“The Girls in the Picture” by Melanie Benjamin

Genre:        Historical FictionThe Girls in the Pictures
Pub. Date:  January 16, 2018
Publisher:  Random House

Melanie Benjamin is a favorite author of mine. She writes in a distinctive genre that I favor known as Historical Autobiographical Fiction. It is reading historical fiction as if you are reading the memoir of the real-life main character. To work, this genre needs to be as well-researched as it is well-written. Also, the reader needs to remember that no matter how knowledgeable, the author is not privy to the actual thoughts of the protagonist (Benjamin reminds us in her endnotes). I think Benjamin always pulls off this style of writing. So far I have been lucky enough to review three of her works prepublication: “The Aviator’s Wife” (Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh), “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Truman Capote and Babe Paley), and even “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” had me captivated. For these reasons, I was thrilled to be given an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of Benjamin’s “The Girls in the Picture” on the early days of Hollywood, concentrating on the lives of screenwriter Frances Marion and the first superstar actress, Mary Pickford.

This is Benjamin’s first book for which my review won’t be full of praise for her talents. But let me start by stating what I did enjoy about the novel, which is a good portion of the book. I was engrossed in learning about the birth of the movies in Old Hollywood. I especially enjoyed learning about the technical side of moviemaking in those days. It wasn’t unusual for the actors themselves to splice and piece the film back together. Actors also frequently went behind the camera to get a better understanding of how a scene would play out. Mary Pickford always did both. Plus, the author does a terrific job describing the details of the WWI era and weaving in how the magic of movie making effected that generation. The industry started out making “flickers” on the streets (there were no sets) with street entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin. These silent movies were watched in Nickelodeons. One will also learn about the beginnings of the Hollywood studios, and how it took the creativity out of the hands of the actors, and how the silent films turned into “talkies,” ruining many careers, and causing some stars to sell their mansions. As Pickford once said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” I also got a kick out of reading that Pickford and Fairbanks were the original Liz and Dick. Once they married each other, their lifestyles suddenly changed and they became world famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams. Their 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills was called “Pickfair” predating the mashups of celebrity couples’ names like “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” by nearly a century.

The reader discovers that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were two groundbreaking innovators of American film. The story is told from two points of view: Pickford’s and Marion’s. (Though Marion is written in the first person and Pickford in the third, which made Marion seem more real and autobiographical). The story of Mary Pickford’s tough early years on the stage, struggling to support her mother and two siblings, reminded me of Natalie Wood’s life story. The family was dirt poor and she alone supported them. By 1915, Pickford had become the most famous movie actress in the United States. She was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” known as “Girl with the Golden Curls.” The irony wasn’t lost on Mary, because she knew that she never had a childhood. Additionally, I found out that she was also an early feminist. She became one of the few actors and sole woman in those first years to battle the studio system and take control of her own work and career.

Frances Marion also believed women were equal to men and elbowed her way into the Hollywood experience. She was new to the movie industry when Mary was already a star. They soon became fast friends. Frances gained entry into the world of “moving pictures” by becoming a screenwriter, then known as a “scenarist.” She wrote many of Mary’s most popular pictures, including the 1917 film, “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Mary did not do well in the “talkies” with her modern, bobbed hair. Her fans only wanted to see the little girl with the curls. She blamed this on Marion, who wrote petite Pickford as a child. Unlike Mary, Frances remained successful after Mary’s career was over. She continued to write screenplays, remaining the highest paid screenwriter. She went on to win two Academy Awards (the first woman to do so), all while fighting chauvinistic male studio heads.

So why did this novel lose some of my praise? In the middle of the book, these two successful business women, pioneers of their time, began talking like lovesick teenagers about their future husbands. The once crisp and compelling dialogue became just plain old silly and in complete contrast to their established personalities. I actually cringed at some of the corny lines that the author would never have penned to come out of their mouths in the first half of the story. When Frances meets her husband (her first love), it reads like a script from an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney film, “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” rather than a mature woman finding love. The silliness is emphasized by the fact that this is her third marriage. And, they meet while he is a soldier in the hospital during the war. This venue is not conducive for the sugary tone of their romance. When Mary divorces her first husband and marries Fairbanks (her first love), she too begins talking like a teenager in love. Suddenly, Pickford, a woman with much skill in financial affairs, who was the brains in the marriage, starts acting flaky and puts her husband before her career. When Fairbanks started to cheat on her I was waiting for the author to throw in a verse of Lesley Gore’s song, “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.” I was so disappointed that I found myself skimming the mushy pages. I realize that characters do evolve in a story, it usually improves the story. But this was a complete 180 and not believable. With that said, overall, I can say that if you don’t know much about the history of early American filmmaking and wish to then I recommend this book. Just know that it can read simultaneously sappy and splendid.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Profane Fire At The Altar Of The Lord” by Dennis W. Maley

