Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: The Residence

Secret confession time: I do not have the order of the past presidents memorized. Yeah, I know, not many people do and I shouldn't feel bad. But really you guys, I can get about as far back as George H. W. Bush and then I get confused and trail off. However, I do have, among my many other strange fascinations, a strong interest in the presidency and the white house. I chalk it up to nosiness, but I always think to myself "What's going on in there?" when I see a picture of the place. Which is why, when I read the description for The Residence by Kate Anderson Brower, I jumped at the chance to review it.

A remarkable history with elements of both In the President’s Secret Service and The Butler, The Residence offers an intimate account of the service staff of the White House, from the Kennedys to the Obamas.

America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, The Residence reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family.

These dedicated professionals maintain the six-floor mansion’s 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, three elevators, and eight staircases, and prepare everything from hors d’oeuvres for intimate gatherings to meals served at elaborate state dinners. Over the course of the day, they gather in the lower level’s basement kitchen to share stories, trade secrets, forge lifelong friendships, and sometimes even fall in love.

Combining incredible first-person anecdotes from extensive interviews with scores of White House staff members—many speaking for the first time—with archival research, Kate Andersen Brower tells their story. She reveals the intimacy between the First Family and the people who serve them, as well as tension that has shaken the staff over the decades. From the housekeeper and engineer who fell in love while serving President Reagan to Jackie Kennedy’s private moment of grief with a beloved staffer after her husband’s assassination to the tumultuous days surrounding President Nixon’s resignation and President Clinton’s impeachment battle, The Residence is full of surprising and moving details that illuminate day-to-day life at the White House.

As you can probably imagine, the behind-the-scenes peek this book offered is exactly what I was looking for. It's full of interesting anecdotes, facts and tidbits, and things I didn't previously know about how the white house is (and was) run, the people who work there, and more. It also offers a lot of information about the various first families and their own preferences and eccentricities. A few months ago I read Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies by J.B. West, and a lot of the stories from that book are echoed in The Residence. I highly recommend West's book as well, especially since it has a different format and covers a different time period.

My favorite parts of The Residence were the gossipy tidbits about the first families who lived there. Lyndon Johnson was apparently insane about his high-pressure shower; Nancy Reagan had quite a temper and would flat-out yell at Ronald Reagan, etc. These are the kinds of things I like to read about, partly because I want to be reminded that the president and his family are also people, just like you and me. If this is the kind of thing that interests you, definitely pick up a copy of The Residence.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review: Smash Cut

A few years ago, I read a really interesting book about the AIDS epidemic. And then I watched We Were Here, a documentary by David Weissman, about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco (it's available via streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend it, but watch with a box of Kleenex at your side). And then I read And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Gary Shilts. And then, because I still hadn't exhausted my interest in the subject, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. All of these stories, while about a sad, scary time period in America, just fascinate me. I feel like society has so much to learn from its initial response to the crisis, and I'm glad that although AIDS is no longer the huge, unknown, alarmist news topics it once was, that people are still writing about its impact on their lives. This is exactly what Brad Gooch tackles in Smash Cut.

Brad Gooch arrived in New York in the 1970s, eager for artistic and personal freedom. Smash Cut is his bold and intimate memoir of this exhilarating time and place, complete with its cast of wild bohemians, celebrities, and budding artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, and Madonna. At its center is his love affair with film director Howard Brookner, recreated from fragments of memory and a crosshatch of conflicting emotions, from innocent romance to bleak despair.

Gooch and Brookner’s intense relationship is challenged by sex and drugs, and by a culture of extreme experimentation. As both men try to reconcile love and fidelity with the irresistible desire to sample the legendary abandon of the era, they live together and apart. Gooch works briefly as a model in Milan, then returns to the city and discovers his vocation as a writer.

Brookner falls ill with a mysterious virus that soon has a terrifying name: AIDS. And the story, and life in the city, is suddenly overshadowed by this new plague that will ravage a generation and transform the creative world. Gooch charts the progress of Brookner through his illness, and writes unforgettably about endings: of a great talent, a passionate love affair, and an incandescent era.

A smash cut is a technique in film where one scene abruptly cuts to another without transition, usually meant to startle the audience. Giving his book this title only further emphasizes what a shock the emergence of a terrifying disease--one that strikes, among many others, his former partner--must have been to Gooch and the rest of the gay bohemian crowd of New York City in the 1980s. Drawing from memories and letters he revisits, with beautiful writing and breathtaking emotion, his relationship with Brookner through the end of Brookner's life.

Although the bulk of the book focuses on Gooch's relationship with Brookner, it also touches on the bohemian arts scene of New York City in the 1970s and 80s and Gooch's experience as a model in Italy, and features cameos by a range of eccentric individuals, from Andy Warhol to Susan Sontag. While it definitely doesn't have a happy ending per se, the book is beautifully written (Gooch has a PhD from Columbia and is currently a professor of literature) and definitely worth a read.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Welcome to Braggsville

When I first moved to Chicago back in August of 2008, I felt very Texan. People kept telling me "You sure don't seem very southern!" but I absolutely felt like the outsider. Honestly though I really enjoyed both being somewhere different and being from somewhere different. These days, having left Texas over six years ago, I think of myself as fairly acclimated to the north. Every once in a while though, I'll say something that makes everyone else in the room come to a complete stop, and I'll realize that yep, things are pretty different south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A recent example is when I was telling a group of friends that my high school's biggest rival school flew a confederate flag and had as their official school mascot the "rebel." A quick Google search revealed that this was not completely banned until 2012. The school still plays "Dixie" as their fight song. All of this is to say that when I read the description for Welcome to Braggsville, I could more than relate, and I knew I had to read this book.

Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large hyperliberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of “Berzerkeley,” the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place, until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a “kung fu comedian” from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder from Iowa claiming Native roots; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the “4 Little Indians.”

But everything changes in the group’s alternative history class, when D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded “Patriot Days.” His announcement is met with righteous indignation and inspires Candice to suggest a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious at first but has devastating consequences.

Although the satire in this book was spot-on and I can appreciate what Johnson was aiming for, the writing style was pretty hard to get used to. It's written in stream of consciousness, a lot of the punctuation is absent, and the point of view of the story switches with no warning. Once I pushed past those issues, the story arc was fairly interesting, and definitely picked up the pace once D'aron has met and assembled his motley crew and they arrive in Braggsville. Unfortunately the other characters didn't seem as fully formed to me, more "types" the author felt he had to fill. Overall, if you're not into alternative writing styles (and I'm not, although I appreciate how difficult it can be to write in that style, and do it well), you might have a hard time pushing past the noise of the style and enjoying this book. If that's your bag, this is the book for you.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.