Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Summer reading

It was a good vacation for reading:  I polished off five books over two weeks, bringing my 2015 total to 18. :)  Here are some capsule reviews, with ALI relevant-themes noted. 

(FYI, I accidentally posted a draft of this post earlier tonight;  my apologies to anyone who got a notification in their reader & then wondered what happened.)  

 "Watch Me" picks up where actress Angelica Huston's first memoir about her growing up years,"A Story Lately Told" (which I reviewed here), left off, in the early 1970s.  Like the earlier book, it's a fun read, chock full of famous names and interesting stories about Huston's life and career in Hollywood.  As an actress, she's probably most famous for her Oscar-winning role as Maerose Prizzi in "Prizzi's Honor" in 1985 -- but I had quite a few moments where she mentioned working on some movie or TV show or another where I thought, "Oh yeah, she was in that too!" (Would you believe "Laverne & Shirley"??!) 

After fleeing from an abusive relationship with a New York fashion photographer, Huston went to live in Los Angeles with her father, director John Huston, and his wife Cici, and decided to start acting again. Not long after her arrival (as the book begins, in 1973), she attended a party with her stepmother where she met Jack Nicholson. They had an on again, off again relationship over the next 17 years.

While I loved Huston's stories about the people and projects she's worked with over the years (she's a good storyteller), for me personally, the most interesting parts of the book were her frank discussions about her (ambivalent, ultimately unsuccessful) attempts over many years to have a baby and her thoughts about motherhood & childlessness (although I don't entirely agree with some of them). Despite her growing awareness of Nicholson's philanderings, "I wanted to be with him and have his children. I thought that having a child might create an intimacy between us, and eventually I began taking hormones for in vitro therapy, although I was unsure that having a baby would dispel the issues of Jack's chronic unfaithfulness or my own past indiscretions," she writes in Chapter 17.

Huston never did become pregnant, and finally ended the relationship in 1990, when Nicholson confessed to her that he had fathered a child with another woman:
The fact that Rebecca Broussard had become pregnant where I had failed made me feel inadequate and bitter. The path to discovering what was wrong with me, and why my reproductive organs were not functioning, was a long and arduous one. The fertility doctors had discovered that I had endometriosis, and had probably had it since my teens. I had undergone a laparoscopy, followed by a hysteroscopy, but a child was not to be. As hard as I might try to visualize it, I found the idea of having a baby frightening, and could never truly imagine such a thing as pregnancy happening to me. I think much of what a woman is has to do with procreation. And to find oneself infertile somehow renders one useless as a woman, in the grimmest set of the mind's eye, so I was very conflicted.  
I was never completely sure until my late thirties that a baby was what I really wanted, or if it was more about pleasing my mate. I still felt like a child myself, maybe because I'd lost my mother so early. Selfishly, I didn't want to grow up to be someone else's mother. Jack had been enthusiastic about trying in vitro, but we agreed that having intercourse by the numbers was a turnoff...  
Although in many ways it was not logical, the sense of betrayal was overwhelming;  I felt abandoned and dejected and humiliated. I was not yet forty, but in magazine articles, I was described as the older woman. We were now living separate lives, but I had always thought of Jack as family.
This specific part of Huston's story reminded me of Patti Boyd (whose memoir I reviewed here), who tried for years (unsuccessfully) to have a baby with both her famous musician husbands, George Harrison and Eric Clapton. She too left Clapton after he fathered a child with another woman. Despite their ups & downs, Huston has stayed friends with Nicholson and thanks him in the book's credits for allowing her to write about their relationship. 

In the early 1990s, Huston met and married the sculptor Robert (Bob) Graham (who died in 2008). They, too, tried to have a child together.  "I was now in my mid-40s, and this was my last chance to consider motherhood... Maybe a child could be part of our new adventure together," she wrote.  She underwent another laparoscopy, hysteroscopy and several rounds of IVF.
It was something of an ordeal. I felt like a human pincushion, giving myself shots of progesterone and Premarin several times a day, as well as going to the Alhambra for fertility acupuncture with a Dr. Peng. I remember praying that the outcome would be positive. Bob and I made the attempt to implant several times, but it had not worked. I felt like an animal experiment;  the whole process was a trial and felt unnatural.  
The last time I underwent in vitro, at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, it was with several of my own fertilized eggs. The doctors recommended that I lie on my back for a week following the procedure. Everything felt good until day five, when I felt a change and knew instinctively that the effort had failed. I believed that it was not meant to be, and decided that I was not going to try again.
Although Huston never became a mother, she is close to several of her siblings (particularly her much-younger half-sister, Allegra, who was only 4 when their mother died), and she is obviously proud of her nieces and nephews, whose faces fill the photo section. Near the end of the book, now in her 60s, Huston reflects:
I never thought I would get this far and have so many years behind me: life's kaleidoscope of colours, its sounds, emotions and special effects, its memories receding like rainbows. I have no children of my own, but it is daunting to realize that by now I might be not only a great aunt but a grandmother. I think of how children tie us to the earth, how hard it must be to parent them and then let them go.
*** *** ***

