Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Joined in Progress: *The Handmaid's Tale* Group Read

We're just about halfway through the designated time frame for the group read of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Today, participants have been asked to weigh in with some sort of "progress post" - non-spoilery discussion, response to a particular theme, thoughts on Atwood's writing, etc. - on their reading.

I'm hosting this read, but I was probably one of the last to actually start the book. We kicked off on August 21, which was the beginning of a week off from work for me - I'd been called for jury duty, but despite that, I expected to have a generous amount of reading time. Things didn't exactly turn that way, and as a result, I didn't get started on The Handmaid's Tale until this past weekend.

Fortunately, this is a re-read for me; and even more fortunately, I have been quickly pulled in. If I weren't juggling a couple of other books at the same time I'm reading this one, I'd probably be well over halfway through it already, despite my late start.

It's been a long time since I last read The Handmaid's Tale, and while I've discovered that I didn't remember a lot of the details, what has stuck with me is the mood of the novel - oppressive and unsettling. Having just finished reading a nonfiction book about life in the former East Germany before starting this read, I'm struck by similarities in the seemingly arbitrary rules of daily life and the need for guarded action, because one can't ever be sure one isn't being watched. Granted, The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1986, was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and takes place in a not-too-distant future in which America is the fallen country, but it's interesting to me to note the similarities between some elements of dystopian speculative fiction and a real-life police state.

I'm also reminded that I don't read Margaret Atwood nearly often enough - the woman can write.

I've asked the reading group not to post full reviews of The Handmaid's Tale until September 12, but I do hope you'll share some of your impressions of the book today. I'm particularly interested in knowing whether you're reading it for the first time or as a re-read, and how you think that might be impacting the way you're experiencing the novel. I'd also love to hear thoughts from those who have read the novel before but are not reading with us.

These discussion questions come from the publisher's Readers' Guide - they may help get you thinking, but answering them is completely up to you. (I'm not sure they do all that much for me, to be honest, but I may feel differently when I finish the book!)
1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?
2. In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy, she was their fantasy. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.
3. Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred's mother also represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?
4. At one level, The Handmaid's Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as "Context is all," and "I've filled it out for her...," "I made that up," and "I wish this story were different." Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?
6. The commander in the novel says you can't cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instinct?
7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?
8. Babies are referred to as "a keeper," "unbabies," "shredders." What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?
9. Atwood's title brings to mind titles from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted you to make that connection?
10. What do you feel the historical notes at the book's end add to the reading of this novel? What does the book's last line mean to you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Goodbye to the Geeks, and thoughts about a changed community

In the spring of 2008, I signed up to participate in a new “blogging challenge” organized by Dewey, the blogger behind The Hidden Side of a Leaf. In just over a year of blogging, Dewey had already emerged as a leader within the book-blogging community, and that community was her focus. 

“My main focus in blogging is community. I want to share my love for books with other bloggers, hear what they think of what they’re reading, and have lots of bookish fun. My non-review blog activities...are all meant to build community.”

Dewey had already launched the monthly Bookworms Carnival and the semi-annual 24-Hour Readathon when she started up the activity she called Weekly Geeks. The challenge would involve a weekly "assignment" - a question, a task, a theme - to be completed and posted on the Geeks' individual blogs and linked up at the main assignment post. Visiting other Geeks' posts for that week was part of the assignment as well, which is where Dewey's community-building focus kicked in. Bloggers could participate every week or only when the assignment appealed to them - it was intended to be casual, and new participants were always welcome.

Dewey’s community was stunned on November 25, 2008, when her husband posted an announcement on her blog that she had died. Our shock and sense of loss drew us together, and many of us wanted to see her community-building activities live on. In early 2009, I became part of the team that set up a dedicated blog to continue Weekly Geeks.

Since then, I’ve been a behind-the-scenes organizer, a sometime participant in the assignments, a periodic poster of the link round-ups that concluded each assignment on the WG blog...and, earlier this summer, one vote in the difficult decision to bring this blogging challenge to a close. Participation had dwindled notably, particularly in the last few months, and that seemed like an indicator that the time had come

I tend to think that most memes have a life cycle, and after nearly three and a half years, Weekly Geeks has reached the end of a pretty long - and mostly good - run. I even wonder whether Dewey herself might have ended it earlier. The book-blogging community has been through a lot of changes since she left us; it’s both exploded in size and fragmented into ever-more-specialized niches. While annual events like the upcoming Book Blogger Appreciation Week and Armchair BEA do bring large numbers of us together to share and celebrate what we do, there are times when it’s very difficult to see us as one single “book-blogger community” any more.

And there are times I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The whole community may be too much for one individual blogger to navigate, but within that whole, most of us manage to find our tribes, and we may find community in multiple places. I suspect that if Dewey were still with us, she’d be doing the same.

Many, many book blogs have come along since late 2008, and while some are already gone, a lot have stuck around...and they’ve never known a book-blogging community that included Dewey. Her blog archives have been taken down, so there’s no way they can get to know her now, either; and with the departure of Weekly Geeks, the original Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon is her last remaining contribution to us (mark your calendars now for October 22!).

I’m glad Dewey was part of my book-blogging community, and that I’ve had the chance play a small part in keeping her community spirit going.
Wendy has posted a fine, bittersweet farewell to Weekly Geeks at its dedicated blog - please do check it out, and you're welcome to join us in saying goodbye. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Salon: The "So much for that" edition

The Sunday Salon.com

As promised, I'm back with an update about my Reading Days. It won't take long...because they didn't exactly go as I'd hoped.

Jury duty isn't such a good opportunity to catch up on your reading when you actually have to serve on a jury; they kind of like you to pay attention in the courtroom. I was called up for the very first panel last Monday morning, but that jury wasn't accepted until Tuesday morning. Fortunately, it was a short trial with a quickly-rendered verdict, and I got Thursday and Friday off, but those weren't terribly productive book days either (although I did get current on a lot of your blogs, even if I didn't leave comments). I did get one Shelf Awareness review done yesterday, though.

