Vanity Fair Amongst the Lotus Eaters

Sometimes I miss California.  Some of my family moved there when I was young and once we’d traveled west to see them, California became more than another state on the map; it became a state of mind.  It was a place with gentler weather and attitudes that believed in potential as much as my home state believed in realism, or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.  Granted, this was between the late 60’s and early 80’s when California was “the place to be” and I was getting trips to Disneyland but I still miss that pervasive feeling of “yes” that was the California I knew.  The residents (very few of the people I met there were natives) might have seemed a little self-indulgent at times but most of them turned out to be very kind and I really loved being there.  All those feelings rush back whenever I pick up Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Maupin was another Golden State émigré when he started writing a syndicated column about San Francisco and the other immigrants who found themselves in its embrace during the 1970’s. He wanted to report on the phenomenon of grocery-store cruising (think of it as singles bar with produce) without naming any names.  So he published a fictionalized news column that introduced the slightly out-of-step Midwesterner, Mary Ann Singleton to this meat market with a butcher’s shop.  People wrote to his paper’s publisher asking for more of Mary Ann’s adventures and Maupin obliged adding Mona Ramsey, the aging refugee from the 60’s whose ramshackle life was, in her own terms, “down to seeds and stems” and Mona’s best friend, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.   No one would believe it now but Maupin broke ground in Tales of the City with Michael as one of the first leading gay characters in a continuing serial.  By this time, California readers of his column were faxing it to friends in Barstow and Phoenix.  A whole host of wonderful characters showed up including the perpetual lothario, Brian Hawkins and everyone’s favorite landlady, Anna Madrigal.  Then the real fun began.
Have you ever read Thackeray’s comedy, Vanity Fair?  It’s a wonderful satire of English society where everyone is trying to get ahead, socially, financially or otherwise.  It has a host of characters and the minor ones you meet in the beginning find their way back to the plot by the end.  Tales of the City is like that.  The plot is ridiculously interconnected (although many of the characters don’t know all the connections) so half of the fun of the story is guessing where and how the guy in Chapter Two will come back in Chapter Ten.  Maybe that was Maupin’s way of playing games or keeping his readers interested but I think it was an observation about San Francisco: never mind how big this place looks from the air; we’re really a very small town.
Like any small town, secrets and scandals abound and there’s a half-hearted mystery to boot but the clearest theme in this first book is that San Francisco is a great place if you are looking for your life. (There are nine installments in this series so far and I’ve quit believing Maupin when he says he’s finished; he fooled me twice before with those words and twice fooled is my legal limit.)    Maupin opens this book with a quote from Oscar Wilde:”It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”   Maybe that’s because for some, it remains “the place to be.”  A place where the very nature of being includes a laid-back enjoyment of life.  Where anything can happen and anyone can reappear.  Now, that’s what I call potential.

Vanity Fair Amongst the Lotus Eaters

Sometimes I miss California.  Some of my family moved there when I was young and once we’d traveled west to see them, California became more than another state on the map; it became a state of mind.  It was a place with gentler weather and attitudes that believed in potential as much as my home state believed in realism, or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.  Granted, this was between the late 60’s and early 80’s when California was “the place to be” and I was getting trips to Disneyland but I still miss that pervasive feeling of “yes” that was the California I knew.  The residents (very few of the people I met there were natives) might have seemed a little self-indulgent at times but most of them turned out to be very kind and I really loved being there.  All those feelings rush back whenever I pick up Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Maupin was another Golden State émigré when he started writing a syndicated column about San Francisco and the other immigrants who found themselves in its embrace during the 1970’s. He wanted to report on the phenomenon of grocery-store cruising (think of it as singles bar with produce) without naming any names.  So he published a fictionalized news column that introduced the slightly out-of-step Midwesterner, Mary Ann Singleton to this meat market with a butcher’s shop.  People wrote to his paper’s publisher asking for more of Mary Ann’s adventures and Maupin obliged adding Mona Ramsey, the aging refugee from the 60’s whose ramshackle life was, in her own terms, “down to seeds and stems” and Mona’s best friend, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.   No one would believe it now but Maupin broke ground in Tales of the City with Michael as one of the first leading gay characters in a continuing serial.  By this time, California readers of his column were faxing it to friends in Barstow and Phoenix.  A whole host of wonderful characters showed up including the perpetual lothario, Brian Hawkins and everyone’s favorite landlady, Anna Madrigal.  Then the real fun began.
Have you ever read Thackeray’s comedy, Vanity Fair?  It’s a wonderful satire of English society where everyone is trying to get ahead, socially, financially or otherwise.  It has a host of characters and the minor ones you meet in the beginning find their way back to the plot by the end.  Tales of the City is like that.  The plot is ridiculously interconnected (although many of the characters don’t know all the connections) so half of the fun of the story is guessing where and how the guy in Chapter Two will come back in Chapter Ten.  Maybe that was Maupin’s way of playing games or keeping his readers interested but I think it was an observation about San Francisco: never mind how big this place looks from the air; we’re really a very small town.
Like any small town, secrets and scandals abound and there’s a half-hearted mystery to boot but the clearest theme in this first book is that San Francisco is a great place if you are looking for your life. (There are nine installments in this series so far and I’ve quit believing Maupin when he says he’s finished; he fooled me twice before with those words and twice fooled is my legal limit.)    Maupin opens this book with a quote from Oscar Wilde:”It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”   Maybe that’s because for some, it remains “the place to be.”  A place where the very nature of being includes a laid-back enjoyment of life.  Where anything can happen and anyone can reappear.  Now, that’s what I call potential.