Genre:          Historical FictionProfane Fires
Publisher:    Jublio
Pub. Date:    January 25, 2018

This tongue in cheek historical fictional takes place in Europe during the 1600s, and is a fun- and fact-filled piece of work. The protagonist is a Jewish dwarf named David Reuveni, a real historical person, who cons European Jews into believing that he’s the Messiah.  He hires an actor, Diogo Pires, another real person (who is always on the run from one country to another, usually for sleeping with the wrong woman), to aid him with his deception.  They both become rich in this scam. When the two first meet on a ship, Diogo comes close to stabbing David because he calls Diogo a Marrano.  Digio demands an apology because that is what they call Christian Jews in Portugal. Pig.”  David thinks “this is a man with a hidden past.  Perhaps he can be of value to me.”  The novel wears a coat of black humor.  It speaks of greed, manipulation, and religion.  I see these characters as a shrewd, not so nice, version of an “Abbott and Costello” act, especially when the protagonists are in the company of sultry ladies whom they are trying to impress.

There are many real historical characters thrown into the plot.  The author, Dennis W. Maley, had me google to see if Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus was really a Marrano, meaning a Jew who is forced to convert and secretly practices Judaism.  I learned that this might be true.  Several chapters or pieces of vignettes on other real historical names are tossed around freely in this book:

  • Sir Thomas Malloy: The radical English writer who wrote and died in prison
  • French King Francis I: He was also King Consort of Scotland as a result of his willing marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots
  • King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Their marriage caused the first break between the Church of England and Rome
  • Martin Luther: The German Protestant reformer
  • William Tyadle: The leading figure in Protestant reform

The reader will learn that Canon law forbids Christians to charge interest on a loan, so they would hire Jews to do so for them.  It has been suggested that this was the beginning of the banking industry.  And let’s not forget the infamous “Fountain of Youth” that all seemed to be trying to locate.   It is amazing how Maley juggled all these figures together so the reader gets the full picture of the happenings that change the religious world.  He manages to personalize the facts so they aren’t dull.  Plus, he works hard to keep his story a fun read.  But still, I often felt like I was in the middle of a history book.  Because there truly is so much more historical information packed into the novel that I haven’t even mentioned.   There are too many names and affairs and marriages and deaths to keep up with.  For instance, in the “War of the Roses,” which was a series of wars for control of the throne of England, I didn’t care that the war ended when “Henry number seven bedded Elizabeth of York.”  I wish he cut some of the facts out because I felt eager to get back to the perils of the quirky narrators, David and Diogo, the two scheming delightfully unlikable protagonists.

Even though the history lesson is a little too long for my taste, this is a very funny book.  Be prepared to laugh a lot.  Maley writes, “Destruction awaits the Muslim Turks if Christendom joins with his powerful desert tribe. But why hurry? The food and beds are warm, the ladies plump and willing.”   When he requested that I review his novel, “Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord,” the author shared with me that it “is what would be on reality TV if they had TV in the 16th century.”  This is a great comparison.  I can see our swindlers, attention seekers that they are, puffing out their chests for the cameras. There is enough fame-seeking in those two characters to fit right in with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

I found myself smiling a lot in this book.  David is surprised to discover that the leaders of the world may also be liars (no surprise to 2017 readers).  He is tired of all the nonsense and becoming fearful of exposure.  This prompts him to attempt to change his ways, though he does not succeed.  He cannot help himself.   David even lies to animals. “What am I doing now, he asked himself, lying to a horse?”  To further complicate truth-telling, Diogo comes to feels it is his turn to be the Messiah.  Again, making me think of the many Reality TV shows that are currently bombarding our brains, begging the viewer to wonder who is the show’s true star.  So, the scam continues. (The next sentence is a potential spoiler.)  I did not care for the ending of this novel, but that may be because I became very fond of the swindlers.

In Acknowledgements, the author states, “This book’s purpose is to entertain.  I am not a historian.”  Still, his work seems well-researchedThe references he cites are impressive.    Just do not take anything, especially the religious references, too seriously.  If you are a historian, you will devour all the facts found in this book.  If you are not, but enjoy historical fiction that is expertly written in black humor you will also enjoy the tale. Just wait until you read about David’s female encounter towards the end of the book.   I am still laughing.  Maley seemed to be having as much fun writing the book as I did reading it.

