Sunday, July 31, 2016

YOU WILL KNOW ME – Megan Abbott

          Megan Abbott doesn’t know me, and probably never will. Still, she owes me six hours of restful sleep. They were strange dreams I had last night. Not my routine searching-for-a-place-to-pee or getting-lost-in-a-building or trying-to-impress-my-father frustration scenarios. I shake those off soon as I'm awake and on my way to the bathroom. Nosiree, ma'am. These things last night were unfamiliar, deeply discomfiting, clinging dream fragments. Semi-conscious glimpses of something vaguely menacing. I can't recall any particulars, but whenever I woke, or seemed to be waking, I felt a presence near me. Hovering close to my head. A cold, mocking presence. And I was alone. No one to call out to, like Drew Knox did when he had his ghastly nightmares in You Will Know Me.


       It was You Will Know Me, of course, disturbing my sleep. I'd stayed up late finishing it. Something I seldom do. Something I knew I shouldn't do with a Megan Abbott novel, but something I know I'll do again, and again, and again, regardless. Abbot casts a deliciously unsettling spell I am powerless to resist. It comes upon me incrementally, hints revealed in what seems a perfectly ordinary tableau. Faces I recognize and feel I know. Until I notice something different. An odd glint in the eyes, shadows that lie beyond my first impression. Words in an unexpected, inappropriate context.

       The effect is cumulative, edging into my comprehension like a storm front blotting a sunny horizon. In You Will Know Me, Abbott reveals the suspicious cloud bank's nose at the very beginning:

      The vinyl banners rippled from the air vent, the restaurant roiling with parents, the bobbing of gymnast heads, music gushing from the weighty speakers keeled on the window ledges.
      Slung around Devon’s neck were three medals, two silver and one gold, her first regional-champion title on the vault.
      I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” Katie whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You can do anything.”
      Later, Katie would come to think of that night as the key to everything that came after, the secret code.
      But at the time, it was just another party, a celebration like dozens of others, all to honor their exceptional fifteen-year-old daughter.

           Trouble ahead. Fair warning. And Abbott does play fair, all the way. The clues she scattered so artfully along the narrative create a random texture that now and then gave me the sense I was a step or two ahead of the main characters. Yet collectively these nebulous erratic whiffs of danger never quite coalesced into certainty. One thing, though, was for sure: a relentless encroaching unease weighting the air.

Megan Abbott

           A large part of the fragility of my confidence in the appearance of things in You Will Know Me came from the woman whose viewpoint carries most of the story--Katie, mother of Devon, the teenage gymnast prodigy and focus of everyone's concern. I shared Katie's bias as a mom, which included misinterpreting or rationalizing initial signs that raised tiny questions about the way things seemed. I stayed with her as these signs mounted until I began to see, or think I saw, significance Katie was missing. Now it got tricky for me. I could see the true narrator--Abbott--was being sly, smooth as satin, playing with me as she led Katie, and then me, this way and that until I yielded to her mastery and simply hung on for the ride.

           It helped calm me recognizing a couple of Abbott's ploys. She foreshadows by ducking back to an earlier time. The beginning, for example, gave me Katie already knowing how it all comes out reflecting how it all started. This happened several times, the finding clarity from a step or so back. I suppose it can confuse readers accustomed to strictly sequential narrative, but for me it helped bring into focus Katie's own attempts to understand what was happening as it unfolded around her.

          While all eyes ostensibly were on Devon, a fascinating individual around whom the story centers with its theme of how far people will go, what they're willing to accept and to sacrifice in order to realize a dream, I found Devon's younger brother, Drew, the most interesting character. Both as a person and as the character that ties the story together. He's a brilliant, precocious little nerd. In some settings he'd be an obnoxious little nerd, and sometimes he was that here, too. But the obnoxiousness, I eventually learned, was in fact a gift. Drew is a little oracle. His nightmares had a prescience I found unnerving, especially as it eluded, even annoyed his family. At the same time I came to respect his outlook, his observance of detail, and his native savvy. I came to rely on the little guy more and more as niggling suspicions began to gather, merging, fusing eventually into a roar of revelation that assaulted my own ears.

