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Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5:03 pm edt
Mister Monkey: A Novel by Francine Prose has been on my Must Read and Review list ever since it was first published in
hardback last year. For whatever reasons, however, I neglected to request an ARC from the publisher. Imagine my surprise,
then, when a paperback copy [just released today] arrived unexpectantly, at my door.**
While I have difficulty
writing them myself, my ideal novel is well-constructed with tight plot lines (no loose ends left untied) and complex characters.
Prose’s 18th work of fiction [she has also written four novels for young adults as well as seven tomes of
non-fiction] has all these elements expressed in eleven neatly packaged chapters. Each one a narrative focusing on a character’s
point of view…
Let me explain.
The off-off-off-off Broadway third rate, shopworn production
of Mister Monkey, the Musical is based upon the ageless beloved children’s novel, Mister Monkey.
It is not what any of its actors nor the director wanted or even hoped for it to be.
Margot, a talented Yale
Drama School graduate who longs for better parts and cannot believe she has stooped so low, finds herself portraying a lawyer
in an orange wig and all too tight sequined short dress that barely covers… well... It’s just not right for her
nor the part. She feels both her life on the stage and her chance of true love and romance have waned for the worst. She has,
she fears, seen better days in the spotlight of both venues. The teenager gymnast in the brown chenille bedspread monkey costume,
her clueless but nonetheless good looking leading man, her role’s nemesis played by a moonlighting emergency room nurse,
and the bumbling director who envisions greatness all share Margot’s angst. Each grapples with his/her own version of
what she considers a nightmare from which she dreads she will never wake up.
During one particular performance,
a young boy in the audience yells out to his grandfather, “Are you enjoying this?!” The musical momentarily halts,
lines and props are dropped. The entire cast and crew are skewed off-course into the swirling maelstrom of love, art, ambition,
youth and aging. All are spun into the author’s whirlwind skillful probing of the stressful complications of modern
urban(e) life. Time stretches and undulates; passions ebb and flow; loves are found, lost, then found again.
What I particularly enjoyed about Mister Monkey is that it is a tri-weave plot line: a story within a story within a story. Kinda like separate DNA strands
laced together to form a whole person. Only, in this case, a whole novel that comes alive with insightful vivacity and voracity.
Talk about having the perfect conceit and wielding the nearly perfect writing talent to execute it! Prose not only wrote the
original internal novel’s plot line, the musical loosely based upon it [the original author is horrified by what happened
to his book in its transformation from the literary to theatrical world]… but also wrote the stories of the impacts
on characters – both frail and resilient – in and intertwined on all three levels.
be. In her deftly experienced hand, Prose brings it all together in a most thought-provoking as well enjoyable read; both
a delight and an eye-opening insight into societal norms and expectations – or lack thereof. Mister Monkey,
an autumn must-read, is a serious literary commentary on life couched in, um, as the trite metaphor goes, a barrel
Francine Prose, in a nutshell… or, rather, if you will a banana peel, is, in fact, the master
of, um, prose. In every sense of the words.
Enjoy the read!
**You just gotta love
the publicist at Harper Collins who can read my mind and caters to my literary needs. Thank you, Lily Lopate! And, you also
just gotta love the young, good-looking UPS driver who knocks on my door each delivery, chuckling, “Another book for
you!” Every other week, it seems, is Happy Holidays gift time.
Friday, September 22, 2017
2:33 pm edt
The Cold War was at its peak
when the USSR launched Sputnik I into orbit, propelling the USSR into the leading role of technology and further
plummeting the USA into the downside of the tenuous, escalating arms race. Six months later, in April of 1958, with both sides
still seeking – but failing – to reach a semblance of compromise, a tall, lanky twenty-three-year old heretofore
unknown Texan with a shock of reddish-blond curls transformed the impending hostilities by winning the First International
Tchaikovsky Competition held in Moscow.