The Girls After My Own Heart…

There are lots of books about young women.  And there are lots of books about gorgeous women.  There are books about tall women, women who don’t realize how lovely they are and too damn many books about women who stay thin or physically fit without effort.  Now a lot of these gals aren’t bad characters; heck, some of them are my long-time favorites but it does get tiresome to run into the same type of heroine, day after day.  Thank God for Sue Ann Jaffarian and her creation, Odelia Grey.  They’re the girls that break the cliches.

Odelia may be fictional but she’s a girl after my own heart.  She’s not thin, she’s not young and (like me) she works for lawyers.  Not the usual girl on the book cover.  At the start of her first adventure, Too Big to Miss, Odelia’s life is a bit in the dumps.  Her good boss is retiring, the last date needed firing and skinny shop girls want to treat her like dreck.  Odelia knows how to stand up for herself and she gives as good as she gets but it’s sad living that much of life on the defensive and the death of her friend Sophie makes things worse.  Of all of the over-weight, under-tall, not-so-youthful people in the world, Sophie was one who charged Odelia’s confidence, insisted all people are beautiful, regardless of Body Mass Index and got Odelia to believe it too.  Now, Odelia has to close out her Sophie’s professional and personal business affairs and what Odelia learns in the process turns her own world upside down.  Despite set backs and set-ups, the heroine of Too Big to Miss moves forward, trying to find justice for a friend who wanted decent treatment for everyone.  If you read it, I know you’ll like the finish.

I had the pleasure of hearing Sue Ann Jaffarian speak a few years ago when I was feeling low.  Like me and Odelia, she’s a professional paralegal and none of us would be described as skinny or tall.  Still, Sue Ann impressed me with her verve and frank remarks about her life as a novelist.  She said she’d always wanted to be a published writer and she finally decided to become one.  Fear didn’t stop her and failure of the first book didn’t stop her either.  She wrote again and again, refusing to give up so she eventually achieved her goal.  Now she’s one of the recognized authors of “cozy” mysteries, those books with just enough blood and zing to keep a reader interested but not nauseated.   Perfect books for a snow day or a holiday or a sick day propped up in bed.  I love them, not just because I know the life of a paralegal or a bit about Julian, California (it’s the site of another mystery series Jaffarian writes and close to where my grandparents lived.) but because her characters are so darn likeable.  I suspect they take after their author.

But Odelia’s the girl after my heart, along with the gal who created her.  Both of them take risks and don’t apologize for being themselves.  They’re smart, funny and  and they leave you with memories you’ll love.  Those are good traits to find in any heroine.  They’re even better when they appear in real life.

Drawing back the curtain

One of the amazing powers of literature is its ability to draw aside the curtain.  Writers who have experienced other roles in life use their background for a book and the readers get a glimpse of life-in-the-trenches written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Want to see World War I as a medic?  Pick up Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  How much of Mad Men is true?  Try Jerry Della Femina’s From those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, a terrific book on advertising.  Those books and others entertain us with insights into the human condition but they also enlighten readers by revealing a world we’ve never known.  One of my best friends recommended a book that fits in this shelf.  No matter what else happens I guarantee you won’t forget You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger.  Who could give us a better inside view at military intelligence than a former OSS officer?

