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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind by Anne Roiphe

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 37

Here’s my book review of  Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind by Anne Roiphe.

If you’re in therapy or considering it, you may find this novel unsettling. It’s about Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Estelle Berman, and two of her colleagues – middle-aged men identified only as Dr. H and Dr. Z. Most of the other characters in the book are their students or their patients. And all of these lives intersect and become entangled.

To some of her patients and even her friends, Dr. Berman can seem cold and calculating. She thinks of herself as wise and practical. All of the therapists in this story are trying improve the lives of their patients, who range from troubled to disturbed, many of them needing medication but not hospitalization.

There’s Justine, the gorgeous young movie star, who is anorexic and a kleptomaniac. There’s homely and lonely Anne, who fears she’s unlovable and gets coaxed out of the closet, only to be jilted. And the doctors refer their own children to each other for treatment. Dr. Z’s daughter Ronit is stressed because she can’t get pregnant, then Dr. Z is stressed about the possible complications when he finds out she’s carrying twins.

These are psychiatric case histories flavored with personal drama. We get insight into the mental processes and disorders of the patients, as well as those of their doctors. Because from Roiphe’s vantage point, all human minds are troubled. It’s just that some of us live with our demons better than others.

This is Anne Roiphe’s tenth novel, and she’s been described as a first-generation feminist. She’s also done nonfiction books and articles on family issues and mental health. She has an insider’s grasp of the psychiatric profession, and at times it’s not at all flattering.

Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind is a peek into the tangled psyches of a few intelligent people, most of them well-to-do and white, in today’s New York City. To paraphrase the narrator of the old TV series, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is just a few of them.” And whether outwardly healthy or visibly disturbed, each of us suffers daily from self-doubt, jealousy, rage, guilt, arrogance, fears, phobias, and nightmares.

This dark novel could make for a fascinating book report. But a summer beach read, it’s not.
For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones, the author of the humorous novel Farnsworth’s Revenge. Catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Do and I Don't by Jeanine Basinger

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 36


Here’s my book review of I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies by Jeanine Basinger. Basinger is professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, my alma mater, and during her tenure there, she’s been mentor to many of the Hollywood filmmakers who are today referred to as the Wesleyan Mafia. She is one of the most influential of our present-day film historians.

I Do and I Don’t is a critical survey of studio pictures from the silent era up through recent times. Movies in America were formally censored during the ’Thirties and ’Forties, the main reason that even into the ’Fifties, all screen married couples slept in twin beds. The rich ones had separate bedrooms, perhaps for other reasons. But Basinger emphasizes that Hollywood’s view on marriage evolved over the decades for primarily commercial reasons – to appeal to the people – most of them women – who bought tickets.

First off, if you’re considering writing a screenplay about your happy marriage, forget it. Even before the talkies, moviemakers understood that happy couples are just plain boring. Conflict is drama, as Aristotle once said. And the most hilarious romantic comedies are the same, with the volume turned way up.

Basinger tells us that marriage movies are rooted in problems, including money, infidelity, children, illness, death, and forced separation.

In every era, the studios were skilled at giving the audience what it wanted but might not admit – namely stories about their secret fears and suppressed desires. In the movies, any misbehavior, any sin, any abusive behavior can be indulged in, as long as the responsible party is punished before the lights come back up. That way, the audience can leave the theater feeling both satisfied and self-righteous.

Take for example George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are trial lawyers married to each other and squared off as opposing counsel on the same case. In the famous massage scene, Tracy gives Hepburn a playful slap. She takes it the wrong way, and the scene ends as she gives him a swift kick in the ankle. If that movie were made today, you know her aim would be higher.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones, the author of the humorous novel, Mr. Ballpoint. Catch these podcasts at boychiklit.com.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Adultery by Paulo Coelho

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 35


Here’s my book review of Adultery by Paulo Coelho.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is a New Age philosopher who gives his self-help advice in fables, moral tales with lessons learned. He is perhaps best known for his book The Alchemist.

Adultery is no exception to his body of work. It’s a moral tale told as a first-person confession by Linda, a bored, middle-class housewife who strays from her marriage. The narrative is spare, lacking much of the picture-painting detail you’d expect in a novel. Instead, it reads like a transcript from a psychiatric counseling session. That’s disappointing if you’re looking for an escapist story – but of course the last thing Coelho wants you to do is escape. If you came to this book, you’d better face facts.