With his vibrantly brilliant, soul-searching piano playing, and love
of “all things Russian”, Van Cliburn charmed not only the Soviet citizens, but their bombastic leader, Nikita
Khrushchev, as well. The Soviet Premier instantly became one of, if not Cliburn’s biggest fan. Who, because of Cliburn,
began to soften his pompous, self-righteous stance. According to Nigel Cliff in Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story--How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, Cliburn’s triumph, coupled with his warm embrace of Russian music and culture, kindled a spark of hope that,
perhaps, the two factious, most powered nations of the world had finally found a pathway to peaceful coexistence.
Moscow Nights unexpectantly arrived on my doorstop three weeks ago with a request from Harper Collins for a review. Thinking it was
a novel, I began reading the book that night and was surprised that it, starting with a ticker tape parade followed by two
short stories about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, was not. It appeared to be a treatise about Van Cliburn’s
llife and his rise to prominence and international fame. Yet, as I continued to read Cliff’s fourth work of literary
non-fiction, I discovered, however scholarly, that Moscow Nights reads like a well-written novel. Slowing my pace
down to “history mode”, I settled in to absorb fascinating aspects and nuances of 1950s/1960s world events.
This author, whose writing style and composition is just as vibrant and as brilliant as Cliburn’s piano playing,
covers just about everything; leaving nothing unturned. Music history and theory; Van Cliburn’s life, including training
at age four learning to play the piano while sitting on his mother’s lap [a piano teacher classically trained by Russian
pianist and composer Arthur Friedheim]; causes and effects of the Cold War; cultural similarities and differences between
the USA and the USSR; FBI, CIA, and KGB intrigues [there were several surrounding the competition and Cliburn]; insights into
Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy as well as Khrushchev [including his insidiously strategic rise to power
via deceit and betrayal]. Not to mention his famous show-pounding appearance in the United Nationals General Assembly. Shall
I go on?
Most intriguing is the author’s in-depth look into Van Cliburn’s personal as well as his
public lives – how they intertwined, opposed, and yet complemented each other. His inner turmoil and outwardly sunny,
optimistic, gregarious disposition. It was almost as if the talented pianist came back to life and was sitting right next
to me, unravelling his story. Through Cliff’s eyes and words he, in fact, was… The attention to painstakingly
researched detail of all aspects of Cliburn’s life – even down to the flapping loose sole of his left shoe as
he came up on stage for one of his myriad concerts – was, for lack of a better word, phenomenal. Rarely featured in
works of non-fiction and seldom so artistically interfaced in historical novels, Cliff captures the very heart and essence
of both literary worlds.
In this tumultuous, age – the parallels between 1958 and 2017 are astoundingly
scary – Moscow Nights is a most timely, maturely sober reminder of how threatening – and frightening – the facetious follies
of foolish leaders can be. And how they can – and must – be assuaged and appeased not by the escalation of school-yard
taunts backed by nuclear armaments, but by the coming together and sharing of common cultural interests and mutual concern
and humane understanding.
Nigel Cliff’s brilliantly written Moscow Nights is definitely the best
non-fiction book of this century. And a must for those of us who do not wish to ever again see the darkest side of history
Enjoy the read!
Monday, September 11, 2017
2:24 pm edt
with Kaleidoscope Eyes
Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag, the taller dashing half of the protagonist
team of Hoagy and Lulu, claims at one point in The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes “Never argue with a stubborn basset hound. You will always lose.” Now, being owned by a doggedly determined
basset hound myself, I know this statement to be true. I have the bruised left knee and deflated ego to prove it. But that
is another story to be told at another time.
What is the story here is David Handler’s exquisitely fluid
writing style, the subtle sense of humor he imbues in his two main characters, and the seemingly simplistic plot lines that
twist and turn into spirals of complex shockers. Handler, in my humble estimation, is our modern-day Dashiell Hammett and,
like Hammett, should not be overlooked as a very talented writer of semi-contemporary mystery. And that should come as no
surprise, considering he has written 24 novels prior to tackling The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes, the ninth in his Stewart Hoag mystery series.