Today, I'm reading for another September SA review and my own re-read of The Handmaid's Tale (progress post still planned for this Wednesday, participants!), and I'll be starting on a BlogHer Book Club read later this week. I'm running behind on the September Faith and Fiction Roundtable reading selection, but will get to it as soon as I can and join the conversation before posts are due.

With all that going on, I'm not sure I'll be around Blogland all that much this coming week, aside from the above-mentioned progress post and responding to the final Weekly Geeks prompt. A Saturday of coughing and body aches has me suspecting that I'm coming down with something, so there's a possibility that the next few days will be spent on reading and recovery (oh, and working - I'm due back tomorrow!) and not so much 'riting. All things considered, I am already looking forward to the upcoming three-day weekend!

BBAW 2011 - Graphic (500px wide)

By the way, The 3 R's Blog has been nominated to the Long List in the "Best Eclectic Book Blog" category of the 2011 BBAW Awards! The judging panel will decide if it gets to continue to the Short List and the voting round, so if this is as far as we go, thank you for the recognition - it is indeed an honor to be nominated!

Hope you're having a fine weekend (and that you're not coming down with something)!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Absorbing Edgy Epic Literary Novella!

Since I've been doing my civic duty at the Ventura County Courthouse this week (so much for my Reading Days!), I've just got a quick link to some Friday fun.

My editor at Shelf Awareness recently shared a list of "decoded publishing buzzwords" with the reviewers, and it's too good not to share with all of y'all. Here's a sampling:

acclaimed”: “poorly selling”

definitive”: “could have used an editor”

edgy”: “contains no adult voices of reason"

novella”: “short story with large font”

a real tear-jerker”: “writing so bad it makes you cry”

and my favorite:
continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: “this book has a dwarf in it”

More decoded terms, and credit to those who defined them, are at One-Minute Book Reviews!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Talk: *Bite Me: A Love Story*, by Christopher Moore

Bite Me: A Love Story
Christopher Moore (Twitter) (Facebook) (blog)
Read by Susan Bennett
William Morrow (2010), Edition: 1, Hardcover (ISBN 0061779725 / 9780061779725) (Audible Audiobook ASIN B003DQVEBM)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: purchased audiobook
Reason for reading: personal, favorite author

Opening lines: “‘The city of San Francisco is being stalked by a huge shaved vampyre cat named Chet, and only I, Abby Normal, emergency backup mistress of the Greater Bay Area night, and my manga-haired love monkey, Foo Dog, stand between the ravenous monster and a bloody massacre of the general public.’
“ - as excerpted from the journal of Abigail von Normal, Emergency Backup Mistress of the Greater Bay Area Night”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Whoa. And this is a love story? Yup. 'Cept there's no whining. See, while some lovers were born to run, Jody and Tommy were born to bite. Well, reborn, that is, now that they're vampires. Good thing theirs is an undying love, since their Goth Girl Friday, Abby Normal, imprisoned them in a bronze statue.

Abby wants to be a bloodsucking fiend, too, but right now she's really busy with other stuff, like breaking in a pair of red vinyl thigh-high Skankenstein® platform boots and wrangling her Ph.D.-candidate boyfriend, Steve (aka Foo Dog, the love monkey). And then there's that vampire cat Chet, who's getting bigger and smarter—and thirstier—by the minute. Abby thought she and Steve could handle the kitty cat on their own, mais non...
Before you can say "OMG! WTF?" Tommy and Jody are sprung from captivity, and join forces with Abby, Steve, the frozen-turkey-bowling Safeway crew, the Emperor of San Francisco and his trusty dogs Lazarus and Bummer, Abby's gay Goth friend Jared, and SF's finest Cavuto and Rivera to hunt big cat and save the city. And that's when the fun really begins.
Comments: And so endeth Christopher Moore’s vampire romance...but not before a few bridges, and quite a few undead, are burned.

I started listening to the audio of Bite Me: A Love Story just a couple of days after finishing its predecessor, You Suck (also A Love Story). Part of the rush was some eagerness to continue the story, but there was also a desire to replicate the experience - You Suck was a really fun listen. Perhaps I should have waited a little longer. Or perhaps Bite Me just wasn’t quite as satisfying.

Abby meant well when she imprisoned vampires Jody and Tommy in a bronze shell during their daytime death phase; she thought it might prevent an ugly breakup. Abby’s science-geek boyfriend Steve had devised a serum that could restore humanity to vampires, and the couple were in disagreement about whether to take it. However, in order to test the cure, Steve also had to devise a formula to induce vampirism...and our little Goth girl’s dying to get some of that. Meanwhile, vampires on four legs, made the old-fashioned way, are terrorizing San Francisco.

There’s no shortage of plot contortions in Bite Me; those go with Moore’s territory. But there is a shortage of Tommy and Jody, both separately and together, and as they’re a couple of my favorite characters, I missed them. On the other hand, there’s a bit too much of Abby. I live with a sixteen-year-old perky Goth girl myself, so I like the idea of Abby’s character (although Kate’s more “Goth lite,” and a lot smarter than Abby), but I think I prefer her as a side dish rather than the main course. Susan Bennett once again got Abby's voice just right, and was consistent in her other characterizations as well; appropriately, she has a “performed by” rather than a “read by” credit for her rendition of the novel. I just didn’t feel the material she had to perform was as strong as it was in You Suck. For me, Bite Me dragged in spots and went on a bit longer than it had to, and it just wasn’t as consistently funny - although, being a Christopher Moore novel, it definitely had its moments.

When I saw the author on his book tour for Bite Me, he didn’t actually talk about it much: “"It's a vampire book. What else can you say about it?" Perhaps that was telling. But in the end, I was mostly content with the way he ended his Love Story trilogy, and I’m glad I “read” it on audio - but I’m ready to say goodbye to the Vampires of San Francisco.