This book is highly commercial, aimed at women’s book clubs. The story does not depart from Linda’s mundane life, glamorous as it might seem on the surface. She works as a journalist in Geneva, Switzerland and has all the material wealth she could desire, as well as a doting husband with his own professional career, and well-behaved children. Her lover is a politician and his spiteful wife is a university professor. But no one gets killed, and the only violence is some indirect insults over dinner.

I don’t know the statistics, but I believe more affairs end in reconciliation than divorce. It’s not love but communication that’s missing. This book has nothing new to say about any of that.

Guys, if your wife’s book club is reading Adultery (and there are group discussion questions in the back), you won’t be asked to leave the room. You’ll be told to leave the house!

Here's an observation I didn't include in the podcast: Coelho's prose may be especially spare in this book because his narrator is a no-nonsense Swiss. If she were a hot-blooded Italian, perhaps it would be a different book - or not a book at all without all that brooding guilt. Anyhow, despite the lack of narrative ornament, Adultery is not without its interesting sidelights. Linda can't help remarking on the chills she feels as she gazes at the statue of Protestant reformer John Calvin. "His tactics for implementing what he believed to be the ultimate truth remind me of the perverted mind of Osama bin Laden. Both men had the same goal: to install a theocratic state... And neither of the two hesitated to use terror to achieve their goals."

Coelho's distaste for formal religion is evident here as he points out that the father of present-day Presbyterians didn't hesitate to execute heretical intellectuals and their families, including all their children.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones, author of the humorous novel, Mr. Ballpoint. And you can catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 34

Here’s my book review of The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth.

Philip Roth is best known for his classic boychik lit coming-of-age story, Portnoy’s Complaint. Remember boychik is Yiddish for a young man with more chutzpah than brains. And, all of Roth’s novels since then seem to be about self-centered males who are thinly disguised extensions of his own fragile ego.

The Professor of Desire is the first-person confession of David Kepesh, an English professor like Roth himself, who obsesses, not about finding love so much as gratifying his urges without feeling too guilty.

We meet him as overprotected young man working in his family’s business. When he wins a scholarship to attend university in London, he has his first adult relationships with a pair of Swedish girls, Elisabeth and Birgitta. Ideal as the situation might seem for a man of his age and lusts, he’s miserable. Elisabeth moves out because he’s inconsiderate. Birgitta stays and is more than willing to please, but her eagerness turns him off.

Flash forward, and David falls for gorgeous supermodel Helen, who led a shadowy past life in Southeast Asia. Ignoring the fact that she must have left her heart there, he worships her, and they marry. One day, she leaves him abruptly for Singapore to take up with her former lover. And not so much because of anything David did or didn’t do, but because she simply doesn’t care enough about him.

Now entering his forties, David takes up with Claire, a sweet shiksa from New England, a caring, sensible woman, and the relationship is too good to be true. Just when David is beginning to suspect he can’t go the distance, his widowed father shows up all excited that his son will finally make a happy marriage.

We don’t get to find out. That’s where the book ends. The Professor of Desire was published in 1977, about the time activists like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem were redefining feminism. They were mostly successful inspiring a new generation of young women. But Roth seems to be stumbling around, muttering to himself about what it means to be a man. He really doesn’t have a clue.

I didn't have a chance to include this comment in my radio podcast review, but revisiting this book decades later doesn't bring any surprises about gender roles in today's society. But what is striking is the ageism that becomes apparent in Roth's work. At the end of the novel, David is about forty and his father is past sixty. Roth describes the older man as doddering, forgetful, and foolish. And David's second-worst fear, after doubting his own worthiness as a companion for Claire, is that his father will die soon. If this book were written today, the portrait of the father would not be credible unless the man were in his eighties. Even then, many mature readers whose minds are still sharp would find the caricature of the senile dad distasteful.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My series of humorous boychik lit novels is The Misadventures of Rollo Hemphill. And you can catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Classic BMW 5-Series M Car by Robert P. Hall

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 33


Here’s my book review of The Classic BMW 5-Series M Car by Robert P. Hall.

Okay, you couch potatoes! Let’s get out of the house and forget about literature. Here’s a book about the thrills of owning a classic car. The BMW 5 series are four-door sedans. They look like no-nonsense family cars. But a special group of these, which the factory calls the M CarsM for Motorsport – have hidden performance features that rival the best sports cars in the world.

