I was a teenager back in the 60s. You could say I grew up on the ideas of civil disobedience, passive resistance, and the right — duty even — of a citizen to stand up and say “no” when the government wasn’t doing its job, or was overstepping the authority that we, the people, allowed it. I wondered if we’d ever see the same spirit again in my lifetime. Americans have become so complacent, so insulated and drugged with popular culture and cut-rate educations. But suddenly, spontaneously, people all over this country, this amazing, fractious, difficult country, have begun standing up and saying “NO!” No to the unfairness of being taxed to support corporations, no to banks stealing our homes and our money, no to the idea that corporations are people and deserve the same rights — more rights! — as WE, the people. The 99%.
I’m too old and physically incapable of joining the kids camping out in Grant Park, but I can add my name to the list of people who support the Occupy Movement. I just added my name to a list of writers who support it, at OccupyWriters.com and I urge fellow authors to do the same. I can move my money out of the big banks and into a local one or a credit union. (You can too: Move Your Money Project. Bank Transfer Day is November 5th (“Remember, remember the fifth of November…) Move your money and show the big guys you won’t support their greed any longer.
I can donate to the movement; I’ll be sending scarves and hats and anything else I can knit or crochet to help keep those brave people warm in increasingly awful weather. I can send money for food when I have it.
I can write about it, about them. About the people who are going to change things for the better. I can point out that if they weren’t already changing things, the right wouldn’t be scared of them. They are scared, too. As Gandhi is reported to have said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The origin of the quote may be disputed, but the truth of it can’t be. The Occupy Movement was ignored, then ridiculed. Now they’re being fought, they’re being arrested, pepper-sprayed, and assaulted. None of that would have happened if they weren’t forcing a lot of people to pay attention, to recognize that the 99% still have a voice and a will. They haven’t stolen, taxed or legislated that away from us. If we ever allow them to take that, we are truly lost.
Think about how you can support this movement; it’s about you.
At the end of his acknowledgments, Paul Russell refers to Sergey Nabokov, brother to Vladimir Nabokov, as “a ghost” and it’s this image which seems to inform the whole of Russell’s faux autobiography of Sergey. Russell has given us a colorful and tender novel based on a few tantalizing literary and/or historical mentions of Sergey, most notably two less than enlightening pages in Vladimir’s autobiography. In the novel, the lack of mention by Vladimir — who comes across rather badly in this novel, at least until the very end where he becomes slightly more palatable — is, on the surface, because he finds it impossible to understand or accept Sergey’s life as an “invert” and so pushes him away. And yet, there is a suggestion here that Sergey’s life has informed Vladimir’s novel “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” and that Sergey is a kind of phantom Siamese twin to Vladimir, a necessary part of his emotional life, irrevocably joined, but yet a frightening, mysterious presence.
Taken quite apart from the Vladimir Nabokov connection, “The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel” is a thoughtful, sometimes amusing, often sad story of a man struggling to be himself in a world that refuses to accept him. Sergey is not so much a ghost because he has so little place in the real history of his family, but rather because like so many gay men of the time, he inhabits a shadow world in which intimacy is hesitant and often furtive rather than open and joyous. This is a wonderful view of that world, and of the history of gay men in the first half of the 20th century.
Russell’s writing is immensely readable, his characters, many drawn from real life, are vivid and engaging, and so convincing is he that you’ll probably finish the book with the conviction that you’ve just read a true autobiography of a man who should have been better known.
Around page 100 of “The Demi-Monde: Winter,” one of the characters thinks: “One more acronym and murder will be done,” I know just how she felt. This novel can be maddening, riddled as it is with terms like “Suffer-O-Gettes” and “LessBiens,” “ForthRight” and “UnFunDaMentalism” as well as the aforementioned acronyms. Wordplay can be fun if it’s done deftly, and some of what Rees gives us here is clever. “ForthRight,” for example is a brilliant bit of wordplay, but “Suffer-O-Gettes” and particularly “UnFunDaMentalism” are labored and more likely to throw a reader out of the story than enhance his or her experience. Rees also has no ear for writing accents. Early on, we meet an Italian whose speech is rendered thus: “Itta gettin’ much awful late… Message from your father wassa that you should be home by the soonest time…” And even when he does seem to have a feel for an accent, he overdoes it, so that the reader spends a lot of time slowing down and working out what the characters are trying to say.
However, if you do manage to get past Rees’ shortcomings you will probably find yourself hooked on the story. Because whatever Rees’ faults as a writer are he can tell a rattling good adventure yarn. His pacing is very good, and his prose is tight. In fact it might be too tight; while “The Demi-Monde: Winter” is an engaging story, it does fail to pull the reader wholly into the story. And I think a major part of the problem is in the fact that Rees is weak on characterization. Most of the characters are flattish with a few interesting quirks, and one or two are so inconsistent as to make you wonder if you haven’t stumbled into an entirely different novel. There’s one character who is so badly written that I honestly believed that she’d been replaced by her double or “Dupe” as they’re called in the book. She goes from likable to unlikable to cardboard, and while I say kudos to a writer willing to let a character with whom we should sympathize be unsympathetic, I tend to prefer that characterization to be consistent.
I know I sound as if I disliked this book, but the fact is, as irritated as I often was, and as shortchanged as I sometimes felt, I still enjoyed the heck out of it. Don’t look for great literature here, just an interesting take on an alternate universe.
Robert P. Ledermann is, in my opinion anyway, writes some of the best Chicago histories ever. I don’t just say that because he’s a friend of mine, either. (I’ve known him since I was a wee girl back in the fifties; I have fond memories of him putting together my model train set for me.) His work isn’t just about historical fact, it gets to the heart of what it’s like to live here, the emotional content of our collective past. So when Bob has a new book coming out, it’s always reason to rejoice. This month, The History Press is releasing State Street One Brick at a Time and it sounds like another terrific addition to a library of Chicagoana. (If that wasn’t a word before it is now.)
“Linger on the mezzanines of fantastic movie palaces like the Oriental, sample the confectionary delights of Krantz Candies or recklessly splurge on dress shields or mustache wax at dime stores like Kresge’s or Woolworths. Allow yourself to be enchanted by the painstakingly prepared displays at Marshall Field’s, but leave plenty of time to visit Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., The Fair, Montgomery Ward, Goldblatts, Wieboldt’s and the Boston Store. Above all, meet the people behind the glitter and glamour of State Street who poured so much heartfelt energy into making it the magical place that it was. From its first bricks to future projects, Robert P. Ledermann lovingly recounts the history of this unique thoroughfare and provides a collection of rare photographs, including previously unpublished images of Carson’s clocks and the creators of Uncle Mistletoe.”
There is always a wealth of vintage photos in Bob’s books, and they bring back some wonderful memories. If you love Chicago, this will be one of those treasures you’ll pore over whenever you want to remember good times.
I just finished the first draft of “Five Things that Never Happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.” This thing has been hanging around my neck like an albatross for a couple of years now, and I despaired of ever finding a way to finish the fifth story. (It’s a collection of short stories, each with a different take on the themes and characters of “A Christmas Carol.”)
This is the one I’m sending out to an agent to see if I can’t get some representation. I think it’s good. I hope someone else will, too.