Rating: 3.25/5 for both book and audio

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

(Audio)Book Talk: *You Suck: A Love Story*, by Christopher Moore

You Suck: A Love Story
Christopher Moore (Twitter) (Facebook) (blog)
Read by Susan Bennett
William Morrow (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover (ISBN 0060590297 / 9780060590291) (Audio ASIN B000MTEC80)
Fiction, 336 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook
Reason for reading: Personal, a favorite author

Opening Lines: “‘You bitch, you killed me! You suck!’

“Tommy had just awakened for the first time as a vampire. He was nineteen, thin, and had spent his entire life between states of amazement and confusion.

“‘I wanted us to be together.’ Jody: pale, pretty, long red hair hanging in her face, cute swoop of a nose in search of a lost spray of freckles, a big lipstick-smeared grin. She’d only been undead for a couple of months herself, and was still learning to be spooky.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Being dead sucks. Make that being undead sucks.

Literally. Just ask C. Thomas Flood. Waking up after a fantastic night unlike anything he's ever experienced, he discovers that his girlfriend, Jody—the woman of his dreams—is a vampire. And surprise! Now he's one, too.

For some couples, the whole biting-and-blood thing would have been a deal breaker. But Tommy and Jody are in love, and they vow to work through their issues. Like how much Jody should teach Tommy about his new superpowers (and how much he needs to learn on his own). Plus there's Tommy's cute new minion, sixteen-year-old goth girl Abby Normal. (Well, someone has to run errands during daylight hours!)

Making the relationship work, however, is the least of Jody and Tommy's problems. Word has it that the vampire who nibbled on Jody wasn't supposed to be recruiting any new members into the club. Even worse, Tommy's erstwhile turkey-bowling pals are out to get him, at the urging of a blue-dyed Las Vegas call girl named (duh) Blue.

And that really sucks.
Comments: I’d suggest that you read Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends (also subtitled “A Love Story”) before cracking open - or pressing “play” on - You Suck. You can follow this novel - the middle installment in a trilogy - without it, because there is a fair amount of recapping, but it will probably make more sense if you’ve read the first book. That is, if a comic frightfest saga of modern vampire love in San Francisco is capable of making any sense at all...

Nineteen-year-old Midwesterner Tommy Flood’s efforts to keep his vampire girlfriend Jody Stroud safe by having her bronzed were rather undone by her escaping from her enclosure (in the form of mist) and turning him into her undead consort. Jody hasn’t been a vampire all that long herself, but she’s learned enough to show Tommy the ropes, which include finding food sources, never being caught out in the open at sunrise, and dodging Tommy’s former co-workers on the night crew at Safeway, a couple of homicide detectives, and the ancient vampire who originally turned Jody...and still wants to take her away from all this.

Christopher Moore is solidly ensconced on my “favorite authors” list, especially since I introduced my husband to his books, but it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to get around to reading You Suck - so long that I decided that I’d try listening to it instead. Having found that humor works in audio for me, I chose this as my first fiction audiobook (and first not read by the author), and I think I made a fine call. While I’ve been known to laugh out loud while reading Moore’s books in print, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as much as I did while listening to You Suck...and I’m not going to say that’s because it’s his funniest book (it might be, but I can’t really make that distinction). I think it’s that humor is enhanced by delivery, and it may be that sometimes it’s delivered more effectively in vocal and visual form than via words on a page. Narrator Susan Bennett does an excellent job with the voice characterizations here, particularly with Tommy, teenage perky-Goth-girl Abby Normal (who relates portions of the story, in teenage-Goth-speak, via her diary), and the homeless Emperor of San Francisco. In addition, she handles the narrative portions as the calm voice of reason, no matter how outlandish the situation gets - and with Christopher Moore, outlandish situations are a given.

I had the chance to see Christopher Moore in person last year on his book tour for Bite Me, also “a love story” and the last book in this series. During the Q&A, he said that he always intended to be a horror writer, and his early influences were in that genre, which explains the continued presence of vampires, zombies, and Death Merchants in his fiction. But when he first brought his stories to a writers' workshop, "Everyone laughed at them. So I thought 'Hey, maybe that's what I do!'" He’s developed his own distinctive horror/humor hybrid...and it has heart, too.

Having caught up with You Suck, Bite Me - also narrated by Susan Bennett - was next up in my audiobook queue - and will be my next book review posted.

Rating: 3.75/5 for the book, 4/5 for the audio

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Talk: *By Nightfall*, by MIchael Cunningham

By Nightfall: A Novel
Michael Cunningham (Facebook)
Picador, 2011; Trade Paperback (ISBN 0312610432 / 9780312610432)
Fiction, 256 pages
Source: Hardcover, provided by publisher
Reason for Reading: Review and BOOK CLUB discussion hosted at Linus's Blanket today

Opening Lines: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.
“‘Are you mad about Mizzy?’ Rebecca says.
“‘Of course not,’ Peter answers.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website:
Peter and Rebecca Harris, midforties, are prosperous denizens of Manhattan. He’s an art dealer, she’s an editor. They live well. They have their troubles—their ebbing passions, their wayward daughter, and certain doubts about their careers—but they feel as though they’re happy. Happy enough. Until Rebecca’s much younger, look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, short for the Mistake), comes to visit. And after he arrives, nothing will ever be the same again.
Comments: I sometimes get on semi-intentional theme-reading streaks. This month, I chose to read two consecutive novels set in contemporary New York City and involving families in some sort of upheaval. Other than that, however, they really didn’t have as much in common as I thought they might - but that’s good. I do like to see links between the books I choose, but I don’t want to keep reading the same book.

I haven’t read all that much of Michael Cunningham’s work. I liked The Hours well enough, but it hinged on a gimmick, and I might have appreciated it more if I’d ever read Mrs. Dalloway (I still haven’t, and it’s not on the horizon. Judge me if you must). Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall, stands on its own...and is one of the finest books I’ve read this year.

Peter and Rebecca Harris are in that early-midlife phase that can call a lot into question for people; the kids are leaving home, the career may be comfortable but stalled, and you’ve done well enough that there doesn’t seem much to want from life beyond what you already have. They are, as the plot synopsis says, “happy enough,” particularly when they don’t dwell on it too much. However, there are bumps in their road, and Rebecca’s little brother Ethan becomes a big one.

