Published: 10/10/2013 | 0 Comments Posted
Few things are as endlessly entertaining as depictions of Philadelphia in pop culture. (We even went to see How Do You Know.) Amazon and ebooks opened up a glorious new world of formerly hard-to-find visions of the city — the century-old pulp-horror version in which a monster slumbers beneath City Hall, a flapper-era Rittenhouse Square that's the setting for a high-society murder mystery, a bar at 17th and Fairmount where Charles Bukowski so eloquently recalls misspending his youth. So we're using this Book Quarterly to launch The 19102 Review, a new column devoted to Philly books. It'll take a look at new releases, weird dust-covered paperbacks from the back of a thrift store and established classics. We have a ton of stuff lined up already — this preview could have been three times as long as it is — but if you have a book that'd be perfect for this (the dustier, the better), email ten.repapytic@gylime, or just drop it in the mail it to Emily Guendelsberger at Philadelphia City Paper, 30 S. 15th St., 14th floor, 19102.
Now, on to the reviews — some old, some new, all Philly.
I Got Schooled
M. Night Shyamalan
Nonfiction, 2013, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.
It’s tough not to judge M. Night Shyamalan’s new book (out Sept. 10) by its cover. It couldn’t draw any more reflexive eye rolls if it were titled At Long Last, M. Night Shyamalan Descends Like Prometheus from Olympus to Bestow Upon Mankind the Secrets of Education Reform, Because All Those Other People Clearly Just Weren’t Thinking About It Hard Enough.
The twist? If you can make it past the first quarter of the book’s terminal lack of self-awareness, it suddenly becomes a pretty evenhanded, data-reliant but readable examination of common practices among schools that excel at educating poor kids that are potentially scalable to other schools. It is not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. But, lord — does it ever take a while to get there.
The full title, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap, suggests a couple things — that this book is going to be about M. Night Shyamalan first and his sidekick education reform second, and that Shyamalan rarely uses 10 words when 20 will do.
The interminable 75-page introduction, taking up an entire quarter of the book, backs such assumptions up. In it, Shyamalan gets into his feelings, thoughts, personality quirks, childhood, wife, meals, important friends, films, Bryn Mawr-private-schooled daughters, shock at the differences between Philly’s Masterman and Overbrook schools when he scouted both as locations for The Happening, moment of insight over spinach gnocchi at Vetri, Wikipedia research, establishment of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, and decision to write a book. There’s also facts and research, but frequently framed in the first person, as in one page describing an education panel in which the words “I,” “me” or “my” are used an astounding 34 times.
But though the lack of self-awareness is off-putting, the motivations are pure. Shyamalan’s much-touted “interested amateur” status is sure to make non-amateurs grind their teeth, but it means that the book is allied with neither Team Charter nor Team Public, which have been butting heads for so long that sometimes the education-reform discussion feels as inaccessible as the 457th reply in a Usenet flame war. Shyamalan’s conclusions (centered around lots of training, better data analysis and a reliable, observation-based method of locating and firing bad teachers) aren’t skewed toward either side, and are argued with persuasive data and a surprising sense of optimism.
Since the book started with the Philadelphia public school system, where few are optimistic at the moment, I summarized Shyamalan’s five keys for a teacher friend in case I was missing obvious Pollyannaisms. She actually liked most of his ideas, but wearily noted that “every single idea ever thought of to improve public education depends on one essential thing: adequate funding.”
The Heads of Cerberus
Sci-fi, 1919, Halcyon Press, 123 pp.
Philadelphia of 2118 A.D. doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did two centuries prior, at a first glance. Taxicabs still dart up and down Broad Street, hotels haven’t aged a day and the monster that represents humanity’s lust for war still sleeps in that pit beneath City Hall and its looming, crimson bell, waiting to devour sinners and the unjust in the name of merciful Penn. Hold on a second.
The Heads of Cerberus, first published as a serial over 1919 and 1920 in the pulp magazine Thrill Book, comes from the same early sci-fi era as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. Author Gertrude Barrows Bennett (under the gender-masking pseudonym Francis Stevens) builds her dystopia with just enough subtlety to arouse real discomfort. When Robert Drayton, Terence Trenmore and his sister Viola are blasted two centuries into the future by a curious vial of gray dust said to have been stolen from purgatory (where else?), we’re not thrown into a bleak, colorless regime. The city itself looks largely the same. It’s the inhabitants that have changed.
