younger sister, Dutch, and her baby brother, Joe, she is sent to Illinois as part of an orphan rehoming programme and the promise of a better life. But the family is split up when Dutch and Joe are sent to different homes. No-one, however, wants the difficult and headstrong Axie, so she returns to Manhattan heartbroken but determined to find her siblings and reunite the family whatever it takes.

Sadly, more heart ache follows when her mother dies in childbirth, a tragedy that is to have a long-lasting impact on Axie’s life — for not only is she is taken in by the kindly doctor, who treats her mother, she eventually becomes apprenticed to his wife, Mrs Evans, who is a midwife, and learns the ins and outs of the “trade”.

Over time, Axie rises to become the infamous Madame X — a midwife, female physician and distributor of “obscene” material — who the authorities want to shut down and put in jail. But with the help of her clever and supportive husband, she continues to provide a much-needed service for the women of New York, even if she has to go underground to do it.

An engaging voice

One of the things I particularly loved about this book is Axie’s voice — bawdy, colourful, forthright and fiesty — which is written in the vernacular of an uneducated woman who drops her Gs and gets her grammar all in a muddle. (On more than one occasion her voice reminded me of Bessy Buckley in Jane Harris’s The Observations and Mary in Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, two of my favourite characters from recent fiction.)

But it’s the story that is contained within — which is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), who practised midwifery and carried out abortions in Manhattan for about 40 years — that makes this novel such a fascinating, occasionally jaw-dropping and often anger-inducing read. Indeed, for much of this novel I could feel myself becoming outraged by the way in which men controlled every facet of a woman’s life and did not allow her to make decisions about her own body. Instead of looking at their own behaviour — getting women, usually their mistresses, pregnant — they chose to condemn not only those women but Madame X who wanted only to help those of her sex who had got into difficulty.

While this novel doesn’t champion abortion, it doesn’t condemn it either — what it does is show how this procedure helped hundreds of naive, often uneducated and sexually inexperienced women, from a life of destitution on the streets. And it also shows how rich and powerful men did what they could to stamp it out by making it a punishable offense that carried a jail term of up to three years. The reader is left to make up their own mind as to how they feel about this, although I came away feeling nothing but heartache for those women forced to make such a decision.

But for a book dealing with such heavy and controversial themes, I have to say that My Notorious Life by Madame X is a rollicking good read and perhaps my favourite of the year so far. It’s not only sensitively written and hugely intelligent, it’s peopled with engaging characters, has a wonderful plot and a distinctive voice that is difficult to shake off. If only all contemporary fiction was so daring — and memorable.

Author, Book review, Fiction, John O'Hara, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘BUtterfield 8’ by John O’Hara

Butterfield8-jpg

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 240 pages; 2008.

John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 is an evocative portrait of New York in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Into this altered world, where the newly rich have lost fortunes and others are knuckling down to protect their assets, comes good-time girl Gloria Wandrous.

The book opens in sensational style with Gloria waking up alone in a stranger’s apartment. Her evening dress, ripped down the middle, has been cast aside. Wanting to escape, but with nothing to wear, she steals an expensive mink coat from the wardrobe. The theft of the coat becomes a catalyst for a series of events that lead, eventually, to tragedy.

Young and carefree, Gloria flouts all the rules in which women are expected to marry a nice man, settle down and start a family. Instead, she befriends men in illegal bars and usually ends up sleeping with them, with no plan to ever see them again. But then she meets Weston Liggett, a man 20 years her senior, and her life takes a different, more dramatic turn…

BUtterfield 8, which is set in 1930, was written in 1935, giving it a truly authentic period feel. There are constant references to famous people of the time — politicians, musicians, criminals — and contemporary events. The city is dotted with hundreds of speakeasies, and Gloria frequents many of them, because she likes a bit of a tipple (“She became one of the world’s heaviest drinkers between 1927 and 1930, when the world saw some pretty heavy drinking”).