By Nightfall hinges on aimless, beautiful Ethan, known as “Mizzy,” or “The Mistake,” within his family because he was born late and unexpectedly as his sisters were entering adulthood (he’s only a few years older than Peter and Rebecca’s daughter, Bea). His visit with Peter and Rebecca is prompted by his recent decision that he wants to “do something in art;” it’s his latest whim in a life seemingly propelled by whims, and Rebecca hopes that her art-dealer husband can be of some help to her brother in determining what that actually might be.

I don’t want to discuss much more of the plot of By Nightfall; it’s not strongly plot-driven, but the storyline took some turns that I didn’t expect, and I don’t want spoil the discovery for other readers. However, what made this novel compulsively readable for me was Cunningham’s writing - beautifully flowing, evocative and emotionally affecting. Particularly effective was his choice to narrate in third person limited. The only perspective the reader gets is Peter’s, and first-person narration might have made him come across as self-involved and self-indulgent; and while the third-person viewpoint doesn’t entirely avoid that at times, I felt it rendered him much more sympathetically, and certain events in the story would have had a different impact on me if I hadn’t viewed him with that degree of sympathy.

I did not expect By Nightfall to engage and move me as much as it did, and I always appreciate surprises like that - therefore, it’s not surprising that this novel will likely have a spot on my 2011 “Books of the Year” list. For more reasons why, including generous tastes of Cunningham’s writing, please check out Melissa’s quote-filled review.

Rating: 4.25/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading Days

The Sunday Salon.com

Some universities observe "reading days" - a break of several days between the end of classes and the start of semester exams intended to allow students to focus on reading and studying. I don't have exams coming up, but I am a bit behind on work-related reading, so I'm taking a few days off from work to work on getting back on track.


I'm scheduled to report for jury duty first thing tomorrow morning. The last time I was summoned, in the spring of 2009, I was selected to sit on a trial and spent most of the week at the courthouse, which meant daily calls in to the office to let them know I wouldn't be back to work just yet. Since my county has a "one day/one trial" rule, if I'm not seated on a jury by the end of the day tomorrow, my service will be done. If I do get picked again, I'll be there till the trial ends, which I hope will be within the week.

Anyone who's ever been on jury duty knows that it involves a fair amount of time sitting around waiting for things to happen, and that makes it a very good time to catch up on your reading. I decided I'd like to have more than one day to do that - and I could make certain that I would, regardless of how long I was at the courthouse. I'm taking this entire week off - the days I'm not at the courthouse will be vacation time, and I intend to make use it to observe my own "reading days" (although I want to get some writing in there, too, and spend some time re-organizing TBR Purgatory!).

I need to get to work on next month's reading and reviewing for Shelf Awareness for Readers. My group read of The Handmaid's Tale is officially underway as of this week. I've got some very appealing ARCs whose pub dates are either recently past or coming up soon that I'd like to dig into, and, of course, there are always the paid-for and eternally patient inhabitants of TBR Purgatory. The SA reading and the group read are my priorities for the week, but I'm looking forward to some quality book time during the next few days! Wish me luck - I'll let y'all know how it goes in next week's Salon.

Reviews posted since last report:

Upcoming reviews:

Friday, August 19, 2011

There's still time for "beach reading" this summer!

Languna Beach, CaliforniaImage via Wikipedia
Too late for summertime reading, you say? The calendar says that mid-August is weeks away from being the end of summer, and in Southern California, it can be "beach season" all year long. Besides, be honest – you’re probably not going to have much time for leisurely beach reading until the kids are back in school anyway.

These beach-reading recommendations have plenty of local color; all of the authors mentioned have made their homes in the Los Angeles area at one time or another. Some of their novels take place right here; others will take you far away.

Please check out my late-summer beach-reading suggestions at CBS Los Angeles! (For the record, I've read more than half of the books I mentioned there, and the rest are currently residing in TBR Purgatory.)

BONUS: Had I been aware of it when I was preparing the post, I would have included Model Home by Eric Puchner (Scribner; trade PB, 2010) in my suggestions; the author lives in LA, and the novel is set on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and in the Antelope Valley. Ti at Book Chatter recommends it highly, and says it's her favorite read of 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Talk: *This Beautiful Life*, by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life: A Novel
Helen Schulman
Harper (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0062024388 / 9780062024381)
Contemporary fiction, 240 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date 8/2/2011)
Reason for reading: personal, review copy

Opening lines: “Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces.

“‘Still think I’m too young?’

“She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny spray of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet’s spray. Her hair had been bleached white, with long, blond roots, and most of it was pulled back into a chunky ponytail above the three plastic hoops climbing the rim of her ear.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: When the Bergamots move from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City, they’re not quite sure how they’ll adapt—or what to make of the strange new world of well-to-do Manhattan. Soon, though, Richard is consumed by his executive role at a large New York university, and Liz, who has traded in her academic career to oversee the lives of their children, is hectically ferrying young Coco around town.
Fifteen-year-old Jake is gratefully taken into the fold by a group of friends at Wildwood, an elite private school.
But the upper-class cocoon in which they have enveloped themselves is ripped apart when Jake wakes up one morning after an unchaperoned party and finds an email in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. Attached is a sexually explicit video she has made for him. Shocked, stunned, maybe a little proud, and scared—a jumble of adolescent emotion—he forwards the video to a friend, who then forwards it to a friend. Within hours, it’s gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world.
The ensuing scandal threatens to shatter the Bergamots’ sense of security and identity, and, ultimately, their happiness. They are a good family faced with bad choices, and how they choose to react, individually and at one another’s behest, places everything they hold dear in jeopardy.
Comments: This Beautiful Life is both strikingly of the moment and just a bit behind the times. Its events take place in 2003, a time when many of us were starting to live online, but when the most common way to share over the internet was still via e-mail. A story in which the catalyst is a video that goes viral might play out a bit differently now, in the YouTube/Facebook era. Having said that, while the details place the novel in a very specific time and place, Helen Schulman has crafted a timeless, resonant story that dissects choices and their consequences, looking at one family’s “beautiful life” at the instant it’s on the verge of shattering.

