Apple of My Eye by Helene Hanff

It’s 10 degrees outside, and the temperature is still plunging, but Helene Hanff’s wondrous and adoring Apple of My Eye makes me want to go outside and start exploring every nook and cranny of New York City right now. If Hanff’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because she was also the author of 84, Charing Cross Road, also a great book.

Apple of My Eye may not persuade everyone to love Manhattan, but Hanff paints a beautiful, idiosyncratic portrait of my favorite city, warts and all, during a time when the New York ran out of money and the rest of the country, and Gerald Ford in particular, told New York to go to hell.

TIME OUT TO PLUG A NEW BOOKSTORE. Apple of My Eye took me by surprise as I was checking out Book Monster, a fine new used book store in Santa Monica. Like the best used books stores, Book Monster’s layout is completely inviting and encourages wonderfully random browsing. The travel books alone were worth the trip! Who knew I’d find my favorite book about New York while browsing in Santa Monica?

The premise of Apple of My Eye is that Hanff was commissioned to write the copy for a book of photographs of Manhattan. Determined to write a truly helpful book for tourists to the city, Hanff sets out with her long-time friend Patsy to explore Manhattan in the mid 1970’s, when New York City as a whole was in a state of financial collapse. This book is about their adventures. There was a lot more crime and many more things were falling apart in the 1970’s than is the case now. Acknowledging these issues, Hanff is determined to learn as much as possible about the parts of New York that she thinks tourists ought to see. Along the way, Hanff discovers and rediscovers an impressive array of New York neighborhoods, and is always ready to stop and really look at what is her around her.

Hanff lives on the Upper East Side, and her friend Patsy lives on the Upper West Side (my own personal nirvana). The two happily debate the relative merits of these two meccas — of course some of the traditional distinctions are waning as the Upper West Side keeps replacing old, charming and sometimes dilapidated brownstones with scores of fancy high rises. I might argue that the Upper West Side’s residents have changed far less than their architecture.

Helene Hanff and Patsy have obviously known each other for a long time, and together they come up with lists of places to see and neighborhoods to explore. Hanff and Patsy combine high degrees of inquisitiveness with a determination to see and appreciate as much as possible. Undaunted by getting lost (in a pre-IPhone era) and often getting very hungry, hot and footsore, they are determined to do a thorough job of checking out places tourists to New York should see. The two women are both very very opinionated about how New York should be — Hanff has been boycotting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest over its expansion into Central Park — and yet they can be persuaded to alter their initial perceptions. They really want to point tourists to good places and they are open to checking everything out.

New York keeps changing. In addition to the financial crisis of the 1970’s, Hanff writes about the World Trade Center just as the Twin Towers were opening, the newly opened sections of the Metropolitan Museum, the newly opened and very dusty Ellis Island and so much more. It was also a time when Central Park was considered pretty dangerous except on the weekends. Apple of My Eye made me want to explore everything. Now of course we have Google and Google Maps, so theoretically we shouldn’t get lost as often and we can look up the details on anything of interest. That’s a good thing in many ways, but I have to wonder about how many interesting things I may have missed because I was so focused on my phone that I neglected to look around.

For those of us who lived in Manhattan during the late 70’s and 80’s and have returned to live there only recently, Hanff’s book offers the best kind of nostalgia and also the recognition that change will continue to happen. Some change will be good, and some will suck. We can fight it or embrace it, but New York is going to keep on changing. And if we are confused or want to know more, we can look it up on line.

This is a great book and stands on its own, regardless of your interest in New York. Having said that, for me Manhattan has got to Beowulf of the best backdrops a book could ever possess.

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The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish has written a moving, wild and often funny memoir about her very tough upbringing and her adventures as a stand up comedian. The tone is wild and very funny. Her young life was a mess, and she had to teach herself how to lead the life she deserved on the fly. Her self-awareness of her naïveté is a constant theme of the book. She looks back with amazing insightful and humor and possesses a loony, careening sort of resilience. I love her ability to acknowledge a poor performance or whatever and move on.