Purchase here: http://maleybooks.com/#

The author reached out to me to review this book.

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“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Genre:         General Fiction (Adult)Manatthan Beach

Pub. Date:   Oct. 3, 2017

Publisher:    Scribner

Here is the thing about this author, Jennifer Egan: she is brilliant, I might go as far as to say there is a something Shakespearean in her writing, complete with betrayal and tragedy. But like Shakespeare, for me, she can be hard to follow. I did read her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” “Goon Squad” has a complicated narrative with each chapter written as a tweet, or a music chart, or a PowerPoint presentation. In other words, her writing style is unique in this work.

In “Manhattan Beach” the author writes a traditional novel. The story spans from the years of the Great Depression to WWII. We meet the Kerrigans, a Brooklyn family, and learn of their successes and failures. There is twelve-year-old Anna, her adored father, Eddie, her mother and severely disabled little sister. They are a Brooklyn Irish family that is barely scraping by in the 1930s with a strong father-daughter bond. Sounds familiar right? But this is not “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” There is another protagonist, the New York gangster, Dexter Styles. The father works for him. The book’s title comes from the gangster’s wealthy home on Manhattan Beach.

This is a hard review for me to write because the book is clearly well researched, which is always a plus. The feel of the novel is realistic, as are the characters. Furthermore, I love historical fiction and as a native New Yorker, I was drawn into the story with its sharp observations of NYC in this time frame. Maybe it is the plot that bothered me? There didn’t seem to be a steady tempo. I felt as though I was reading three different stories about the girl, the father and the gangster. It is when Egan flashes forward several years that I began to have trouble with the storyline.

Anna at 19 is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Her father has mysteriously disappeared. She alone is the breadwinner. She elbows her way into a job as their first female diver. She also sleeps with Dexter (who initially doesn’t realize whose daughter she is). Of course, there is a disastrous outcome. The affair’s beginning seems so unlikely that it reads absurd. No matter how talented the author is, this just feels like way too much soap for my taste. I cannot talk about the father’s fate for it would be a spoiler, but that also is a bit hokey.

So what do you say about a book written by an extremely talented author, in your favorite genre, with interesting characters that keeps you hooked until it doesn’t? I am not sure. (I wish I could quote to explain, but the publisher doesn’t allow this since the book is not yet published). Maybe, I need to brush up on my own skills. Or, maybe, it would have read better as interconnected short stories. Either way, I can safely recommend that you read this book if you wish to get lost in the world of the past, the Navy, a young woman breaking into a man’s field, speakeasies, nightclubs and the end of Prohibition. As well as a lovely family saga, expect your heart to break for them. Just don’t be surprised when things start getting far-fetched.

This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book.  I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Vengeance of Mothers (One Thousand White Women)” By Jim Fergus

Genre:         Historical Fiction

Vengence of Mothers

Pub. Date:   September, 12, 2017

Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

When I read this historical novel I wasn’t aware that it is a sequel.  I did have the feeling that I was missing the first part, but I wasn’t at all confused, meaning one can read it alone.  Set in the 1800’s the book begins with the journals of two sisters, the Kelly twins,  who were part of the Wives for Indians Program that sent “undesirable” women from prisons and asylums to marry Native Americans of the Cheyenne Nation as a means to encourage assimilation.  The Kelly sisters were part of the original story, “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.” In “Vengeance” the reader learns that their village is destroyed by U.S. soldiers while they were waving a white flag, in a raid that leaves their children and husbands dead.   The title of the novel comes from the sisters’ desire for revenge on the US Calvary. The second journal we read in this story belongs to Molly McGill, another woman sent to marry into the Cheyenne tribe. But when Molly arrives in the West, the program is virtually defunct, and the group of Cheyenne she was sent to meet is now on the run.  Originally, this batch of women was held as hostages by the Native Americans.  When given their freedom they decided to stay. Living with the Cheyenne would be as equally dangerous and as hard a lifestyle yet still desirable than to returning to prisons or asylums.

I have learned that the first novel “The Journals of May Dodd” has been made into a movie.  I have also learned via Wikipedia that “the spark for this novel was an actual historical event that occurred in 1854. A Cheyenne chief did request the gift of 1000 white women as brides but the offer was rejected by the U.S. Army.”   This is an okay read though obviously written by a man for the author’s generalizations on women falling in love are stereotypical.  When Molly realizes she is falling for her Cheyenne captor, I felt it could have been a scene from the 1920s silent movie, “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino.  However, I did enjoy learning about the Native Americans’ ways of life. Because of this novel, I intend to read more hoping it all will not be too similar to another movie named, “Dances with Wolves,” where Kevin Costner plays a disillusioned Civil War lieutenant who comes to realize that it is he and his government and not the Native Americans who are the real savages.  I say this because (although I agree with the statement), I would like to learn something new about the tribes other than that they seemed to be a more decent set of human beings than the whites who destroyed them.