Hall describes three different M Car models, the E28, the E34, and the E39. He points out differences in the engines, drivetrains, and handling characteristics. Also the dashboards and the interior appointments. The book has a great glossary, so you don’t have to be a car buff to get what he’s saying.

Lifelong car enthusiast Hall claims that you can buy one of these 5-series M cars used and have it reconditioned – all for about the price of a new mid-sized family sedan. But what you will get is a driving experience comparable to a Porsche or a Ferrari – sports cars costing two or three times as much.

Hall suggests that taking this leap can transform you from a mild-mannered Clark Kent into a self-confident master of the universe. (The same holds for Clarissa Kent, by the way.) In short, if you want to feel what it’s like to be rich, drive one of these cars – and in no time you’ll feel you deserve the very best in life. All for no more than you would have spent on your next Chevy or Toyota.

This is the essence of what the author calls “The Cool Lifestyle,” choices you can make in the material world that give you access to feelings of self-fulfillment and personal empowerment.

Wow, something to think about the next time a BMW cuts you off on the freeway.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. I’m the author of Mr. Ballpoint. Catch these podcasts at boychiklit.com.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 32


Here’s my book review of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco.

This novel is no less than an attempt to trace the origins of anti-Semitism in Europe over the last two centuries. Author Umberto Eco’s story is a partially true but barely believable plot behind the multiple versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a racist tract that inspired Naziism. Eco's account is narrated by the one character he admits to being fictional, Simonini, a master forger who made a living not only creating official documents but also fabricating the facts and stories they contained. The plot suggests that this man was hired to create the The Protocols as a deliberate hoax to incite hatred and build a political power base.

Eco has been a lifetime student of occultist movements and secret societies, including the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and various anti-clerical, anti-Papist, anti-royalist, anarchist, and, yes, anti-Semitic political and religious groups, including their agent provocateurs.

Behind this story is a general conclusion about the nature of conspiracy. In this web of loosely woven plots, conspiracy is not a masterfully directed and highly coordinated effort. It is, instead, a monstrous disease that has no direction other than its own propagation. It has no head and no permanently governing body. Spanning generations, it goes wherever it feeds best, and it serves whomever will feed and sustain it. It likewise destroys, not a specific enemy, but any person, group, or ideology the persecution of which will benefit, even for the short term, the feeders of conspiracy.

In short, it has been convenient for various groups at various times to promote hatred of marginalized social groups. But as Eco demonstrates, this agenda has  much more to do with consolidating power than with persecuting or exterminating the  victims.

Ultimately, it's about political expediency and rousing the emotions of the masses – not to destroy an enemy but to enrich their persecutors.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. I’m the author of Mr. Ballpoint. Catch these podcasts at boychiklit.com.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 31


Here’s my book review of The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber.

The protagonist of this novel is Chaz Wilmot, an accomplished fine arts painter. He’s a brilliant technician but insecure about his creativity. His insecurity is rooted in the emotional abuse he received from his father, who was also a famous painter and intensely jealous of his son.

Wilmot is also pretty much a failure at his personal relationships. He’s divorced two wives, and he’s not a particularly attentive father to his children. Then, a bizarre thing happens. Chaz volunteers as a patient in a pharmaceutical research study. He’s given a psychoactive drug that induces hallucinations. But in Chaz, the effect is unique and disturbing – he seems to bi-locate physically as well as mentally into another person’s body at another time in history. He finds himself living in Madrid in the 1650s having assumed the identity of Diego Velázquez, one of the most supremely gifted painters who ever lived.

In this past life, Chaz learns all of Velázquez’s techniques, one brushstroke at a time. Back in the present day, international criminals discover his talent and blackmail him into forging a Velasquez painting that has been missing for centuries.

I find two things remarkable about this book. First, perhaps because Gruber is married to a painter, his descriptions of painterly technique are vivid and detailed. It’s a short course in classical painting. Painters especially revere Velázquez’s Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor), which shows a little princess surrounded by her servants in the Spanish court. Pablo Picasso was so obsessed that he painted 58 versions of it. There are other renditions by renowned artists such as Dali, Degas, Goya, Sargent, and Whistler.

Also remarkable is the theme of altered mental states. As Chaz shuttles back and forth between the centuries, he begins to wonder – what is reality? What is personal identity? How can you be so sure you are the person you think you are?

And – what difference would it make if your favorite painting by an old master were just a masterful fake?

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My forthcoming novel about an art scandal in 1890s Paris is Bonfire of the Vanderbilts. Be sure to catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.