The book’s serious moments are heartbreaking. Haddish tells of an unstable, abusive childhood. She acknowledges her horrible experiences and continues with her story. Epic coping skills are in play here. She only later realizes all the things that should not have happened to her. As if we needed another example, her is yet another young woman who puts up with all kind of cruelty and abuse for quite awhile before she sees her abusers for who they really are.

The story zings from here to there, but somehow Haddish finds her way to comedy — where she also meets abusive men. She also becomes successful and then has to cope with the pressures and expectations that brings. Much of it is pretty hilarious. Throughout this very good book, Haddish skillfully mixes stories of outrageous abuse with funny stories about just about everything. She also takes the time to acknowledge people who helped her along the way. This is definitely a cases of some nice, supportive people being in the right place at the right time for her. Thank goodness!

This is a very enjoyable, hilarious and thoughtful book.

“Widows” is a Must-See Movie!

“Widows” is a fierce, compelling film. You have to see it! Once again Viola Davis shows she is incomparable. I love her fierceness and ingenuity. The film tells the story of how a group of women react to being widowed after their criminal husbands get killed in a heist gone wrong. They don’t have time to mourn; they think fast and get creative and bold. They don’t know each other and have no particularly good reason to trust each other, but they work together for lack of a better alternative. It is fun to watch their brand of steel and ingenuity.

This is a fast moving, complex tale featuring stunning acting. The entire cast is brilliant, but I keep thinking of Viola Davis. Her mixture of passion, toughness and brains drives the movie and maintains the tension and suspense.

This movie should be one of the hits of the year, so please support it!

A Testament of Modern Slavery by Nadia Murad, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Nadia Murad has written an important and moving book, The Last Girl, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. Murad is a Yazidi. (Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority in Iraq.) Yazidis were targeted by the Islamic State, which demolished Murad’s village and executed many of the people who lived there. Nadia Murad and other young women of her village were captured and brutally used as sex slaves. Murad managed to escape, worked to help victims and wrote this book. She is also the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year, although the lack of journalistic recognition of her achievements and the Peace Prize is a sad measure of the world’s concern about sex slavery.

This is an excellent book about an horrific subject. It is difficult to read, although I found that the book’s overall design helped. First, Murad tells us about her childhood and what it was like to grow up in a large family in a Yazidi village. The second part is the hardest to bear — the war comes, Murad’s family is decimated, she is captured and she becomes a sex slave. Murad details her multiple rapes and the viciousness of her captors. This happened, and the world needs to know the details. It’s not just another news story. She is bearing witness, and we should, too. Third and finally, there is the dramatic story of her escape and new life. She has survived, and she is strong.

Reading The Last Girl is important, because it forces us to confront exactly what sex slavery means to its victims and to focus on the men who elect to engage in it. These aren’t just a few perverts. In this book alone, scores of men actively and sadistically participated. The news assures us these are not isolated incidents. Whatever the so-called religious “justification,” these men hated women and enjoyed raping them. Compounding the venality were the men and women who knew exactly what was going on and had no problem with it. Then there were the people who just turned away and pretended it wasn’t happening. Murad is infuriated with the men and women who knew and failed to do anything about it. She acknowledges that they were likely afraid, but at some level they were willing to let this happen, and she doesn’t let them off the hook.

We need to remember that sex slavery happens because the world lets it happen. Sadly there will never be a shortage of men willing to abuse women in the most appalling ways. With each insult and cruelty that passes without comment, these men are empowered. And this isn’t just a problem in other countries. Men who bully and abuse women are part of the continuum, and we need to be vigilant, speak out and take action. We honor Nadia Murad and other victims by reading their stories and doing whatever we can to stop this horrific abuse.

Bill Cunningham Makes Fashion so Much Fun!

This is a fantastic book, and I loved it!

Bill Cunningham, Jr. (1929-2016), was a remarkably talented fashion photographer for the New York Times. He was probably best known, at least recently, for the wonderful pictures he took as he rode around New York City on a bicycle, even into his eighties. His work was so fresh and wonderful that he was designated a “living landmark.”