Celia's House is another charming novel by D.E. Stevenson, whose novels I read as a teenager and rediscovered around this time last year.  As I wrote then, "[Stevenson's books] are perhaps a little old-fashioned, very much products of the time & place they were written -- but still, well-crafted and realistic stories -- funny, charming romances, comedies of manners and family dramas featuring engaging characters."

"Celia's House" is very much in this vein -- old fashioned, eyerolling in some respects, but overall, warm, cozy, gentle -- the kind of book that's easy to read, but hard to find these days.  (Some Goodreads reviewers have noted its resemblance, plotwise, to Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park.") 

I don't remember reading "Celia's House" in the past, but it was recently reissued in paperback & ebook versions. Written in 1943 during the Second World War, it's the story of Dunnian, the Dunne family estate in the Scottish border country, and several generations of its occupants. It's my DES online group's pick for reading & discussion this month. :)

The story opens in 1905 with 90-year-old spinster Celia Dunne meeting with her nephew, Humphrey. She reveals to an astonished Humphrey that he, and not her other/older nephew and presumed heir, Maurice, will inherit Dunnian upon her death. The catch is that Humphrey, in turn, must leave Dunnian to his daughter Celia. The fact that Humphrey does not have a daughter named Celia (yet??) does not deter his aunt;  she assures him he will. The story follows Humphrey, his family and Dunnian through the years leading into WWII. 

As a childless infertile person, this book raised a few of my hackles. The childless couple, Maurice & Nina, are clearly set up as villains here. It's not JUST their lack of potential heirs that make them unsuitable, of course -- they are greedy snobs who clearly can't wait for Aunt Celia to kick off so they can get their hands on that big estate and "modernize" it. (But why is it always the childless couple who are the villains??) Likewise, Celia's confidence that Humphrey WILL have another daughter is jarring to anyone who has been through infertility. And (SPOILER ALERT!!), while there is an infertility subplot near the end of the book, it's resolved in the predictable, obligatory fashion (remember, this WAS 1943!). 

And yet -- Aunt Celia, while childless and elderly, is a strong character, beloved by her servants & neighbours, and determined to do what she believes is right for Dunnian and its future, tradition be damned. I loved her for that. Her grandniece and namesake shows similar strength of character, determined to wait for the right man and not "settle," even as she enters her 30s.

There are a couple of corny touches -- the lady that young Mark sees on the staircase, the visitor at the book's end. But, if you're willing to suspend disbelief, cast your mindset back to Britain in the first half of the 20th century and accept the book on its own terms, I think you might enjoy it.   

*** *** ***

I wasn't sure whether reading "They Left Us Everything" while vacationing at my aging parents' overstuffed house (as they contemplate downsizing) was a great idea, lol. Granted, my parents are both still here and well (in their mid-70s), and hopefully they'll be around for awhile yet.  Their small-town split-level is nowhere near as big as author Plum Johnson's parents' 23-room house (!) on the shores of Lake Ontario near Toronto -- and they've only lived there 30 years versus more than 50.

But my parents have also inherited stuff from THEIR parents -- and still have stuff in their basement that was mine and my sister's (!). And if/when they move (as they no doubt will, sooner than later), there's going to be an awful lot of purging and decluttering to be done (although we did make a bit of a start, a few years back...!).  

Anyway, despite subject matter that hit a little too close to home for comfort, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend this book. You might think, given the subject matter, that this would be a depressing read. While there is sadness, frustration and anger in its pages, there is also warmth, fun, humour and love. Johnson thought it would take her about six weeks to clear the house and get it ready for sale;  it wound up taking 16 all-consuming months. She mothballed her house in Toronto and moved back into her childhood home, sorting, purging, cataloguing, documenting and reflecting. Despite the gargantuan task, Johnson says she now encourages parents to leave everything behind for their kids to sort out, because of what she learned about her parents, her family and herself along the way.