The trio finds themselves in a Philadelphia ruled supremely by engineered superstition and fear of vengeful god William Penn; the Penn Service, its autocratic enforcers, reduce citizens to the numbers emblazoned on their yellow buttons. Not wearing your button? Then it’s off to the pit for disrupting Order and welcoming war.
Props are due to Bennett not only for probably pioneering the “alternate timeline” novel in the early twentieth century, but for penning smaller details that still feel unique when the novel is almost a century old, like the Liberty Bell having been converted into a disintegration machine. There are dystopian staples that run through the way the Penn Service works, for sure — newspapers and literature are only available to the powerful, knowledge of the world outside the city is unheard of, etc.— but the fleet of Penn Service officials called Superlatives, with names like Mr. Virtue, Mr. Mercy and Mr. Kindness (not to mention Mr. Supreme Justice), is chilling enough to keep a century-old genre novel feeling fresh. (Like many of the older books we mention, Cerberus isn’t easy to find in print, but is readily available as an ebook.)
Little Black Book of Murder
Mystery, 2013, Obsidian, 372 pp.
Not even in the lip-gloss-coated world of chick lit are newspapers permitted to thrive. So, in the ninth installment of Nancy Martin’s Blackbird Sisters series, Little Black Book of Murder (just released Aug. 6), society columnist Nora Blackbird is scrambling to save her job at a recession-ravaged Philadelphia Intelligencer.
It’s just about the only believable aspect of this sequel, which is weighed down with the baggage of eight volumes (and a prequel!) worth of exposition. Among the oddities Martin has to rush to explain: Nora’s gracious poverty (her parents absconded to South America with her trust fund but left behind a fabulous collection of haute couture); her live-in Mafioso pseudo-husband (she’s afraid to actually marry him, lest he die of the “Blackbird curse”); and her challenging relationship with Gus, her sexy new Australian editor who looks at her like “a tasty hors d’oeuvre fresh off the barbie.”
Wade through all that (and the mandatory scullery sex that takes place within the first few chapters) and you get to the plot: a murder mystery involving a fashion designer, a genetically engineered pig, a scheming chef, a serial-killer wife and a talent-agent scammer. The cast of mobsters, fashionistas, Bucks County blue bloods and hard-up newspaper hacks keep things moving as Nora and Gus try to track down the murderer and drive up web traffic. But the revelations at the end are more shrug- than gasp-inducing.
Of course, Martin has her fans. If you’ve read the previous volumes, you know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, there’s no need to start now.
Sci-fi, 2012, Bedlam Press, 252 pp.
Twenty years into the future, the U.S. government has all but eradicated death thanks to miracle drug Youthimax, which replicates DNA cells to keep them perpetually young. The result is overcrowding, rampant crime and a sharp decline in business for West Philadelphia’s O’Rourke Funeral Home. Frustrated by his diminishing income, and by the death of his wife Kelly just months before Youthimax’s widespread adoption, O’Rourke employee Maxwell Casur turns to Beatles-themed serial killing, both to drum up business and to reintroduce death to a city that’s forgotten it. He and his slovenly co-worker Bligh murder more than 100 people while ducking the FBI, the mob and Bligh’s precocious teenage daughter.
Bang Bang is the debut novel from Narberth author Patrick Malloy, who undoubtedly studied Orwell, Huxley and Kubrick. His darkly comedic dystopia alternates between amusingly stereotypical depictions (mobster Vinny the Fist, for example, is frequently described as wearing velvet suits and calling people “gibrone”) and musings on how, without the fear of death, society has deteriorated into lawlessness. “She suffered the terrible sickness that comes with the cockiness of knowing one is indestructible,” he writes of Bligh’s daughter, born into a Youthimax world. “There was no reason for her to be polite, caring, kind, or any of the above. … Her generation lived without fear, but all they did was live.”
The stereotypes and moralizing can get tedious at times, but overall Bang Bang is a quick, fun read that knows better than to take itself too seriously.
Flawless: A Pretty Little Liars Novel
YA, 2007, HarperTeen, 352 pp.
The four liars of Flawless, the second book of the Main Line-set Pretty Little Liars series, are a postmoral Baby-Sitters Club. There’s Hanna, the secretly insecure bulimic pretty girl; Aria, the secretly insecure artsy kid; Spencer, the secretly insecure overachiever; and Emily, the secretly insecure (and secretly gay) athlete.