Roger Hall was an army lieutenant during World War II, ensconced on a base in Louisiana when luck and poor work on the commander’s baseball team led to a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.  Because of his training as a teacher, the OSS initially had him teach other recruits the basics of scouting and patrolling.  Hall was qualified because he’d grown up near the training camp and already knew the landscape.  Eventually he went to paratrooper school where he got the immortal advice on landing, “Feet together or broken ankles. Take your choice, sir.”  After that came more training, testing and some instruction in Spies 101 where the exams included being able to walk into any town, without ID and then get a job in and data on a place that ought to be using security.  In order to keep up one cover story, our hero ends up making an impromptu plea in a factory to buy war bonds.  The speech is so successful, the newspaper writes an article on him.   Nothing like keeping a low profile!

Hall’s intelligence shows as well as the attitude that made him a writer instead of a CIA agent: As one commander said, “You’re much too impatient with inefficiency, either above or below you and with yourself as well.  In an organization that makes as many mistakes as this one has and always will, too much obvious impatience will brand you as a maverick.”  Hall was an intelligent maverick and a lucky man to boot.  When he’s sent into occupied France, he parachutes, not into a nest of Nazis but behind American lines.  Patton got through two hours before he landed. Then he does map duty in unoccupied France and battles a stuffy British major.  He finally goes from training to real action just in time to take the surrender of Hitler’s troops remaining in Norway.  Hall runs from one operation to the next, helping where he can and learning a lot about the brave, incredible people who did the impossible to aid the Allies during World War II.  Because of of this book, we get a birds-eye view of a small but important section of a very big war. 

There’s a rumor that the CIA used to show copies of this book to their new recruits and say, “Never let this happen again.”  I think that’s sad.  People in the intelligence community must be smart to do their work and many smart people are iconoclasts, Roger Hall included. Yes, they can be harder to monitor (ask any teacher with gifted students) than the rest of us average Joes but these are the people we rely on for original and critical thinking, a commodity sorely needed in security and defense.  As it is, Roger Hall served his nation and the world, first in secret and then by telling tales.  Thank goodness he survived the war to pull the curtain back for us.

When the door to the unknown opens

Every once in a while an author comes along that recalls the viewpoint of a child.  Not any child in particular, only what it was like to always be the youngest person in the room, with the most amount of instruction, whose opinions carry the least weight in a family.  Because, along with being loved and read to and coddled and warm, that’s what it feels like sometimes when you’re a kid.  Anyway, Neil Gaiman knows that.  Like Roald Dahl and T. H. White and Lewis Carroll before him, he remembers how even loved kids sometimes want more from their lives, more attention, more influence, more glamor.  And he puts this in his books, along with what comes from granted wishes.  The man’s written many terrific books but if you’re not familiar with his work, may I begin the acquaintance?  Let me introduce you to someone special, a girl named Coraline.

Coraline is a girl with a problem.  As a matter of fact, she is bored.   Her family’s moved into a very old house that has been turned into apartments and her parents have focused on their work.  Her folks love her and care for her but, right now, they’re too busy to pay much attention.  The neighbors aren’t bad, but they’re grown and they always mispronounce her name and predict she’s going into danger.  This is not what a young girl wants.  Nope, Coraline wants some attention, and a mother who cooks, a father than listens and a look in the apartment next door.   There’s a brick wall and a locked door between that empty flat and hers, at least there is until Coraline sneaks out the key, opens the lock and the bricked wall she once saw has vanished…so Coraline goes exploring.  Like Alice through the Looking Glass, she finds a world much like her own until you get to the details.  Here, the folks pays attention and the toys are all alive and the “other mother” cooks and looks at the world through sewn-on, shoe-button eyes.  There’s something not right with this world even with all these improvements and Coraline returns to the real world before they can change out here eyes. And this is where Coraline leaves Alice behind.

Now I love the Alice books.  From 5th grade through 8th grade, I re-read them continually and I can still recite Jabberwocky by heart.  But Alice’s adventures are bordered by her workaday world.  When the story needed to end or got too complex Alice would wake and the Red Queen and Mock Turtle would vanish.  Magic couldn’t follow her back.  But Coraline eventually realizes opening the door let the “other world” into hers and real parents are no match for the Other-Mother’s schemes.  In order to return to her world, Coraline has to save it, with the aid of a cat and her brain.   Well, there’s a whole lot more but you’ll need to read the book.

Coraline’s perfect for anyone who is waiting or for folks who’ve yearned to explore the unknown.  If you remember feeling curious about the other side of the world or wondering what’s inside a stone, spend an hour or two with this brave adventurer.   And remember to watch your step and avoid people with buttons for eyes.