          "I could hear thousands of eyes watching us," gold medal Olympian Nadia Comaneci says in her book Letters to a Young Gymnast, a book Megan Abbott quotes from variously in You Will Know Me

          I know I'll never get back those six hours of sleep Abbott took from me, and in truth their loss was a small price for the return. The vital human questions she raised in this all-too-human story continue echoing for me. I hope they always will.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


[Caution: This review contains a word that will cause some readers to wince, some of them inwardly while evincing an air of amused tolerance, yet others, the stoics, are apt to affect no noticeable response despite the tickle of their emotional equipoise. There are those, of course, who will mark the encounter with a laugh that resembles the bark of a happy spaniel. The advisory here is intended primarily for those whom the word and its context may invade to their very core. I make no apology for including it, as it derives from the very core of this memoir and its often astonishing milieu.]

I came close to panic just now getting this review started. Things are pretty much under control at the moment—a few deep breaths, some cognitive intervention, deadline pressure, deeep breaths... Odd, how the pressure by itself was largely responsible for the near panic as well as quelling it. The same pressure, working with the breathing and objective reasoning, helped halt the looming hysteria in its silly tracks. You see, I’d started rereading parts of Lies My Mother Never Told Me to refresh my memory from having devoured it start to finish almost a year ago. But I had forgotten one cannot without risk read just parts of this amazing memoir and expect to put it down, fiddle around with other things, and then return on a whim and continue reading. The parts I’d dipped into moments ago merely for reference grabbed me by the hair and started pulling me back in to repeat the entire ride. I knew if I let this happen I’d sure as hell miss my deadline for this week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books feature on Patti Abbott’s blog. I read fairly fast, but write rather slowly. I had to decide—and I have—that meeting the deadline has priority over the consuming pleasure of rereading the entire book. Bear with me, please, (I say to myself) as I struggle to stick to this decision.

My interest in reading Lies My Mother Never Told Me was not to learn about the lying mother, the former Hollywood actress Gloria Mosolino, but about her husband, a novelist who had a deep and lasting influence on me as a young man. James Jones’s second novel, Some Came Running, lodged itself so firmly in my psyche that reading it again more than half a century later enraptured me even more than it had the first time. And I’d been to Paris in the interim. Paris! A bonus was the discovery that Jones’s daughter, Kaylie, who was born in Paris, had published this memoir, which I immediately downloaded and read and now am fighting to keep from reading again so I can get this review written in time for the Friday feature.
Kaylie Jones

Writers who manage to captivate me with their art, who engage my imagination in sync with theirs, seduce my curiosity about themselves as well. Reading a book that fascinates me, I find myself constantly flipping to the back cover or flyleaf to study the author’s photo to see if I can pick up something in the eyes or facial expression that jibes with what I presume resides in someone whose work has such dominion over me. A certain poise, a confidence, maybe even a hint of otherworldliness. More substantial in feeding this curiosity is stuff written about them, especially by someone close to them, a family member, also their own informal writing—diaries, personal letters.  
There’s risk, of course, that I might learn of weaknesses in my hero of the mighty pen, that he or she is or was a jerk, or worse. Knowing the possibility exists never slows me down, though. It might even speed up my desire to find out, having the macabre attraction of a disaster, a burning building or a highway crash. My psychologist son might well recommend intervention, were he aware of this situation.

I knew James Jones was relatively safe from such exposure in his daughter’s memoir. Her foreword to the new edition of Some Came Running tipped me off. And there’s this, in the first couple of pages of Lies My Mother Never Told Me:

One night when I was perhaps two, I stood up in my crib when my parents came in to say good night and announced, “I’m all alone.”
No, no,” my father explained, “you’re not alone. You have us.”
No. You have each other,” I told him, “but I’m all alone.”
Apparently my father sat down in a chair and burst into tears. My mother used to say that these words of mine convinced them to adopt my brother.
Why had my statement made my father cry? Perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that on some unconscious level, he knew my words were true.
When I was little my mother often told me, “If I had to pick between having your father or having you, I would pick your father.” This seemed to me a perfectly reasonable and honest statement because, given the choice, I also would have picked my father.

Kaylie and her dad

I almost cried reading that. Knowing James Jones cried makes it easier for me to admit this. He was a tough guy. He’d boxed in several Golden Gloves tournaments as a young man. The Army decorated him during World War II, where killing a Japanese soldier face to face changed his outlook on violence. He never wore or spoke of the Bronze Star awarded him for valor in combat. Kaylie says she learned from her mother what he’d done to earn it:

A soldier from his company had taken machine gun bullets to the stomach. He lay in plain view of the Japanese pillboxes, screaming, trying to hold in his intestines with his hands. Two medics who’d tried to assist him had already been killed. My father, furious, ran from his position of safety, zigzagging like crazy until he reached the poor soldier and shot him up with the medics’ morphine.

