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August 25, 2014

Felonies of the Week: The “Nina Fischman” series, by Marissa Piesman

Unorthodox Practices, by Marissa Piesman

I recently read an article in the Guardian about what kind of stuff AirBnB clients tend to stow in their hosts’ refrigerators. (Can you tell I was trying to avoid working?) Scandinavians need pickles, apparently, to feel at home, while Germans opt for liver sausage and the French require nothing but champagne. The article didn’t mention American guests, but based both on its level of stereotyping and Guardian readers’ assumptions about U.S. eating habits, I’m going to guess that we stand accused of hauling industrial-size containers of high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, and bad coffee across the Atlantic, and then griping about how little space there is for them in the tiny fridge.

As is usually the case with this sort of (non)article, the comments section proved a livelier read. Guardian readers are nothing if not contentious, so there was one contingent that wanted to talk about how AirBnB and related offerings put millions of hotel-employees out of work, and another group that was all high-dudgeon-y about the pathetic traveler who is so wimpishly attached to the foods of his homeland that he can’t stand to be separated from his pickles and liver sausage.

In truth, though, neither the article nor the response held much of interest, no stories about guests who brought in really bizarre foodstuffs, or ate the host’s child’s science project, or created Babette’s Feast and then decamped without cleaning up. But I have rented flats (through AirBnB and other facilities) a number of times. For years I traveled with a bag of fresh-ground coffee, because I am a screaming java-snob and so many places specialized in ancient tins of Maxwell House. Other than that, I have never brought edibles along.

But I have found some.

They have ranged from lovely to mysteriously awful. A previous guest at a flat in London left a mayonnaise jar filled with something that wasn’t mayonnaise, along with a box of PG Tips teabags pasted with a yellow sticky note on which was scrawled “KEEP YOUR CRAP TEA!” I arrived at a B&B in Provincetown to find a box of chocolates next to the bed, which would have been charming except that several of the chocolates had very clearly been nibbled and put back. On the other hand, my delightful landladies in Boston left me a cheese-plate in the fridge, along with two chocolate croissants for breakfast. The best find, though, was at a second flat in London. There was no food in the fridge, but on a little bookshelf, next to the TV set, was a small stack of books. THREE of them were Felony books, bound together with a rubber band. And tucked under the band was a note reading “Great fun. I hope the next reader enjoys them as much as I did.”

In honor of our wonderful, anonymous fan, we’d like to offer a special deal this week on the books she liked so much: 25% off on Marissa Piesman’s deliciously giggly series featuring Nice Jewish Girl Nina Fischman, and Nina’s mother, Ida – who would kvetch mightily about the billing. Are you taking a little break for Labor Day? Anonymous Reader would tell you: Vacation reading doesn’t get much better than Unorthodox Practices, Personal Effects, and Heading Uptown.

August 15, 2014

The Book that Changed Your Life


This post was inspired by the wonderful Colin Dexter (author of the “Inspector Morse” series), who wrote recently on a book that changed him.

It’s a terrific topic, though as Dickens Death Scenes go, my floodgates open widest for Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. (I am swayed, in truth, by the play: David Thewlis, as Smike, gave one of the most vivid, harrowing performances I’ve ever seen. It’s on Youtube, but make sure you opt for the Royal Shakespeare Company production.)

If I had to pick the Dickens novel that made the biggest impression on me, though, the nod would go to Our Mutual Friend. Which I’ve never read. I was in college, taking the first of what I imagined would be four years of English classes, but I couldn’t get through the damn thing. This was particularly odd because I had read almost all of Dickens before I was 15: My parents had a handsome set in the living-room bookshelf – tooled leather bindings, lovely yellowing pages, that wonderful Old Book smell – and I spent endless hot, airless summer afternoons greedily reading my way through them. But the minute the book turned from a joy into a requirement, the minute I was expected to spit out lists of themes, analyses of social commentary, papers on “The Role of the River in Dickens’ London”…I became unable to read it. And I suddenly realized, with a certainty that I had rarely experienced, that English classes would ruin reading for me. I dropped that one, faked my way through another on Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and ran like a refugee into the sheltering arms of the Sociology department. PHEW. Dodged that bullet.

Our Mutual Friend, then, directly influenced my course of study. But when it comes to books that influenced my course of thought…two occur to me: The Naked Hamlet, by Joseph Papp; and Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie. The first was another of the books that was knocking around my parents’ living room. It was a published version of the production handbook that Papp kept while creating his groundbreaking (and critically reviled) production of Hamlet, in 1967, starring Martin Sheen. At the time, of course, it was both fashionable and important to question, rip apart, and (maybe) reassemble anything considered iconic. Much of the time, this “deconstruction” was conducted with little more than blunt instruments and a sense of anarchic release, but Papp was meticulous; no detail was too small to be considered, tried, weighed, analyzed. By the time I got ahold of the book, in about 1974, the production was long gone, but this was the first time I had been given access to the process of creating art – to the process of creating anything, really – and it was intoxicating. It told me what I wanted to do. I wanted to create.