As it happens, Cunningham led a remarkable life long before he took the photography gig. Fashion Climbing – A Memoir with Photographs is the book Cunningham wrote about his exuberant life as a young man. The book was only discovered and published after Cunningham’s death, and that somehow adds to its charm.

Fashion Climbing is much more than a fashion story. Cunningham has written a thoughtful, generous and buoyant story. He was a duck out of water as a youth in Boston, and his family was utterly unsupportive and hostile. He acknowledges the sadness of this, and then goes on to lead a fantastic life, unhampered by his frequent poverty and the decline of the millinery business. That’s right; he first became known as a highly inventive hat designer

Sometimes you read about an interesting character. You love the book but you are also really happy that never actually encountered that person, because he or she sounds distinctly unpleasant and not nice. Well, this is a different story. I would have loved to have known Bill Cunningham! His creativity and irrepressibly positive attitude are absolutely captivating. The kindness and generosity of his story just made me feel good and intrigued about what would happen next. I really hope there is an as yet undiscovered sequel for the rest of his life.

This is a great book, and I highly recommend it for everyone. This is not just for fashionistas and photography buffs.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Is One of the Very Best Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

Jussi Adler-Olsen started a wonderful Danish detective series with The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel. It’s not unusual for a mystery series to start with a discredited and morbidly confused detective, but Carl Morck is truly distinctive. His personal and professional baggage is overwhelming, yet he carves out his space and moves forward. Morck’s contempt for most of the people in the police department, is both hilarious and near-suicidal, but he makes it work. I’ve always been a fan of watching discredited people make the system work for themselves. The way Morck tortures the people who are trying to torture him is inspired and very funny. Less funny is the guilt Morck suffers in connection with a prior case that left his partner completely incapacitated. Along the way, there is a mysterious yet oddly engaging assistant with an apparently gruesome past, a new love interest for Carl who has no idea what to do with it and the kind of dark underlying mysteries that happily characterize so many great Scandinavian crime novels.

This is no standard example of the Scandinavian crime genre. Adler-Olsen has created something wonderfully new. I think I’ve read a total of three Department Q mysteries, but this is the first and it sets the stage brilliantly for the novels to come. Carl is the kind of protagonist who lacks all social skills, and I couldn’t help loving him. Carl’s back story and the other characters created by Adler-Olsen are truly inspired and provide ample fuel for additional books in this series, and I now absolutely have to read all of them.

Nikita Khrushchev, One of the Most Interesting Characters of the Cold War Era

William Taubman’s 2003 biography, Khrushchev — The Man and His Era won a Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. Taubman is a political science professor at Amherst and has written extensively on the Soviet Union. His biography of Khrushchev is very long at 651 pages, but it provides crucial insight into one of the most unusual personalities of the Soviet era. If you want to understand Nikita Khrushchev and his place in history, this is an excellent place to start.

Khrushchev was born in 1894 and died in 1971, so he was there for the rise of Communism in Russia. Largely uneducated and often crude, Khrushchev managed to rise through the ranks and then survive the Stalinist era. No political survivor of that period could emerge with clean hands, but Khrushchev managed to avoid the worst of the blame for that period.

Taubman, in great detail, shows how Khrushchev became a Bolshevik and was chosen by Stalin to be one of his principal lieutenants. How Khrushchev managed to out-maneuver his rivals and become top dog remains something of a mystery, but Taubman offers a lot of information to consider. As a leader, Khrushchev presented a bizarre combination of bumbling peasant, lucky political tactician and good-hearted realist. At the end, he became increasingly impulsive and oblivious to the opposition to his rule. He didn’t see. it coming.