The girls were close in middle school, led by horrific Queen Bee Ali. One of Ali’s hilarious pranks led to the blinding of an unpopular classmate and the mysterious “A” has discovered the truth. But Ali’s been missing for three years and Flawless opens with the discovery of her body. After a speedy prologue recapping the events of the debut novel, the girls get down to business: figuring out who “A” is and how (s)he knows their secrets. Also: talking about expensive things.
If a reader were to dog-ear each reference to a high-end brand, Flawless would end up pretty mangled. And few things date a six-year old book more than cell-phone technology: the girls are constantly pinged on their Sidekick or their Treo. Their home of Rosewood, loosely based on the Main Line’s Rosemont, is apparently the place to be and be seen: The novel climaxes at Foxy, the charity ball for “young members of Rosewood society,” where glamorous attendees can hope to be photographed for the Inquirer and “glam-R5.com,” which definitely should exist in real life.
As a mystery, Flawless is commandingly diverting. As characters, however, the Liars are uniformly horrible — and pretty uniform: Types aside, there is no discernible difference in voice amongst the girls. (Thank goodness the author doesn’t rely on pronouns.) There are 13 books in the Pretty Little Liars series so far, with three left to go. This reader can’t wait for the antimoral.
Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Essays, 1969, City Lights, 204 pp.
Off and on between 1942 and 1947, Charles Bukowski, poet laureate of the slums, resided in Philly. During this time, he worked several odd jobs, spent 17 days in Moyamensing Prison for draft evasion and got very drunk (obviously). Tales of his time here make up some of Notes of a Dirty Old Man, a collection of articles written for Open City, an underground L.A. newspaper in the late ’60s.
It’s clear from these stories that Bukowski very much enjoyed his stay. Although he was “retired” from writing during these years, he gathered a lot of content for down the road. Several pieces involve him hanging out and getting in trouble at a perpetually raucous bar on 17th and Fairmount, some of which would end up in his screenplay for Barfly. The best Philly tale is about losing his virginity to a “300-pound whore,” breaking all four legs of his bed in the process. (According to his recollection, he’s so good that she doesn’t even ask for any money.)
The rest of the book is Bukowski writing about what he knows best: horse races, drinking and horrible people (himself included). Notes of a Dirty Old Man might not be a good place to start for newbies to The Buk, but for diehards, it’s just another piece of the beautiful, wretched puzzle that was Charles Bukowski, filled with classic moments and brilliant caveats like this excerpted one: “According to my figures I’ve only had 2,500 pieces of ass but I’ve watched 12,500 horse races, and if I have any advice to anybody it’s this: Take up watercolor painting.”
A Prayer for the City
Nonfiction, 1997, Random House, 408 pp.
This in-depth account of Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor may have been written in and about Philadelphia in the 1990s, but — with Detroit in ruin, Chicago a war zone this summer, our own city’s schools on the precipice and our national “leaders” determined to constantly invent crisis through sheer frivolity and myopia — it’s still very much a book for our time.
Some of Bissinger’s faults are here, like repetition, lapses into cliché and a tendency to overstate ironies. Yet so are all the qualities that make him a great journalist. He has a Clintonian ability to make statistics hit home, a capacity for relating research and the complex history of unheeded warnings, bad choices and the unpredictable tides of capitalism that wrecked the city. He also has an ear for a revelatory quote and an eye for characters that vivify large problems like the war of the unions, the demise of the shipyard and the scourge of public housing.
And what a cast of characters it is. The mercurial Rendell and his indefatigable éminence grise David Cohen, our protagonists; the self-aggrandizing then-City Council President John Street, without whom the city’s cynical and savage racial politics cannot be navigated; an attack-dog assistant district attorney and a fiery libertarian activist, one trying to save the city from its criminals and the other, from its national government; a grandmother just barely holding on to her house and the young children who have fallen to her care. And so many others: heroes, hucksters, villains, victims, all offering up from their hearts or falsely from their lips, in the words of North Philly’s Cookman United children’s choir, a prayer for the city: “I will serve thee. … Because I love thee.”
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Biography, 2013, Knopf, 442 pp.
“What would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith?” asked Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. As Woolf imagined it, this fictional character would have been denied an education and met a tragic end. In New Yorker staff writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s new (nonfiction) biography (out Oct. 1), another famous man’s sister, Jane Franklin (Benjamin’s junior by six years), fares slightly better.