Both Richard and Liz Bergamot have been strivers - Richard is the first in his family to graduate high school, let alone college and beyond, while Liz grew up in a single-parent home in the North Bronx. Together since graduate school, they have made choices in their marriage that define their roles and spheres within it. When Richard accepts a job leading the expansion of a major Manhattan university, that choice moves the family from small, bohemian-flavored Ithaca, New York to the Upper West Side and effectively back-burners Liz’s career for the duration. Spaces are made for their children, Jake and Coco, at an elite private school. It’s a new world for them all, and just as they’re finding their way, it’s blown apart by a 13-year-old girl’s bad choice to make an explicit video and e-mail it to a 15-year-old; the 15-year-old’s bad choice to forward the e-mail; and the parents’ difficult choices about how to handle the fallout.

While the novel is primarily event-driven, the hook resides in how the primary characters react to the events, and Schulman reveals this though the alternating perspectives of Liz, Jake, and Richard. It’s interesting to view these characters though one another’s eyes, and the author succeeded in making me feel sympathetic toward all of them; there are really neither heroes nor villains here, and the emotional charge and challenge of their situation feels authentic.

Another hook for me was Schulman’s use of specific place references that I knew personally. I was part of the Cornell University community in Ithaca (as a grad-student spouse) for several years, and I recognized places that came up in Liz’s reflections on the family’s life there, but Ithaca’s appearances in fiction don’t really take me by surprise any more. I was surprised that Liz grew up in that “middle-class housing project” in the Bronx, Co-op City, however; my great-aunts lived there, and frequent visits made it part of the landscape of my childhood. I don’t see it show up often in my reading, though.

This Beautiful Life got its hooks into me immediately, and I think it will stay with me for awhile - there’s a lot to think about, and talk about, here.

Rating: 4/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why I'm (re)reading *The Handmaid's Tale* - and I'd love to have you join me

The things that scare me most aren’t monsters and fantasy creatures - they’re things that really could happen. In that framework, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in its year of publication, The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic of speculative fiction, a prime example of dystopian literature, a feminist touchstone, and a recurring visitor to various banned-books lists.

That scare factor has stuck with me so well that I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale; it may have been only once. I can’t remember precisely when I first read it, but I know it was somewhere between 1987 and 1991, because I have a mental picture of where I first read it - in our small apartment in the Student Family Housing complex at Cornell University. I remember that my copy was a mass-market paperback, and that I saved it with intent to re-read - and which I may still have, but after several moves, I’m not sure exactly where it is.

I bought a new trade-paperback edition of the novel earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to revisit it for the last couple of years, as I’ve seen occasional group reads crop up in the book blogiverse, and current events have given me a new sense of urgency about it.

If you’re not sure why I’d have that reaction, here’s the publisher’s description and a summary from their Reader’s Guide:
“In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a totalitarian theocracy that has forced a certain class of fertile women to produce babies for elite barren couples. These "handmaids," who are denied all rights and are severely beaten if they are uncooperative, are reduced to state property. Through the voice of Offred, a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime, Atwood has created a terrifying future based on actual events.

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.”
When Federal funding for Planned Parenthood can be abruptly eliminated and individual states can increasingly restrict access to safe and legal abortions, a woman’s right to control her own body is under attack. But for me, the larger context of Atwood’s tale - that it takes place in a theocracy - is the scarier thing. The Handmaid’s Tale was written during the ascendancy of the Moral Majority; while that organization no longer formally exists, the political influence of social and religious conservatives who would override the separation of church and state has only grown. A movement called Dominionism, which holds that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions and rule by non-Christians is a sort of sacrilege, is making inroads from the far right, and according to The Daily Beast, two Republican Presidential candidates have ties to it.

It is unfortunate that The Handmaid’s Tale may be even more timely and relevant now that it was 25 years ago, but that’s why I’m making time to read it again. Because I’ve found that it’s nice to have company in reading books like this, I suggested a group read of my own a few months ago. We’re kicking it off next week, and if you’d like to join us, there’s plenty of room - just give me your info on the sign-up form, like these readers did:

Jill (softdrink), Fizzy Thoughts (who jumped the gun and started reading early - and proclaims Margaret Atwood "a literary goddess")
Kath, (insert suitably snappy title here...)
Vasilly, 1330v
Carrie K, Books and Movies
Margaret Barney, Just Margaret
Debi Swim, I Wonder About...
Alison Walker, So Many Books, So Little Time
Jeanne, Necromancy Never Pays (who has taught the novel and has promised provocative discussion questions)

As read-alongs go, this will be pretty loose, and you’ll have to get your own copy of the book. First-timers and re-readers are both welcome. Starting the week of August 21, read The Handmaid’s Tale at your own pace. I’ll have a “progress” post on August 31, and would like all the participants to post something related to their reading - non-spoilery discussion, response to a particular theme, thoughts on Atwood's writing, etc. - on or around that date. We should all be done reading in time to post reviews/reactions and visit one another’s posts to discuss the book on September 12.

I realize this invitation is a little last-minute, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a true must-read - so, if you can fit it in, why not read it with me, now?

 EDITED TO ADD: If you mention in comments that you want to join the read, I'll add you to the list myself. Thanks to everyone who's already done so!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

At the movies: *Crazy, Stupid, Love*

Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone
Rated PG-13 
Warner Bros. - Drama, Romance, Comedy
Directed By: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Written By: Dan Fogelman

Studio summary, via RottenTomatoes.com:
At fortysomething, straight-laced Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is living the dream-good job, nice house, great kids and marriage to his high school sweetheart. But when Cal learns that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), has cheated on him and wants a divorce, his "perfect" life quickly unravels. Worse, in today's single world, Cal, who hasn't dated in decades, stands out as the epitome of un-smooth. Now spending his free evenings sulking alone at a local bar, the hapless Cal is taken on as wingman and protégé to handsome, thirtysomething player Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). -- (C)
 At this point in my summer movie-going, I’m usually ready for something that isn’t special-effects-heavy, is at least somewhat realistic in concept, and has no connection to Comic-Con at all. It’s not that I don’t like that stuff - I do enjoy my popcorn movies and genre films, which is borne out by my attendance at X-Men: First Class and Super 8 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Captain America during the last couple of months. (There was also Horrible Bosses, which was very funny and very wrong and comic-bookish in an entirely different way.) But I do crave what I call “movies for grown-ups” every now and then.

Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t as “crazy” overall as some of the scenes selected for its trailer might imply, although it does have its screwball-comedy moments. And while some of the characters in it did some stupid things, I didn’t think the movie was “stupid” at all - pretty smart and observant, actually. It is a movie for grown-ups. and I pretty much loved it.

“Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis,” Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) tells her husband Cal (Steve Carell). “Can women have midlife crises?” (I say yes, FTR.) The Weavers have been together since they first met as fifteen-year-olds and have been married for 25 years - and Emily has just informed Cal that she slept with someone else and wants a divorce. Thrown completely for a loop, Cal moves out of their house and into a standard-issue “divorced-dad” apartment and begins spending the evenings when his kids aren’t visiting at an upscale bar. Smooth-talking Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling and His Amazing Abs) frequents the same bar, leaving it with a different woman almost every time. But to Cal’s surprise, Jacob has noticed him too...and he’s decided to make Cal’s re-introduction to the single life his personal project.

Some of Cal’s makeover - better-fitting clothes, a good haircut - takes, and some of it doesn’t; he’s going through the motions of “moving on,” but really doesn’t want to. Emily seems ambivalent about it too; she hasn’t done much about actually getting that divorce, or about taking her relationship with co-worker David (Kevin Bacon) past the one-night-stand stage. The couple’s 13-year-old son Robbie is acting out at school and ardently pursuing Jessica, his 17-year-old former babysitter. Jacob, meanwhile, has re-encountered the one woman, newly-minted attorney Hannah (Emma Stone), who would not leave that bar with him - and, as he tells Cal a few weeks later, she’s a “game-changer.”

Part of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s appeal for me is that it’s a movie about relationships  that’s emphatically not a “chick flick” (Tall Paul can confirm this if you have doubts about that), and it’s a movie centered on non-superhero male characters that doesn’t find all its humor in frat-boy stunts. There are a few set-piece laugh scenes, but most of the humor is character-derived, and so is the surprising emotional weight of this film. These people - even Jacob, that player - are well-drawn and real, and the dialogue is mostly true-to-life. However, what really stands out about the writing is the compassionate tone it takes toward its subjects. And in a cast full of Academy-Award-nomination veterans - Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Emma Stone - Steve Carell holds his own quite well, although there’s one scene in that bar where he’s definitely channeling Michael Scott.

Entertainment Weekly gave Crazy, Stupid, Love an A and called it “the single best mainstream movie for adults this summer.” I think they nailed it. If you’re ready for a “movie for grown-ups” yourself, I don’t think you’ll go wrong with this one.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Talk: *Small Town Sinners*, by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners
Melissa Walker (Twitter) (Facebook)
Bloomsbury USA Children’s (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1599905272 / 9781599905273)
Fiction (YA), 288 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date July 2011)
Reason for reading: Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion

Opening lines: “‘Take the wheel,’ says Starla Joy, sticking the grape lollipop she’s been working on into her mouth. She doesn’t even wait to see if I’ve followed her instructions - she just lets go and strips down, pulling off her light cotton sweater to reveal a bright red tank top dotted with white hearts.

“I lunge across the front seat to make sure her old truck stays straight. A little dust kicks up as we skim the edge of the road.

“‘Starla Joy!’ I shout. ‘I don’t even have my license yet.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Lacey Anne Byer is a perennial good girl and lifelong member of the House of Enlightenment, the Evangelical church in her small town. With her driver's license in hand and the chance to try out for a lead role in Hell House, her church's annual haunted house of sin, Lacey's junior year is looking promising. But when a cute new stranger comes to town, something begins to stir inside her. Ty Davis doesn't know the sweet, shy Lacey Anne Byer everyone else does. With Ty, Lacey could reinvent herself. As her feelings for Ty make Lacey test her boundaries, events surrounding Hell House make her question her religion.
Comments: If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you may be aware that I’m quite intrigued by evangelical Christianity. It’s a worldview quite different from my own - challenging for me to understand, and all too easy to judge - but one that ten years of living in the Bible Belt gave me some exposure to and curiosity about. You may not be aware that I have deep, (probably) irrational suspicion of small towns. Some of that may also be attributed to the Bible Belt; a good chunk of it probably comes from reading a lot of “dark-heart-of-suburbia” fiction. Those elements come together in Melissa Walker’s young-adult novel Small Town Sinners, and made me approach this Faith & Fiction Roundtable selection cautiously.

Sixteen-year-old Lacey Anne Byer’s dad is an assistant pastor at the small-town, charismatic-evangelical House of Enlightenment Church. They’ve had the answers to every question Lacey’s ever had about life and the world so far, and it’s never occurred to her to have follow-up questions - or to seek answers anywhere else. On the verge of entering her junior year of high school, her biggest question concerns what role she’ll land in Hell House, the church’s twist on a Halloween haunted house in which “sinful choices” are dramatized, complete with fake blood, devils, and literally hellish consequences, in the interest of saving souls; it’s their biggest annual spiritual-outreach project. This is the first year Lacey will be old enough to audition, and she’s after the role of “Abortion Girl.” But when a not-so-new boy moves into their town, Lacey’s got something else to focus on. Not only is Ty good-looking and nice, he has questions of his own, and they make Lacey wonder if there might be different, more complex answers than the ones her church and family have been giving her.