"I know why I needed to spend so much time in this house," [Johnson tells a friend near the book's end].  "It wasn't about untangling the stuff -- it was about untangling myself from Mum. The clutter wasn't hers... it was mine." 

I cried as I read about Johnson's final "sibling supper" in the house with her brothers, and their "Hong Kong Farewell" walk around the grounds. But it was a good cry. :)

*** *** ***

As you've probably guessed, I have a weakness for Hollywood/show biz bios & memoirs. "There Goes Gravity:  A Life in Rock and Roll" by Lisa Robinson, one of the first and best-known women writing about rock & roll, was irresistible, but I managed to wait for the paperback (& I'm actually glad I didn't spend the extra money on the hardcover). It's a light, gossipy insider's look at the last 40+ years of rock & roll and some of its main figures.

I can't say I came away with any earth-shattering insights or bombshell revelations, which was slightly disappointing (as some Goodreads reviewers complain, this book could and should have been so much more...) -- but there are some fun stories here. The chapters are loosely organized around Robinson's encounters with specific bands or genres of music, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie & Lou Reed (she introduced them), John Lennon, Michael Jackson, the Clash, U2, Eminem and Lady Gaga (who cooked her a pasta dinner in her parents' New York City apartment).

(Re: the Stones, Robinson adored the band's keyboard player, the late Ian Stewart. He was part of George Thorogood's band when I saw him in the early 1980s;  I remember a huge cheer going up when George introduced him. I don't think I'd even heard of the guy before that, but I certainly have since then.)

As a one-time journalist myself, I enjoyed hearing about how Robinson approaches an interview, particularly that she still uses cassette tapes vs digital recorders (I did too, as long as I was working) and always brings at least three recorders to each interview as a precaution, in case one fails. Her references to the scads & scads of boxes of tapes, notes and photos in her collection had me drooling.

*** *** ***


Having read Mel's mini-review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins earlier this summer, I already knew that there were some significant ALI plot points at work in this book. Alcoholism, job loss, marital infidelity and maternal ambivalence also figure heavily. In other words, it's not really an "up" sort of read, and none of the characters are particularly likeable, nevermind reliable narrators.

I didn't like that the book pits a pathetic childless, infertile woman and a smug uber-mommy against each other. A bit too close to home, perhaps?  However, I could totally relate to the book's gimmick: the main narrator, Rachel (there are actually three, which you might not realize from the title alone), travels to & from London every day on a commuter train, observing the scenes outside her window and making up stories about the people she sees.  One day, she sees something shocking, and goes to the police about it, setting off a chain of events that nobody could have foreseen. I kind of guessed whodunit before the end, but there were still some twists (literal and figurative) at the very end that I hadn't seen coming. Overall, a good read, especially if you like thrillers. If you're depressed about your infertility, though, you might want to wait until you're in a slightly better frame of mind.

Having taken a commuter train to & from work for 25 years, I can tell you that the parts of the book that take place on the train were SPOT ON. Dh & I saw the same people on our daily commute, day after day, and had private nicknames for some of them (as I am sure some of them had for us). The only thing approaching criminal that I ever witnessed was an occasional cluster of pre-teen boys standing  along the tracks after school, throwing rocks. Once, they shattered the window near my seat. It's tempered glass, so no flying shards, thank goodness, but the noise alone is enough to scare the crap out of you, especially since you're usually half asleep or deeply absorbed in your paper. (Little brats...!!)

I've been on trains that were delayed because of criminal investigations, though -- once, a fire in a junkyard along the tracks;  other times, "trespassers" (often suicides). Probably the most startling thing I ever spotted from the train: a completely naked guy, coming up the hill towards the tracks from an area known to locals as an unofficial nude beach. ;)  However, they've since built walking trails along the lakeshore in that area & I seldom see nude sunbathers there anymore.

As I said above, this brings my YTD 2015 reading total to 18 books. :)

What have you been reading this summer?

1 comment:

  1. I definitely have Girl on a Train on my to-read list, and would probably enjoy Celia's House too (infertility subplot predictable endings notwithstanding). I'm not a big biography reader, though I'm sure I'd enjoy them. I just have so many books on my list to read, I fear if I started biographies, I'd never get back to fiction!

    PS. I'm always impressed by, and thankful for, your excellent reviews.