Jane was one of few women of her era who knew how to read and write. When she wasn’t boiling soap, tending to her 12 children, stitching or cleaning, she read books acquired through the many printers in her family and wrote regularly to her favorite brother. As Benjamin rose to prominence, “He tallied his wealth. His sister tallied her children.”
While depicting Jane’s otherwise obscure life, Lepore leverages Jane and Ben’s long correspondence for a refreshing view of an over-examined life. But she doesn’t dwell on the more celebrated of the siblings, telling the story of the good rather than the great.
That’s a challenge: The earliest surviving letter by Jane was written when she was 46; many were either destroyed or lost. The scarcity of primary sources deterred Lepore at first, as she acknowledges in an appendix, but through meticulous research (roughly half of the book is notes and references) and skilled writing that mends gaps in time, she’s gracefully preserved a story that could have easily been lost.
The Pure Cold Light
Sci-fi, 1993, Avon Books, 242 pp.
Thanks to Facebook friends and the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society for directing me to local writer Gregory Frost’s dystopian adventure, set in an unspecified future Philadelphia that has split (even more) in two. The rich and their servants live in the Overcity’s towers; the poor, addicted and disenfranchised nest in the Undercity, occupying derelict buildings, SEPTA catacombs and Box City, a sprawling morass of packing containers on Independence Mall. President Odie is a talk-show host and puppet of the world’s largest corporation, named (sans subtlety) ScumberCorp. They make the drug Orbitol, which has unexpected dimensional side effects, and infuse their Happy Burgers with masses-mollifying tranquilizers.
ScumberCorp also owns the media, so reality TV rules (“Everybody wants to get on TV,” a character insists. “Where’s your sense of warhol?”) and investigative journalists probing the very top of the 1 percent, like our heroine Thomasina Lyell, are rare.
It’s a fast-paced, exciting read, especially once Lyell and ScumberCorp prisoner Angel Rueda encounter ruthless, relentless enforcer Mingo. His attempt to stage Rueda’s death sparks a huge conflagration at Eastern State Penitentiary, now a lockdown for troubled youth. And what’s this about aliens in the Undercity?
Frost’s predictions are all the more impressive given that his vision developed in the Internet’s nascent days — a decade and a half before Citizens United, seven years before Survivor and (arguably) before that blurry date when presidential candidates became media monkeys.
He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs
Poetry, 2013, Hanging Loose Press, 88 pp.
I’m no poetry expert, and, if poetry experts exist the way I imagine them, they can all go take the road less traveled into a volcano. But I know what I like, and right now I’m deeply digging He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs (released April 15) by veteran Philly poet Leonard Gontarek. His poems are lovely, searching, kind of scatterbrained and endlessly unpredictable.
But there are patterns: God has several walk-ons, particularly in the “In America” section. Praying mantises are described as either flickering like colored flames, or not. Autumn is everywhere in the collection, mentioned by name and described memorably: “Orange elms bleeding bees.”
Gontarek’s not wildly wordy, but he gets great emotional and visual mileage from short bursts of verse and perpetual curiosity about nature in transition, the half-life of sudden thoughts and people being people: “It was dusk. Everyone felt/ like dancing and singing./ No one did, except the drunk.” And then there are those unexpected quasi-miracles like “I let my arm drift out the car window and it flew away.”
Ed Mauger and Bob Skiba
Photography, 2013, Pavilion, 144 pp.
Philadelphia is a city that is, at times, overwhelmed by the past tense. The weight of what once was often seems to outweigh what is, or what could be.
Lost Philadelphia (released July 1), a pictorial obituary of the city’s buildings, is well aware of this. Vivid historical photographs and architectural drawings chronicle the three centuries of socioeconomic shifts that warped the environment into modern-day Philadelphia. The immaculately researched historical notes are no surprise, coming from Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides President Bob Skiba and fellow APTG member and author Edward A. Mauger, who assembled the spiritual ancestor of this book, Philadelphia Then and Now.
That book, a which juxtaposed historical images with modern-day ones, focused on more well-known locations. Lost Philadelphia feels deeper, darker and even more engrossing, paying as much attention to former downtown landmarks like Broad Street Station and the Gimbel Brothers department store as it does to the buildings and places that defined the city’s neighborhoods, like the Stetson Hat Factory in Kensington and the Lubinville Film Studios in North Philadelphia.
Mauger and Skiba do an impressive job of evoking the meanings of these lost places, making their absence felt and helping readers remember just how delicate the things we take for granted are.
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