While Gloria is quite a feisty character, worldly-wise beyond her years, it’s hard not to see her increasingly outrageous behaviour — “where she awed the bartenders by the amount she drank”, went on 48-hour benders and slept with a succession of married men — as a cry for help. At times I was very much reminded of Jean Rhys’ work in which females are regarded as nothing more than the playthings of men.

But where Rhys’ characters are often stuck in desperate circumstances with no route out, O’Hara provides Gloria with a strong support network — a lovely platonic friendship with Ed, a small circle of female friends, a non-judgemental mother and an Uncle happy to provide her with a roof over her head and a generous allowance. And yet Gloria, for whatever reason, is set to carve her own way in life, with catastrophic consequences. She is sympathetically and realistically drawn, and one of the best females, written by a man, that I’ve ever come across. Her terrible treatment of a black maid (towards the end of the novel), only serves to highlight her lowly position in the pecking order.

Despite its occasionally disjointed narrative and its huge cast of characters, BUtterfield 8 is a wonderful read. It not only brings 1930s New York to life, it chronicles the ways in which the conservative facade of society was simply a front for order and morality, while so much more was going on behind the scenes…

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Richard Yates, Setting, Vintage

‘The Easter Parade’ by Richard Yates

Easter-Parade

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 240 pages; 2008.

If ever a first line was to set the tone for the rest of the book, it is this one: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.”

The sisters are Sarah and Emily, separated by four years — and a whole host of differing personality traits. Sarah, the eldest, is confident and pretty; Emily is intellectual. Both choose to lead very different lives — Sarah marries young and starts a family, Emily pursues a career — but neither of them find happiness.

There’s not much more to the story than that, but in Richard Yates’ carefully understated writing style there is a real emotional depth that resonates long after you’ve reached the final page. The more distance I put between the book and writing this review, the more I’ve come to appreciate the tragic beauty of these sisters’ wasted lives.

First published in 1976, The Easter Parade was Richard Yates’ fifth novel. It is set in New York and covers a 40-year period from the 1930s to the 1970s. It provides a fascinating glimpse of two opposing views of womanhood — that of wife and mother, and that of single women who pursue fulfillment through work — ideas that seem unusual for a male author to write about with such aplomb and insight. Indeed, male characters are few and far between in this novel, and when they do appear they are relatively weak and spineless.

For instance, the girls’ father, a newspaper man who writes headlines in the New York Sun, a job of which his daughters are incredibly proud, seems to fall apart after the divorce, turning to drink and telling his daughters he is “only a copy desk man” and not especially talented. Sarah’s husband, Tony, initially handsome and charming, turns out to be uncouth and abusive. And pretty much every man that Emily ends up with — and there are a lot of them — lacks any kind of self-esteem. But neither sister ever comes to the realisation that they deserve better.

That lack of self-awareness may be due to the girls’ mother, the slightly eccentric and over-the-top Pookie, who seems to emasculate anyone, male or female, who comes within 15 feet of her orbit. In fact, Emily finds her so demanding that entire years go by in which Emily avoids her mother completely. Even when Pookie is in an old folks home, Emily feels no guilt in not making the effort to visit her.

The Easter Parade is a sad tale, but it’s incredibly easy to read, and the pace is ferocious because Yates doesn’t bother with unnecessary detail — he’ll often miss out entire years by using phrases such as “two years later” or “for a few years” — but it doesn’t come at the expense of characterisation or plot. I found this book the perfect antidote to “reader’s block” and ate it up in a weekend.

My only quibble, and it’s a very small one, is that The Easter Parade is largely told through the eyes of Emily, so you never really get to understand Sarah’s motivations and why she makes the choices she makes. The best you can do is to simply guess.

Finally, many thanks to regular reader Jeniwren, from Oz, who sent me this book a couple of years ago; it only made its way to the top of my TBR a couple of weeks ago! I’ve now gone out and bought some of his other novels. I expect a Richard Yates’ binge coming on very soon.