I was quite a bit older by the time I landed on Foreign Affairs. Lurie won the Pulitzer for it in 1985, so I would have been in my mid-20s, mired in a depressing, insufficiently successful acting career, and with any number of affairs under my own belt. The affairs were, in their way, rather more depressing than the acting career, because I cared so much less about them. I knew they were supposed to matter, one way or another, but…they didn’t. And I felt rather clueless as to what I was meant to be feeling. There were plenty of books and magazines on hand to teach me about young love, but none of the lessons really resonated.

The one that did, at last, was about people well into middle age. Even more astonishing, they were not particularly attractive. Vinnie Miner is a short, stumpy academic, with a case of self-absorbed resentment so well developed that she imagines it as a grubby, inconvenient dog that insists on following her around. Chuck, a lumbering Midwesterner down on his luck, with vulgar vowels and an even uglier raincoat, is the fool who loves Vinnie. The hallmark of his foolishness is that he somehow fails to see how small she is, insisting on seeing her as bigger-hearted, braver, better than she is. And because he loves her, she becomes the person he believes her to be.

I reread Foreign Affairs every five years or so. It makes me cry and reaffirms my faith in the possibility of change.

What books have changed you?

August 14, 2014

You Think You Knew from Oldies?

Paper Chase, by Bob Cook

When my mother died, she left behind a vast, pirate’s hoard of costume jewelry, almost all of it purchased from the Home Shopping Network at about 2:30 in the morning. I hated the jewelry, partly because I thought it was garish and ugly and badly made – which it is – and partly because it seemed to me to be visible evidence of my mom’s unhappiness. It was junk she had bought in an attempt to fill the hole that could not be filled, as if by piling sparkle on glitter on gleam she could beat back the smoggy darkness that too often clogged her head.

I hated the stuff so much that I was ready to throw it away, just toss all of it, until cooler heads prevailed and persuaded me to sell some of it on Ebay (you’d be surprised to know what you can get for a Kenneth Jay Lane cocktail ring) and donate the rest to a non-profit that outfits low-income women for job interviews. They loved the bling. There’s nothing like a pink enamel ladybug to perk up a respectable grey suit.

I was pleased to get the Ebay dough, and considerably more pleased to help the job-seekers, but I still hated the jewelry. I suppose it looked to me like a twinkling mass of accusation: If only I had been a better daughter my mother wouldn’t have been so unhappy, and would not have felt the need to buy all this shiny crap. She even bought a couple ugly, badly made, HSN-exclusive chests of drawers to hold all the dreadful stuff.

I was moaning about the jewelry one day to my business partner, Kiz, who is rather a jewelry-hound herself, though she favors carved jade and antique beads and beautiful handmade settings. And she said something that shut me up mid-moan. “I never really looked at your mom’s jewelry,” said Kiz, “but she always looked so snappy. She never did that depressing Old Lady thing of wearing the droopy beige sweaters and the SupHose. It was always a party when she walked in.”

Yes it was, and with that one comment, my opinion of The Jewelry turned 180 degrees. I suddenly saw it not as the detritus of desperation, but as a form of war-paint, as the flag she waved and trumpet she blew in her battle against diminishment. Gaudy? Loud? You betcha. And if you don’t like it, too damn bad for you.

How did I get onto this topic? Robin Williams had something to do with it; I was thinking about how hard it is to fight depression, and how often depression wins. Churchill famously called it the Black Dog, but I think of it more as the Black Fog, a pestilence in the air that poisons every breath, every thought, every pleasure. My mom seems to have chosen, as her weapons, pink enameled ladybugs, vast quantities of Swarovski crystals, and the entirety of the Joan Rivers Collection.

But as Kiz so astutely pointed out, depression wasn’t the only thing my mom was fighting: She was also up against old age – her experience of it, her assumptions about it, the world’s assumptions about it. I waded through half of this article by Penelope Lively before concluding that even the best writers can benefit from an editor. She makes some good points up front, though, and I particularly liked “Old age is forever stereotyped,” with the options ranging from “the smiling old dear” to “the grumbling curmudgeon,” with not many stations in between. It’s as though geezers come in two flavors: “Jesus loves you,” and “Get offa my lawn!”

Lively offers up some suggestions for books that offer a more nuanced portrait of old folks (and I give a very enthusiastic thumbs up to Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori). With a theme of old age in mind, I sifted through the F&M list, to see what we might have to bring to the conversation. One title in particular leapt out: Paper Chase, by Bob Cook.

The four decrepit spies at the heart of the story would be appalled to see themselves described as geezers – but then, they rather enjoy being appalled, and the late 20th century is giving them many opportunities for enjoyment. Top of their Appalling list is undoubtedly the Director, the jumped-up puppy who has taken charge of Her Majesty’s security services. Brown shoes! The man wears brown shoes! And his Latin is an embarrassment. Also, he is extremely rude.

The spies would be a delight if things stopped here – a delight but, as Lively would undoubtedly point out, also rather a cliché, fussy, Blimp-ish old duffers stuffed with their own self-importance and their yearning for an England that never really was. But things take a wonderfully antic turn when the four decide – by way of sticking a collective thumb in the eye of the Director – to write their memoirs, and glorious tales of Bond-style derring-do come racketing off the printing press. You thought you knew from Oldies? Think again.