Killing the Japanese soldier was the first time Jones knowingly killed anyone in the war. It was also the last time. He’d wrenched the attacking enemy’s bayoneted rifle from his hands and beat him to death with it. He kept the man’s wallet, which contained a black-and-white photo of a young Japanese woman holding a baby in her arms. Kaylie Jones writes, “I had seen the wallet once, perhaps ten years earlier in Paris, when in a mournful and fragile moment, he’d taken it out of its hiding place and sat at the dining room table, looking at it.

For the rest of my father’s life, he was haunted by the killing of this Japanese soldier. After he was sent back to the States for surgery on some torn ligaments in his ankle, he told his superior officers he would not fight anymore. They threw him in the stockade. They thought he’d lost his mind.”

Years later Jones broke down after writing a scene in his novel, The Thin Red Line, when a character sacrifices himself to save his men. “My father was shaking, his face twisted up, tears flowing.” Another time his emotions took over while reading E.B. White’s Stuart Little aloud to Kaylie and her adopted brother, Jamie. Both were six. The tears came during the scene when the eponymous mouse leaves his human family to search for the sparrow that had become his dear friend.

My brother and I were perplexed while our big, strong, grown-up father’s voice broke, and tears fell from his eyes.

“‘Oh, Daddy, don’t cry!’my brother said. ‘It’ll be all right, he’ll find her!’ Our dad sighed, then said in a calm, fatalistic tone, ‘Well, maybe not…’

This was the first time we were faced with the possibility of loss and the reality of sad endings. Stuart does not find the sparrow, but he goes on, wandering purposefully down the road with his suitcase. To this day I cannot look at a copy of Stuart Little without thinking of my father and the lesson he tried to impart to us for our future years. Just looking at the book today in Barnes & Noble makes me so choked up I can barely speak.”

James Jones

Lest you get the wrong impression, James Jones isn’t the only “character” who cries in Lies My Mother Never Told Me. It’s not really a memoir of James Jones, either, although he's what first drew me to the book. It’s essentially a sad, sad story of alcoholism and a little girl whose beautiful mother seems to despise her. The girl’s parents are both alcoholics, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the girl eventually becomes one herself. The saving grace in this horrid situation is, despite his uncontrolled drinking that would kill him, the unquestionable, undying love James Jones had for his wife and daughter. His death at 56 devastated them both.

Yet, there are moments of sidesplitting humor sprinkled along the stream of sorrow that winds with gentle honesty through this memoir. Kaylie describes one such moment she learned from her mother that happened shortly after Jones’s death.

[Reminder: this is the part containing the word, as cautioned above, that might penetrate some readers “to their very core.”]

My mother adored Lauren Bacall, known as Betty to her close friends, and they had been good friends for many years. Gloria thought Betty Bacall was the most beautiful woman she’d ever met, and she admired Betty because Betty was completely down-to-earth and suffered no flattery from sycophants.
For several days after my father died, my mother, lying with a bottle of scotch on the couch in the living room, refused to budge. Someone called Betty Bacall, who arrived like the cavalry. Taking the situation in hand, she said to Gloria, “All right, Moss. You don’t have to get up now, but you will soon. I went through it with Bogie and I know exactly how you feel. Here’s what you do: nothing. No impulsive decisions, no rash moves. Don’t start giving stuff away that you’ll regret later. Don’t sell the house. Don’t do anything stupid and for God’s sake, don’t fuck Frank Sinatra.”
Betty was of course referring to her own disastrous rebound relationship with Sinatra in the wake of Humphrey Bogart’s death. Gloria started to laugh. She laughed so hard she had to sit up to avoid choking, and from there, she finally got up and had something to eat. Two days later the phone rang. Gloria picked up. “Hi, Moss, it’s Frank.”
Frank who?” she said.
Frank who the hell do you think? Sinatra.” They had been friends for many years, but it seemed absurd to her that he’d automatically assume there were no other Franks of importance in her life.
After a pause, he said, “I called to say I’m so sorry about Jim. Do you need me to come out there?”
To his great astonishment, she started to giggle, and couldn’t stop.

There, I made the deadline. Now I can go back and read Lies My Mother Never Told Me. Again!