Handler, as explained in the publicity notes
that accompanied the complimentary copy sent by the William Morrow publicist, had taken a hiatus from the series that features
a celebrity ghost writer and his somewhat faithful companion, Lulu, a basset who has unusual dietary habits. Begun in 1992,
Hoagy and Lulu enjoyed a merry romp through the more literary side of the mystery genre until their suspension in 1997. Fast
forward 20 years to Handler’s agent meeting with the publisher who, by chance, mentioned how much he enjoyed reading
about the two semi-super sleuths and would the author consider writing another? The result, of course, was The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes and, as it turns out, a whole new following, including myself.
Set in 1992, the world of Hoagy and
Lulu is on the cusp of the internet age; cell-phones are bigger than bread boxes, and William Clinton has set his sights for
the White House. Reluctantly, Steward Stafford Hoag [I love that his initials are “SSH”.] takes on helping an
international media mogul write a memoir about her long-lost father, Richard Aintree, a once-famous novelist and former husband
of an equally popular poet, now deceased. It should be an open-and-shut arrangement, except that Hoagy was once in love with
the younger sister and, after a subsequent failed marriage with a movie star, is loathed, for whatever reasons, to revisit
his former life.
It seems that everywhere Hoagy and Luly go – they are never apart – they are beset
by shady characters; unethical businessmen; beautiful, but deceiving women; and, of all things, murder. Not one, but two.
Possible three. Hence what could have easily been a ho-hum-drim novel about Hollywood literati becomes a more than plausible,
fast-paced, crisp dialogue-spitting, pop-pop-popping plot lines, that keep the wide-eyed reader guessing whodunit until the
very last page.
Hoagy has been called a “slapstick” sleuth. I am not sure what that means. Hoagy
takes no pratfalls nor fake cream pies in the face. Although, at times, he does find himself with the figurative egg all over
it. What the ghost writer who just happens to solve crimes is, however, a loveable, true-to-life “regular kind of guy”
whose quirky basset is just as loveable and just as charming. Yes, that’s the operative word here.
Stewart Hoagy and Lulu put on the charm from the very first paragraph. Lulu, even with her bad breath
and slobbery drools, is humorously charming as she rides sidecar down the streets of suburban Los Angeles next to her beloved
companion. Together, they charm truth out of the most dishonest and, in the end, charmingly and most appealingly reveal a
long-kept secret that has mysteriously rocked the literary world for years. What’s here not to like and love? The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes is charmed – and charming – writing at its best.
Enjoy the read!
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
2:16 pm edt
In my midnight confessions,
When I tell the world that I love you…
After reading three of her Kopp Sisters series,
I am warmly convinced that Amy Stewart has a delightfully playful sense of humor. Even though she approaches her subject-matter
with a high degree of gravitas. Whether she intentionally decided to pun on The Grass Roots popular song lyrics for the title
of her ninth book and third novel, is irrelevant. It still brought a smile to my face, singing the chorus as I spent the most
enjoyable early summer days reading Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions (A Kopp Sisters Novel).
Fighting crime and corruption was not an easy feat back in 1916, especially with a war going on
overseas that would soon affect America. But in the capable hands of the well-seasoned Stewart, it comes relatively easy to
Constance A. Kopp, the first lady Deputy Sheriff in New Jersey [Bergen Country, to be exact]. But, then again, she has had
two previous adventures – two novels chock full of experience under her belt. Why shouldn’t it be second nature?
Why not, indeed…
We first met Constance and her two quirky sisters in Girl Waits with Gun, a
dynamic portrayal of a real-life character who stuns the law-enforcement world with her innate skills and forceful determination.
In Lady Copy Makes Trouble [publish exactly one year ago to the date. Please see my blog post.], she comes up against
hardened female prisoners and learns to care for them. In this third enjoyable, yet elucidating exposé, our intrepid
Constance delves into the backstories of women incarcerated in jail – stories often shared in the dead of night. Set
against the backdrop of World War I, Deputy Sheriff Kopp fights her own battles against the injustices of the Mann Act which
allows young girls to be charged and locked up on alleged “morality charges”. Even if unscrupulous men coerce
Just released today, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions focuses on two cases. That
of a young girl who runs away from home seeking work and is arrested on her mother’s false complaint that she was “wayward”.