My cautious approach to this novel turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the church-centered storyline, Small Town Sinners isn’t terribly preachy, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated that while Melissa Walker has come up with a story in which the characters could have easily been drawn in one-dimensional black and white, she hasn’t done that. Her engaging, church-centered small-town teens aren’t goody-goodies, and their worldview is conveyed believably and respectfully. Meanwhile, the new kid in town isn’t a bad-boy rebel; he’s simply a boy with a different way of thinking - and in its way, in a setting like this, that can be equally threatening, and Walker accounts for that too. One more thing I appreciated is that she gives consideration to the reality that one may question a particular set of teachings about God separately from questioning one's personal faith in God. This is YA fiction for a mature-minded reader, which happens to be my favorite kind.

Late adolescence is a natural time for questioning the beliefs one has grown up with, and I personally believe such questioning should be encouraged, not stifled. (Heck, I’m still doing it, which is one reason I’m part of this year’s F&F Roundtable in the first place!) I’m inclined to suspect that, by allowing the teenage characters in Small Town Sinners to question and grow and begin to operate within shades of gray, Melissa Walker feels the same way.

Rating: 4/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What the Hell (House)? Discussing *Small Town Sinners* (Faith & Fiction Roundtable)

Melissa Walker’s YA novel Small Town Sinners (review to be posted
on Monday) is the subject of the Faith & Fiction Roundtable’s current book discussion.

The novel is focused on a group of teen members of the House of Enlightenment Evangelical church in the small town of West River as they prepare for their annual Hell House presentation/spiritual outreach project, and centered on Lacey Anne Byer, daughter of the assistant pastor.

If you’ve never encountered a Hell House in your town’s various Halloween observances, here’s a brief explanation:
“A Hell House consists of a group of horrific scenes within a type of haunted house. The customer walks through a sequence of tableaus designed to create terror and revulsion. The last scene is different; it is typically a portrayal of heaven. The visitors are then asked to accept salvation by repenting of their sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Hell Houses are a relatively new evangelistic technique used by many hundreds of fundamentalist and other evangelical churches in North America. One intent is to proselytize the unsaved public. Another is to promote certain conservative Christian beliefs.”
The House of Enlightenment’s Hell House includes several typical scenes:
  • “Gays and lesbians being tortured in hell for all eternity because of their same-sex behavior while they were alive on earth
  • Disastrous tragedies and loss of life resulting from drunk driving
  • Personal tragedies arising from pre-marital sex, notably
  • Women undergoing very bloody late-term abortions, complete with screaming, lots of blood, and particularly insensitive, uncaring health providers”
The last two items play critical roles (no pun intended) in the plot of Small Town Sinners. Lacey hopes to be cast in the leading role of “Abortion Girl” in this year’s Hell House, but since it’s the first year she’s old enough to audition for a big part, she’s made the understudy. However, she moves up when Tessa, the senior girl who was originally chosen for the role, has to drop out of the production...because she’s pregnant, and will be sent to a home for unwed mothers several hours’ drive from West River until she has the baby and gives it up for adoption.

While Lacey’s excited about her star turn, Tessa’s experience is one new development that’s fueling some new questions about her church’s teachings. Both girls had signed “purity pledges” and wore rings to signify that; and while it’s obvious that Tessa didn’t keep hers, Lacey can’t suddenly see her friend as a bad person because of it. Another catalyst for Lacey’s new doubts is the arrival of good-looking Ty Davis, returned to West River after ten years away. Ty’s grown up having had some different experiences than Lacey and her friends, and has his own reasons for wanting very little to do with Hell House.

I didn’t grow up in an evangelical/fundamentalist tradition, and I’ve never been to a Hell House - and it’s probably a good thing. I am not a fan of religious scare tactics; to me, they seem to run counter to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, and I would not respond well to this type of presentation. A few members of the Roundtable group have attended them, however - and they didn’t consider the productions to be very effective at the “salvation outreach” portion of their mission, although they did succeed in being plenty scary! A couple of group members wondered whether having teens portray “sins” the way they do in Hell House presentations might actually desensitize them to real problems like drunk driving, suicide, and the consequences of unprotected sex, and I’m inclined to share that view.

Members of the Roundtable are discussing Small Town Sinners on our blogs today. If you’ve read the book, please join us! And even if you haven’t, what do you think of Hell Houses?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Comic-Con 2011, Part 3: Who's your Doctor?

Parts 1 and 2 posted on Monday and Tuesday

This is NOT the Doctor!

We were up early again on Sunday for the last day of Comic-Con, loading up the car and driving back to the Convention Center, since we’d be heading straight home at the end of the day...but at the beginning, we headed straight for Hall H. Once again, we had a 12:30 panel as our goal, and this was our last chance to actually make it. We were far from the first people in the lines that morning, but we were far from the last either. I left for another line - the one waiting to get into the Starbucks at the Hilton across the street - while Tall Paul stayed in the queue outside Hall H, and when I returned to rejoin him, the crowds had grown, but he’d moved up a few rows. And when they opened the doors to Hall H 15 minutes before the first panel at 10:00 AM, we were in the wave of people who made it through. We’d be squatters sitting through two earlier panels, but we were guaranteed that we would not miss the one we’d actually come to see.

The Gleeks were out in force for the first panel of the day, but I have to wonder if some of them were disappointed; most of the Glee panel was made up of writers and producers, and they were primarily there to talk about their upcoming 3-D concert film. I’ve been to panel discussions where I haven’t known too much about the show or movie or book being discussed, but by the end I was interested enough to want to check it out for myself...but the Glee panel didn’t do that for me (sorry, Gleeks, don't hate me!). The panel for Supernatural that followed it did pique my interest, however. It was more balanced between creative staff and stars, and they had the chemistry that comes from being part of a long-running show (and several prior appearances at Comic-Con) together. We had a good time with this one, even though we’re not fans.