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]  

Sunday, July 24, 2016


If Rodney Dangerfield played in a string quartet his instrument would be, disrespectfully of course, the viola. I wouldn’t have suspected this before I read Jane Lebak’s Pickup Notes because I knew precious little about the instrument—in fact nothing more than that it looks like a violin, only slightly larger. I assumed because of its slightly larger size its tone would be a tad deeper than a violin’s. Not sure I’ve ever knowingly heard one play, but now I know my assumption was on the money. What might have followed intuitively, had I given it any thought, was that because of this, because of its deeper tone, it is more a subtly supportive than a flashy solo instrument like the violin or the much deeper, more noticeable cello. Thus, in a quartet with two violins and a cello, the viola doesn’t get no respect, which would make it the butt of such inside jokes as How can you tell a viola is playing out of tune? The bow is moving.

As readers we’re on the receiving end of an endless repertoire of these terrible jokes because Pickup Notes is a story told by a violist. Joey, which is short for Josephine Mikalos, not only gets dumped on routinely, if affectionately, as the Boroughs String Quartet’s violist, she’s the Cinderella of her biological family, which dumps on her without affection—with malice, actually. She’s a scrapper, though, so despite the understandably low self-esteem her station in life engenders, which includes dumping on herself, as well, we’re in her corner with a towel, a styptic stick and encouraging thoughts. And sometimes angry thoughts when we feel like shouting, KISS HIM, YOU FOOL! CAN’T YOU SEE YOU LOVE HIM?

Disconnect between heart and head is the subtext of this story, the novel’s viola, if you will. Lebak addresses it directly in a scene when the quartet members have reached the fortune-cookie coda of a rawly contentious Chinese meal.

A thousand days later, dinner ended with Harrison snapping open his fortune cookie. “Get this, 
guys: ‘You are the crispy noodle in the vegetarian salad of life.’”

Josh said, “That should have been Shh...reya’s.”

Shreya intoned, “That is so deep,” and then read hers. “Your everlasting patience will be
 rewarded sooner or later.” 

Even I laughed. Josh’s said, “Pray for what you want, but work for the things you need.”

Shreya said, “That’s usually Trust in God, but tie your camel.”

Harrison said, “Trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”

That too,” she said.

And I opened mine to find this: “When the heart can’t speak, it sings.” 

Harrison snorted. “Wholesale theft. Victor Hugo said it first: ‘Music expresses that which 
cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.’”

The problem with music, with making it, is the need for heart and head to coincide. Technique alone is mechanical, and feelings without mastery of expression remain trapped or emerge feral. Making music professionally, which the Boroughs String Quartet does, playing for weddings, funerals, baby showers, retirement parties, and the like, requires a discipline that’s something of a stretch for anyone, especially musicians barely out of their teens. Their struggles with the demands of maturation as individuals constantly clash with the demands of maintaining their musical technique while blending as a group. Aside from their devotion to music it’s hard to imagine any four highly strung people as different from one another as these guys. I see now how truly a wonder it was the Beatles managed to stay together as long as they did.

Jane Lebak

Oops, we’re running out of space, and we haven’t even gotten to the solo yet, the main story, the flashy violin part, if you will. It did seem somehow right, though, that maybe the violas, the dumb blondes of the orchestra, should get a break. Anyway, what happened was, our quartet was playing at a wedding, doing its usual Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven numbers, when the drunken bride staggered up and demanded they play Hotel California. Eeek, went through the classicist minds of three quartet members. It wasn’t on their playlist. In fact, they had never played it. They protested, argued with the emcee. Joey tried to reason with the blustering bride, who grabbed the viola and hung on until Joey pulled it away. The guests were staring. And then Shreya, the second violinist, who’d developed her chops as a child busking for bucks on the street, stepped up and, as Paul Simon bragged to us about another venue on a day long ago, she blew that room away.

This marked a disputatious crossroads for the Boroughs String Quartet that came near breaking it apart. Its domineering leader, first violinist Harrison Archer, argued forcefully for incorporating “fusion” numbers, blending pop favorites with the classics, onto the playlist. No, came the vehement opposition. It would cheapen the group’s image. They’d be competing with DJs.

So what? Archer insisted. It could make them unique, head them toward success. Didn’t they want success? Around and around, back and forth they went [note the “thousand day” Chinese meal]. Someone posted a video online of Shreya’s impromptu performance. Joey, the group’s business manager, got a call from an angry lawyer, claiming they needed permission from The Eagles to record Hotel California [No wonder The Big Lebowski’s Dude hated The Eagles] Things get complicated [another Dudism]. Crises loom and befall the group and its members [Yikes, I’m out of room!] Will they survive, maybe even, as Faulkner told the Nobel Committee, maybe they'll even prevail?

Was I smiling when it all fell apart, or came together? I was, but with joy or cynicism? The answer… {Sorry, review has exceeded space limitations}