This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book.  I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“Love And Other Consolation Prizes” by Jamie Ford

 

Genre:         Historical FictionLove and Other Consolation Prizes

Publishers:  Random House

Pub.             Date: September 12, 20017

Mini Review

This sweeping historical novel revolves around two World’s Fairs that take place in Seattle, fifty years apart. The narrator goes back and forth in time from his life during the 1909 and the 1959 World’s Fair. We first meet our male protagonist in China at the age of five in the year 1902. He watches his mother burying his infant sister alive (horrible to read). The baby is already near death from starvation. His destitute mother, who is near death herself, has him shipped off to America to save his life. Aboard the ship he and other Chinese children, and some Japanese children, are kept captive in the cargo and treated like animals. However, they manage to remain children even in such horrendous conditions. They played, teased, had a bully and formed bonds with each other. This reminded me of stories about German Jewish children in concentration camps who managed to play together before they were worked to death. On the ship, he meets a beautiful Japanese girl a few years older than himself. During the journey, he survives a body of water known as Dead Man’s Bay. Here the ill children that cannot be sold are put into a sack and thrown overboard (I need to google this to learn if it is true, but I am afraid of what I will find).

In America, he ends up as a charity student in a boarding school in Seattle. Though it’s a lucky break, the boy is very lonely and makes no friends and has no family. (Think young Ebenezer Scrooge being left alone in his boarding school when all the other kids went home for Christmas). But our boy does not grow up to be a bitter man as Scrooge did for the strangest of reasons. As a healthy preteen, he is raffled off in the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. (Hard to believe that was legal but it was). He is won by a famous Madam in Seattle’s Red Light District. This is not an ordinary brothel. It’s is a high-class establishment, where the grand dame owner is famous for educating and caring for her girls. Instead of living in another horrible place where people treat him terribly, here for the first time, he has a family. He has a job he enjoys, first as a houseboy and later as the house’s chauffeur. His occupation as a man will remain a chauffeur. He is lucky to learn a trade because one day the house will eventually close. This happens when the famous Madam will succumb to an occupational hazard. The sexual disease is never mentioned in the book. Saying without saying that this house would never use such vulgar language, but the writing makes it apparent. In the interim, he discovers the Japanese girl he befriended on the boat to America also works in this establishment. And to his delight, he meets the Madam’s pretty daughter who is his age. The three of them become great pals and our young house boy falls in love with both. Even though the three live in a brothel the author beautifully captures the sweetness of a first kiss.

I should have gobbled up this novel. It has all the elements of good historical fiction. It is interesting as well as educating. The reader will meet crooked police, suffragettes, and learn about the politics of the times. Reading about the brothel was a hoot, but with enough sadness to keep it real. I giggled when the adult chauffeur’s grown daughters were shocked to learn that their ordinary parents have some unordinary and rather scandalous secrets. My issue is that from the time the boy is still a boy until he becomes a young man, he could not choose between the Japanese girl or the Madam’s daughter. The premise of the plot, which is supposed to be inspired by a true story, is a good read. But the love-story triangle (which remained innocent) went on and on, dragging out the pages. I didn’t appreciate trying to guess which girl he would end up with, because the guessing became tiresome. I wanted to jump into the book, grab the young man, and sing to him the Loving Spoonful’s lyrics “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.” However, even with my issues, I have to recommend the novel. It is rich in history and I personally got a kick out of learning that political morals haven’t changed one bit.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“Isadora” by Amelia Gray

Pub. Date:  May 23, 2017

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and GirouxIsadora

In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).  She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe.  Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.”   The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention.   Her children were born out of wedlock by different men.  On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances.  She was the epitome of a bohemian.  (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo).   I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries.  However, Gray did not.  The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death.  In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.

When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read.  Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration.  I confess I was often confused.  Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream.   And I believe that was her goal.  I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style.   Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp.  It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it.  (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora).  However,  Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity.  I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.

In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist.  There were also observers written in the third person.  (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing).  You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes.  Still, Gray does manage to pull it off.  One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance.   Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded.  Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality.  She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination.  We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children.   In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity.  Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child.   Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident.  To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist.  Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs.   These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I.  Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale.  The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish.  Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime.  As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding.    But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.