We’re technically newbie fans of the show whose panel we’d been waiting for - it’s been around in one form or another for almost 50 years, and we’ve only watched it for the last year or two (plus catching up with several prior seasons on DVD), but we were in excellent company. The BBC is putting a big push behind Doctor Who this year, which has included splitting the current season - the sixth of the revival, the second of the 11th Doctor, and the forty-somethingeth of the entire show (it’s tricky to count) - into two parts and panel presentations at Comic-Con and the Television Critics Association (TCA). The Comic-Con panel was missing showrunner Steven Moffat - which was a loss during the audience Q&A, because there were some questions asked that no one else could really have addressed - but we got two producers and one writer. More importantly, we got Amy Pond and the Eleventh Doctor. Both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were very engaging panelists who seem to love being part of the show, and with them in the cast, the BBC has picked an excellent time to try to raise its profile.

David Tennant as the Tenth DoctorImage via Wikipedia
This is not the Doctor either...any more. Sigh.
And I say that as a devoted fan of the Tenth Doctor. However, it’s fascinated me to compare and contrast the ways in which the Doctor remains the Doctor regardless of who portrays him and the aspects that seem to be specific to a particular incarnation. David Tennant’s Doctor seemed a more mercurial and romantic character, one who made strong attachments and yet spent significant time without a companion in his travels. Matt Smith’s Doctor still strikes me as more reserved and measured, and yet less alone, in part because his companion has a companion of her own. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory - and River - are something close to a family, and that’s a very different dynamic. And I love both interpretations. Tall Paul will answer the question “Who’s your Doctor?” with “The Eleventh,” but it’s a lot harder for me to make a call on that.

(The previous discussion will make no sense at all to non-Whovians. Whovians are invited to debate it - politely, and keeping in mind that I'm a Who noob with a narrow frame of reference - in the comments.)

Trust him. He's your Doctor.

Amy Pond, listening to the Doctor
Hey, how'd that Dalek get in here?
Don't blink during the Q&A - it's a Weeping (and talking) Angel
This is not River Song, but it's as close as we got at the Con (no Alex Kingston!)

In addition to show discussion, behind-the-scenes stories, and questions from (mostly costumed) members of the audience, we got some sneak peeks during the panel - and the trailer for the second half of Season Six looks amazing. I believe you can join the Doctor’s travels at any time, but once you do, you’ll probably want to backtrack and get some context, because some elements of this show’s mythology have been in place for decades (although you don't necessarily need to go to the very beginning). And before you pick up the current season in midstream (at the end of August), I’d suggest watching the first half of the season, which is already available on DVD. (And because of the way BBC America chops shows up to get the commercials in, you’ll probably find you prefer watching on DVD anyway - I certainly do.)

After our hour with the Doctor, there wasn’t much more to do aside from another short visit to the Expo Hall, where Tall Paul snagged one more poster - and then we got on the road home. It was a bit disappointing to leave Comic-Con 2011 without having secured our 2012 tickets, but assuming we can get those tickets online a few months from now, we will be back for more next year - maybe even four days’ worth!

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Talk: *The Girls of Murder City*, by Douglas Perry

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired CHICAGO
Douglas Perry (book page)
Penguin (Non-Classics) (2011), Paperback (ISBN 0143119222 / 9780143119227)
History (20th century), 320 pages (including references)
Source: Publisher (new paperback edition), for review
Reason for Reading: Unputdownables’ Early Reader Group selection

Opening Lines: “The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.

"The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women’s quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She’d greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage. But that was when she was the undisputed ‘prettiest murderess’ in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's "hanging paper." Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister's daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan - both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers - the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on "Murderesses' Row" as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins's favorites.

In the tradition of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal.
Comments: I am much fonder of the musical Chicago than I probably should be. I’ve never seen it on stage, but the movie version came out at a time when...well, let’s just say that a story about thwarted women who killed their men wasn’t all that far-fetched to me, and I loved “The Cell Block Tango” (still do). I’m not sure when I learned that the show was fact-based, but it was when I read Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City that I discovered just how “ripped from the headlines” - of 1924 - it really is. By the way, the word “Chicago” in the book’s subtitle really is properly offset by quotation marks or a change in font, because it refers to Chicago the show, not Chicago the city; while the “merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail” certainly did captivate the city, I’m not sure how truly inspiring they were. Having said that, Perry’s book is also concerned with another woman - reporter Maurine Watkins, who indeed was inspired to base her first stage play on two of the sensational murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune. I think she was pretty inspiring, to be honest.

Perry relies on both contemporary accounts and later works in his exhaustive research for The Girls of Murder City, but the last adjective that describes this work of narrative nonfiction is “dry.” Its primary subject is the consecutive murder trials of “Beautiful Beulah” Annan and “Stylish Belva” Gaertner - the models for Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly - both in court during the spring of 1924 to defend against charges of shooting and killing men who were not their husbands. Both cases were salacious and scandalous, and Chicago’s many newspapers fed the public appetite for news about the glamorous defendants. Women were rarely convicted of murder by Chicago’s all-male juries - especially if they were good-looking women - but following a couple of recent guilty verdicts, there was more at stake for Beulah and Belva.

Within this framework, Perry also delves into the stories of several other Chicago murderesses of the time, the reporters - mostly women, including Watkins - who told those stories to the public, the way things operated and the challenges faced by women at the newspapers where those reporters worked, and the unrestrained climate of Prohibition-era Chicago, where underground jazz clubs flourished and illegal liquor flowed freely. (If you ask me, Prohibition is an object lesson in irony.) He’s got great material to work with, and he crafts it into a page-turner with a firm sense of its time and place. The pace is brisk, and the writing is vivid and occasionally breathless, but Perry succeeds in putting the reader right in the midst of events, including Watkins’ application of her satirical eye to shape them into a hit, prize-winning stage comedy (the musical adaptation came years later).

The environment described in The Girls of Murder City seems to be the birthplace of the celebrity-obsessed, fame-for-its-own-sake mindset we know all too well these days, and it’s fascinating in much the same way. Despite being almost a century old, the story here has a sense of immediacy and a contemporary feel, and its blend of true crime and modern history absolutely held my attention - even without “The Cell Block Tango.”

Rating: 4/5

Please visit Unputdownables for other Early Reader Group reviews of The Girls of Murder City.