Friday, October 31, 2014

October Cultural Roundup

Michael Keaton and his doppelganger in Bird Man
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff 
James Joyce by Edna O'Brien 
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman 
The Second Plane - September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis

Gone Girl (U.S., 2014)  
Bird Man (U.S., 2014) 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Mother's Story

His face, a flower - sunlit, flooded with a beauty that blinds me. 

A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt (Penguin Group, 1997) 148 pages

A mother's love has an irresistible pull for me. A child who is lost to suicide is a devastating blow. This is a love letter to that child, to the family that bore that child. I sometimes wonder why I am drawn to such intense material but, in a manner, I find it profoundly cathartic. 

Carter Cooper, son of Glori Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, seemed blessed at birth - handsome, intelligent with a winning, sensitive personality. And affluent ... no child could have had a more fortuitous beginning. But as every mother of an afflicted child knows, physical circumstances and the love of those around you cannot save you from the demons within. Ms. Vanderbilt watched her son Carter leap to his death from the the 14th story balcony of their NYC apartment. How one recovers from that boggles the mind.

The cause of the suicide is disturbingly unclear. Was it a reaction to his asthma medicine? She
Gloria with Carter 
and Anderson
scours medical research to try and determine this. Was he in a deep sleepwalking state, as his mother sadly conjectures? The final act was so uncharacteristic, it confounded the many who loved him. If it was some sort of mental illness or depression (he had just broken up with his girlfriend), Ms. Vanderbilt gives no hint of it or it remained well hidden by Carter himself.

But the book is more than a memorial to her son.  It is a melancholic paean to a lost time when the family was whole. Ms Vanderbilt's husband Wyatt Cooper died in 1977, her son in 1988. Her second son, the journalist and broadcaster Anderson Cooper, is the last member of her immediate family from this marriage (she also has two older sons).

The reader sees the yearning in Vanderbilt to build and maintain a family by one who lost her father as a toddler and was estranged from her mother for much of her life. She was famously fought over by her biological mother and her paternal aunt (the aunt won). That story has been immortalized in Little Gloria ... Happy at Last.

She is really a remarkable person - spiritual, positive, loving and open to the joys and vicissitudes of life.

An anecdote:
Two or three years ago, a friend invited me to a dinner celebrating the Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition in Toronto. My friend was a finalist in the competition and generously purchased tickets for a group of us to attend the dinner. Two tables in front of me sat Gloria Vanderbilt - looking beautiful if fragile. Someone asked where Ms. Vanderbilt was sitting. Another guest pointed expectantly to a venerable white haired lady at the head table who appeared to be in her seventies. Nope, I replied - it's that sexy, red haired lady in front of us at the head table. She was beautifully made up and seemed rather sweet if subdued. I loved that she had named this prize after her son whom she felt had great promise as a writer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

About desire, unrequited and otherwise

People are more than you think they are. 
And they're less as well. 

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (Harper Collins, 2014) 255 pages

In many ways this is a book about desire, unrequited and otherwise. Cunningham glides easily, and deliciously, between depicting heterosexual and gay desire in an effortless manner ... a talent he demonstrated in the celebrated novel The Hours and the more recent By Nightfall both of which I enjoyed a great deal.

This is a tale of two brothers and how, and why, they love. The book begins on the cusp of the 2004 Presidential elections (the election's significance is unclear except it perhaps demonstrates Tyler's rabid dislike of Bush and his ilk). Barrett, the younger one, is more cerebral and unsuccessful in love. Tyler is older, in love with Beth who is on the verge of death with a terminal illness, and he is a closeted drug addict hooked on coke. 

Both brothers are unlucky in various ways. Yale-educated Barret works in a high end retailer as a sales clerk and is so broke he is forced to move in with his brother and his fiancee in Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with an on again off again musical career, struggles to write a love song for his bride to be at their wedding. 

Tyler is dream-filled, romantic, passionate about politics and his feelings for Beth who appears to be recovering from a serious illness for a brief time but then succumbs. He's intense, demanding, politically astute, somewhat lost.

Barrett is smart but intellectually and financially under-employed and at loose ends. He is haunted by a vision of a green light he spotted above Central Park as the novel begins. He doesn't know what it means (nor do we - does it hearken back to Gatsby's green light at the end of Daisy's dock?). He is unnerved enough by it that he tells very few what he saw. It haunts him but it also haunts the novel - what can it signify?

Into this circle of friends enter Liz and Andrew, a May/December romance with the 50 something Liz, a successful businesswoman who owns the shop that Barrett works in, managing the relationship and the 20 something Andrew with one eye to the inevitable end of the affair. Liz desires Andrew but see no long lasting relationship in the future.

Barrett, too, covets the glamorously young Andrew surreptitiously but the closest he comes to Andrew is snorting Tyler's hidden stash of coke at a New Year's eve party with Andrew.
And, not surprisingly, there is a sort of unrequited love that a younger brother (Barrett) feels for an older brother (Tyler), whom Barrett perceives to be superior. Barrett yearns for his brother emotionally and possibly physically. Tyler is unattainable in many ways, the object o of love and some resentment.

Beth does not survive (spoiler alert) and the brothers move out of their shabby apartment once Tyler makes a minor splash with an indie hit on YouTube. Liz breaks up with Andrew. Both Barrett and Tyler find love, or lust, of sorts. But the circle is broken and will not be formed in quite the same way again.

Surprisingly, I found at least three spelling errors in this book - I say surprisingly because Harper Collins is a publishing giant and Cunningham a major American writer. 

Literate, witty, passionate, what's not to love about Cunningham? But I am unsure what to make of this novel. Cunningham is a beautiful writer; however, his intent is obscure here despite the beautiful prose. Sometimes that works for the reader, I'm not sure it does here.