The second concerns a teenager who runs off with a man she meets on a Hudson River steamboat. Constance Kopp pulls out all
stops to prevent both young women from being put behind bars for, perhaps, many years on trumped-up charges.
her usual flair for justice and her passionate loathing for injustice, our heroine fights a never-ending battle against misogyny,
misunderstanding, mistreatment, and the malignancy of malfeasance by a local prosecutor. How she does this by overcoming most
odds is the quick-paced, intriguing nuts and bolts of yet again a Stewart tour-de-force literary accomplishment.
For fans of Orange is the New Black, the Maisie Dobbs series of mysteries, as well the Hoagey and
Lulu series, this novel is sure to be on the top of their crime/mystery genre list. It is on mine. Will it be on yours?
Enjoy the read!
Monday, August 28, 2017
5:02 pm edt
At the end of the “Author’s Note” of Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel – a stunning novel about the relationship between Martha Randolph Jefferson and her father, Thomas Jefferson
– Sally Cabot Gunning quotes Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of the non-fiction Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:
An American Controversy:
In the end, it will probably be left to novelists, playwrights, and poets,
the need for footnotes
to get at the ultimate meaning of this story.”
Gunning then adds her own tag line: This is why I write historical
Growing up in the umbra of her father’s
brilliant career as one of our Founding Fathers [he penned our Declaration of Independence], a one-term vice-president and
two-term President, as well as an esteemed statesman, Martha was conflicted by her intense devotion to him and his relationship
with one of his slaves after the death of her mother. Gunning in this, her fifth enlightening historical novel, casts a broad
swath of sunlight onto the polemic that has plagued Jefferson’s reputation for the last 200 or so years.
Now, for those of you who are unaware, Jefferson lost his wife during the birth of their second daughter, Maria, when Martha
was about six years of age. He subsequently turned to Sally Hemings, a young, nubile slave whose family he had inherited from
his father-in-law, John Wayles, who, ahem, just happened to be Sally’s father. The resemblance between Sally and her-half-sister,
Martha’s mother, is uncanny. As is Martha’s to Sally and to her four children, all sired by Jefferson. The intermingling,
er, copulation of “master” and “slave” was not all that uncommon back when owning other people was
legal and widely accepted. And, in the case of Martha Jefferson, the morality of which was often silently questioned.
Incorporating the facts into her fictional account, Gunning strips away the footnotes, erases the legends, and lays
bare Jefferson’s dilemma – free his slaves or keep them and treat them, as he did, as members of his own family.
Which, in fact, many of them were… What she brings to the forefront is how Martha comes to terms with her father’s
postponed promises and Sally’s presence – and that of her half-siblings – in her life. About such conflicts,
exceptional novels are written.
A historical novelist myself, I particular enjoyed how the author modeled her
real-life characters and their words after their writings, diaries, and letters to one another. Nothing is sugar-coated [as
some novelists tend to do]; history is not sullied, but augmented. And, given the socio-political events of the last three
weeks, this novel is both timely and instructive as well as an enjoyable read. Which, I’ve always said, is what a good
historical novel should do: educate and elucidate while being entertaining.
It doesn’t take much to understand
Gunning’s message: All men of our checkered past, of our history are complex individuals, exemplifying both the good
and bad sides of humanity. Just like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and, yes, Thomas Jefferson who the author neither condones
nor condemns. Gunning just simply tells it like it was. It is up to her readers to decide. And, hopefully, none of us to judge.
The copy of Monticello sent to me by the publisher [William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins] has ten Reading Group Discussion Questions
in the “About the Book” section. The last one asks: Everyone comes to Thomas Jefferson in a different way,
influenced by his or her own time in history. How has today’s political climate influenced you image
of the man?
I know what my answer is. What, after reading this well-written and interesting historical
novel about him and his daughter, will be yours?
Enjoy the read!
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of
Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World
Rainbow in the Sky
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her fifth novel.