Although Khrushchev wasn’t exactly surrounded by rocket scientists, he was always insecure about his lack of education. At times he trumpeted it and claimed that he had particular insight into how collective farms and factories need to be run. To Khrushchev’s discredit, he was stained by Stalin’s purges, but to his credit, he disavowed Stalinism as he came to power. Crucially, Khrushchev was often impulsive and frequently put world peace at risk as he lurched through the Cold War period with ill-considered pronouncements and initiatives.

He risked nuclear war with some of his “antics. Fortunately, Eisenhower and Kennedy, although highly frustrated by Khrushchev’s pronouncements and behavior, generally did their homework and responded with appropriate restraints and quieter displays of force.

This book is rich because Khrushchev talked a lot about what he had done and what he was thinking. He even wrote a memoir. He may have started as a Zelig, but he became the leader of the Communist world during a particularly dangerous part of history. Because he survived, he was able to write about Stalinism and its excesses, even as he went back and forth about how much personal responsibility he was prepared to assume.

All in all this is a very good book. It is a necessary, scholarly book. It did cause me to wish at times that a more abridged version were available, a shorter book that did not describe so many meetings and so much of Khrushchev’s daily activities in such great detail. Maybe that is biography-light, but the sheer length of this book renders it somewhat inaccessible for non-scholars who could really benefit form its core content.

My recommendation is to read this book if you want to better understanding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi is one of the stranger books I have read recently, and I do recommend it. Fiona Yu is a youngish, hilariously twisted Chinese American woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward life. A Big Law lawyer, Fiona lives with her parents and has no love life. The disconnect between her parents’ traditional expectations and her own rogue intentions is massive, and yet they all live together. The first person narration of Fiona’s frustrations and utterly amoral nature gleefully pulls the reader into a bizarre, macabre tale. It is always impressive when an author can make the reader care about what happens to a truly appalling protagonist, and Choi does it with great zest. This very fun book reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace, without the buffer of sweet characters with good intentions. Hello Kitty Must Die happily shares the manic zaniness of Arsenic and Old Lace and craziness of the best screwball comedies from the 1930’s. Underlying all the fun and mayhem, is the story of Fiona’s frustrations with the expectations and tedium of her life. Being a single, overworked lawyer with clueless, demanding parents presents real issues, and while the average person wouldn’t resort to Fiona’s fierce tactics, it’s hard not to bond with her, one way or another.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. I should have read it a long time ago. Her linking of sexual exploitation and abuse with the abuses of world politics is particularly thought-provoking. Her writing is clear and has a pleasing movement. I won’t play spoiler here except to say that so many of the examples she presents remind me over and over again of experiences most of us have experience and continue to face on a regular basis. I am left with the sinking feeling that so many things just don’t seem likely to change. Solnit’s pep talk in the last essay about progress being undeniable is inspiring, yet not convincing at this moment. How can I feel that way in the age of Trump?

I imagine that many powerful men (most recently the chair of CBS) manufacture the helpful myth that their sexual aggression is really all about their innate irresistibility and that the undeniable fact of their power is the beside the point. Except that power is never beside the point, especially for powerful people. It’s more like a narcotic drug, and it is time for them to go to rehab.

Solnit’s opening essay is about mansplaining, and it is brilliant. In a particular niche market, am I the only one who has noticed that when doctors and dentists have you in a position where (1) you can’t talk and (2) they can readily inflict a lot of pain on you or otherwise do harm, their sexist comments grow exponentially? Whether it’s being told “Atta girl” by the dentist doing your root canal or the self-promoting surgeon working on a facial skin cancer and telling you (at great length, of course) that because women talk so much he always has to instruct women patients to curb their talking because of potential scarring, that particular power play is getting really old.

Solnit’s discussion of rape culture is brilliant. Every day we need to fight against the relentless propaganda that it is simply up to women to be careful and not tempt the wrong sort of person, etc. To that end, Solnit provides magnificent insight and innumerable practical observations and suggestions for every day life. Discouraged or not, she’s right that we need to be hopeful and we certainly can’t let down our guard. Our daughters and everyone else needs to know of our unwavering support for equality.

Queen Victoria, the Matchmaking Grandmother

For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.