Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood (CBR11 #54)

Seduction by Karina Longworth

I’ve been a fan of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This since 2015, and when Longworth announced she was writing a book about the Howard Hughes era of Hollywood focusing on the women who came into contact with him and telling their stories I was intrigued. After listening last year to the season “The Seduced” which served as an extended trailer for this book as well as a place for information that didn’t fit into the book (which at over 500 pages certainly has plenty) I knew I would be reading it sooner rather than later although it still took my a full year, such is the TBR list.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood sets about telling its reader about the lives and careers of over a dozen actresses who were involved, professionally and/or personally, with Howard Hughes (the book is an outgrowth of You Must Remember This episodes on “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes” produced in 2014-2015 which I have gone back and listened to before reading this book). I am a Longworth devotee because of the impeccable craft of her podcast episodes and other writings: she is incredibly adept at contextualizing what you are listening to. Longworth is relentless in her research and is always looking at her subjects from various angles and interrogating those angles to get as close to truth as is possible when chronicling the history of a professional sphere which specializes in hiding truth.

I was not disappointed at all in the book – Longworth accomplishes exactly what I expected her to and my voracious consumption of You Must Remember This didn’t usurp the reading experience. There is plenty here that didn’t make either podcast season, and things that are explored more deeply. As an added benefit as I’m listening along with Longworth’s current season about Disney’s Song of the South her voice played along in my head as I read.

Since this is for the Pajiba Bingo Square at Cannonball Read it makes sense to respond to Kayleigh Donaldson’s article from last year here in the review as well. Kayleigh and I are very much on the same page regarding Longworth’s strengths. I completely agree with the following: “Longworth is at her best when she focuses on the overlooked details of history. Everyone knows the story about the ridiculous bra Hughes had made for Jane Russell on production of The Outlaw but they may not be so familiar with the other ways Hughes objectified her throughout her career, such as a notorious dance number in The French Line that even Russell thought went too far (and yes, this was filmed in 3D)”.  

The Poisoner’s Handbook (CBR11 #49)

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

I don’t know what it says about me that I quite enjoy medical history and historic New York, but I do know that it says that The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is right up my alley. It also wins the prize for longest title of the books I’ve read this year.

Blum’s book tracks the time when a pair of forensic scientists, Charles Norris and Alexander Getler began the chemical detective work that forensic science has become known for and fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons let many criminals commit ‘perfect’ crimes. Chapters are broken up poison by poison, year by year as we follow the cases chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler investigate ranging from workers with crumbling bones to a diner serving poisoned pies. Blum presents each case as a puzzle and outlines the work of Norris and Gettler (and others) creating revolutionary experiments to find the hidden toxins in human tissue. The pair also begin to unearth the toxic threats of everyday life in a modern New York City. Its with some relief that we read about Norris and Gettler’s triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds, becoming pioneers of forensic chemistry and a better justice system.

The book can be repetitive at times, present new toxin, explain related case/crime, lay out the new science Norris and Gettler were developing, solve the mystery, rinse and repeat. Its very detailed, but easy to understand, the explanations of the chemical nature of the various toxins they dealt with,  as well as the sometimes hilarious account of the political in-fighting necessary to even get a qualified coroner appointed in the figure of Norris in the first place. This one can be considered equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller. If that sounds good to you, it may be worth a look.

Read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

My Brilliant Friend (CBR11 #47)

I really tried with this one. This story should work for me. Check out this Goodreads summary:

“The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.”

But I just couldn’t get into the book. I didn’t develop any concern for the characters and found it dull and repetitive – it felt like watching the same cycle over and over again without having it actually GO anywhere. Ferrante seems to cheerfully tell and not show, abandon all sensible plot structure (I found the writing, or translation, incredibly choppy) and introduce as many characters as she felt like, not really caring whether that whole sprawling cast is in any way necessary or useful. Ferrante hits an autobiographical note that has many people wondering about the identity of Ferrante as it is at least a nom de plume, and some of these attributes line up with that possibility. The stories we tell each other over dinner rattle around and give us too many details and too many side characters. It didn’t work for me in this novel.

Add to the above a lack of flourishes: Ferrante’s prose is bare, the narrative slumps along under its own weight and the craft does little to propel it, and I found myself only reluctantly picking it back up again each time I put it down. It has taken me months to get through it. It seems I just don’t get the hype and by the end was angry at the story for being overlong.

I’m glad this works for others (my lovely friend Ale for example who I’m sure will use her MFA to disagree with me here), but this one wasn’t for me, or at least wasn’t for me right now.

Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (CBR11 #41)

Image result for couldn't keep it to myself

The task list for one of my challenges strikes again. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge includes a book written in prison. I was struggling to decide what to read for this one, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a book by the type of criminal who would be the type to get a book deal in the first place. Then a bit of internet research led me to this collection edited by Wally Lamb of the work the women of the writing group he co-facilitates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, the state’s only high security prison for women.

The collection features the work of the women of York as they describe in their own words how their true imprisonment started before their entrance to the penitentiary, whether it be by abuse, rejection, or their own self-destructive impulses. These aren’t victimhood tales, instead they are reflections on lives lived, choices made, and consequences endured. I found that Lamb’s introduction did a fantastic job laying out exactly what to expect in the reading, but also all that went into the writing process and how this project found its way to the printing press. Lamb described the journey the women took to authentic expression through their writing. Perhaps most endearing to me from Lamb was when he shared how he ended up working with the program in the first place and how working in this challenging environment as gown him as a teacher and as a fellow author. With his loving and respectful intro I was prepared, or so I thought, to read the women’s work.

Some stories fall into the type of work you might expect, some focus on life before their time at York and while you can see the interstitial tissue connecting their work to their time behind bars it is busy telling a different narrative. (It is important to note that in respect to Connecticut’s Son of Sam law the authors did not write with any specificity about their crimes and profits were shared with Interval House of Hartford who work to end Domestic Violence.) Couldn’t Keep It to Myself becomes a testament to finding oneself and reckoning with what comes next.

Lamb has continued working with the writing program at York Correctional Institute, publishing two more collections with the participants; I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison and You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths whose publication date is Tuesday September 3, 2019 – a bit of good timing on my part.

The Bone People (CBR11 #35)

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I don’t know if I knew what to expect when I decided to read The Bone People. I knew it had won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always a great indicator if I’m going to enjoy a book or not, and that it was an Own Voices book by a New Zealand author. Keri Hulme spent over a decade crafting a story of people of Maori heritage in the part of the country she still lives in, and she was steadfast in writing the novel in the way that made sense to her – notoriously refusing to let any publishing house edit the work and finally publishing by Spiral, a small feminist collective press in New Zealand, and eventually by the Louisiana State University Press in the States.

The Bone People is an ambitious work that uses the clash between Maori and European cultures to paint the background of its world and the inner lives of its mixed heritage characters. The book focuses on the complicated relationships that develop among its three protagonists: Kerewin, a painter, who leads a hermetic, solitary life, convinced that art is sufficient to sustain her and that relationships with anyone can only lead to pain; Simon, a mute 6 year old, who has suffered a terrible wound in the past, and his adoptive father, Joe, a laborer with a nasty temper.

In its attempts to mythicize the lives of its three peculiar heroes, The Bone People never quite lives up to the introduction. Hulme’s storytelling is vivid, backed up by some poetic and evocative descriptions of the New Zealand coastline and Maori myth and legend, which allows her to explore ideas about ownership, stewardship and cultural survival that add real heft to the book. The book is also, at its core, an all-too realistic story of abuse and trauma. The craftmanship Hulme shows in the interior monologues, and even in the seemingly disjointed narratives is very obviously building to something. Then we reach the end of the first section and the reader is left adrift.

The Bone People won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and with some judicious pruning, the book might well have been the unmistakably powerful visionary fable Hulme was after and that the judges clearly saw, but in some ways escapes me. As it is, and reading it a generation later when I cannot reconcile the extreme violence against a child with the actions of the middle of the book, it is still a very good book about love, redemption, and renewal. But it is unevenly written and considerably overlong.

Gender Queer: a Memoir (CBR11 #34)

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In March Emmalita read and reviewed Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe and it put this book onto my radar where it previously hadn’t been. I had been quietly on the lookout for Cannonballer reviews of books by or about non-binary people to help fulfill a Read Harder challenge, and while I have only read a few books by transgender authors (that I’m aware of) I had likely read none by non-binary authors (I may have, I’ve not been great about tracking that in the past).

I took my library copy with me on vacation, I was so excited to get my hands on it. I found Kobabe’s deeply introspective journey through reckoning with eir own sense of eir gender to be very relatable and also illuminating. It shouldn’t be the job of our marginalized siblings to explain to those of us who aren’t marginalized in the same way what their lives are like, but without the brave work of someone like Maia who shares what it has been like to experience life in eir shoes the literary landscape would be much more bland.  

Visually I found the work to be beautifully vibrant without being overwhelming. Honestly, its my Goldilocks’ porridge of graphic novels – it was just right for me. I wish I was more conversant in the artistic terminology so I could more accurately describe it to you, but Kobabe achieves such balance in eir work that I was able to slip into the work and devour it in one sitting, which is a rarity for me. Hunt this one down, it is incredibly worth your time and dollars.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”