Monday, October 18, 2010

“Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”

By Randy Schmidt
ISBN No. 978-1-55652-976-4

Rock-star deaths are a dime a dozen these days. Overdoses, car accidents, plane crashes; tragic ends go with the territory of living fast and dying young. What makes Karen Carpenter’s death at age 32 in 1983 different, however, was that she was more America’s daughter than Janis Joplin, and her death started a cultural conversation not about the obvious trappings of fame (easy drugs, careless suicides), but about anorexia and its roots in the darker dynamics of the American family.
They say that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and Richard Carpenter, as the last surviving member of the Carpenter family, likely exercises some firm control over his family’s image. Still, the access that he gives Randy Schmidt in researching and writing this book is unparalleled. And like the best biographies Schmidt uses Karen’s life to subtly open up larger areas of discourse while telling a fascinating story.
He starts with the obvious: In retrospect it’s remarkable that Karen’s gaunt, death-mask features kept showing up in the entertainment sections of magazines and newspapers without complaint or public comment. But then again, this was a pre-TMZ and pre-internet era of tightly controlled publicity. If Karen didn’t hear it from her own family and handlers (“the sharks around her,” Schmidt writes), it didn’t exist.
Then he moves onto the sensational stuff: In TV pitch terms, “Little Girl Blue” is a woman in danger storyline filtered through equal parts “American Idol”, “CSI” and the Food Channel. First there’s the unassuming beginning (Richard takes Karen on as a bandmate at their mother’s suggestion), then the meteoric rise to fame (16 consecutive Top 20 hits). After that there’s the toying with their squeaky clean image (in People Magazine they admit to actually having sex – with other people – and believing marijuana should be legalized), and finally, the bizarre yet-all-too inevitable ending (death by heart failure due to complications from anorexia).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Little Girl Blue” is that it’s one of the first books that knows food is an American religion. And Schmidt understands all too well the irony of a major celebrity starving herself to death in what’s become an obese consumer culture.
The heavy production of the book is equal to the task of summing up Carpenter’s life. Schmidt begins with a quote by Emerson, titles his chapters with eerily prescient pieces from Carpenter songs, and writes with a weight and profundity that perfectly complements the tight, academic font of the book.
And yet “Little Girl Blue” doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s almost a Shakespearian tragedy. Schmidt manages to turn vinyl and newsprint and YouTube videos back into a flesh and blood person. It’s to the book’s credit that as I was reading “Little Girl Blue” I kept thinking that Karen Carpenter herself was interviewed for it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Serious Business: Fall Kid Lit

“The Way it Works”
By William Kowalski
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-367-2

“Silver Rain”
By Lois Peterson
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-280-4

Available through

“The Way it Works” is one of Orca’s “Rapid Reads” and presumably that means you can breeze through this 128-page book in one sitting. Then again, given that it’s about a homeless hottie living in his car after his mother’s medical expenses and death leave him both destitute and drifting, you won’t be able to put the book down until you’re finished anyway. For this is the kind of book that Orca does best: character-building through adversity. You just have to keep reading to see how things turn out – and whether our hero will win the heart of the pretty girl who doesn’t know he lives in his car. And while tweens and teens will enjoy the book, adults and writers will be equally fascinated with the economy with which Kowalski manages to draw full-fledged characters, create increasingly dramatic situations and then resolve it all in just a hundred-plus pages. Wow one.
“Silver Rain” is only fiftysomething pages longer than “The Way it Works” so it isn’t labeled a “Rapid Read” but you won’t be putting it down until you’re finished it either. What the first book had in plot, “Silver Rain” has in plot PLUS historical significance. Here, a destitute, depression-era 11-year-old named Elsie deals with vagrants, bread lines and a local dance marathon while searching for her missing father. Yes, “Silver Rain” is “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for the tween set and it must be read - if only for curiosity value. After you pick your jaw up from the floor, however, you’ll find that this story feels wholly and respectfully authentic to its time period. There’s a Nancy Drew aspect to the book, of course (and that’ll keep the young readers reading): Will Elsie find her dad? What’s going on over at the dance marathon? But what’ll keep coming up is how Peterson gets the little, evocative details just right: old coats, stained-glass windows, and a house that looks “like a spider’s web, with the wash lines zigzagging across it.” Wow Two.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

“Frumkiss Family Business”

By Michael Wex
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39776-8

The first thing you notice about this book is its cover. Okay, maybe not. Coloured an unappetizing hard blue-green, and featuring a rough-hewn etching of what appears to be a Dodo or turkey smoking a cigarette on the cover, you could be forgiven for judging this book by its cover. Usually, something like this would a major nitpick for me; I’d argue that while I can’t single-handedly smarten up slaves of the internet to read actual books, publishers of books need to make their covers as neat and sparkly as a Facebook page to lure internet eyeballs. Yet that’d be a mistake in this case. The book cover perfectly summarizes the tone of a tough, thoughtful, and oddly engrossing view of Toronto’s Jewish community. Our main characters are Vanessa, Randall and Rachel, the three children of Canada’s most famous podiatrist. Outwardly they seem like the perfect products of metropolitan Toronto, but each of them is constantly being affected and re-shaped by new revelations (and no spoiler alert; they’ll stay revelations for the reader) about their grandfather, Faktor. What makes FFB such a great read can be illustrated by Vex’s description of a character named Milner, who “dressed like a pushcart peddler in a photo from 1892…[dished] out a way of being Jewish so authentically rooted in the lives of real Jews that some of it hadn’t been written down or recorded until he came along.” The same could be said about Wex’s book. The characters, the culture, and storyline should be stale and well-worn (Wex’s previous title was “Born to Kvetch”) but they all feel fresh and inventive; like a Lonely Planet guidebook to a family history. Think of “Frumkiss Family Business” as “Moonstruck” + Jewish history X 2 Chers and 1 Nicolas Cage.

2011 Picture-A-Day Wall Calendars

365 Days in Ireland
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5806-6

365 Days in Italy
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5534-8

365 Days in France
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5533-1

All available through

Some magazine article I read a while back said that the health of the economy can be based on the sales of wrist watches: the more they sell, the better the economy is doing. I’m not sure what the health of the calendar business means but I’m guessing in our era of iPhones and iPods that the Wall Calendar business should be on its last legs. Or not.
Workman Publishing makes the best calendars – Wall, Desk, whatever; they’re the best. And not to diss major authors who work for a decade on a big Fall title, but I’m as excited to see the new 365 Days in Ireland Picture-A-Day Calendar as I am to see the new book by Jonathan Franzen. That’s because Workman’s Picture-a-Day Wall Calendars are the perfect marriage of Palm Pilot and art gallery. While their calendars feature everything from 365 pictures of kittens, puppies and songbirds, my favourite calendars are those of European places such as Italy, France and, as I’ve mentioned, Ireland. It’s not hard to see why. The oversized Wall calendar format is divided into a big, grand above-the-fold opening shot that summarizes the location being featured that month. Below the fold the place is broken up into different photographs for each day of the month. One day might be accompanied by a shot of a typical meal in that country; another might be the view from a B&B. All are lovely to look at - but none seem so photo-shopped as to be unrealistic (my big complaint with most calendars – and, in a way, of contemporary fiction).Each month is accompanied by some text which is just as economical yet evocative as the pictures themselves. The result is the sense of having either visited the place, or the discovery of someplace you’d like to go to. Even better, if you’ve been to any of the places featured in the calendars you’ll find neighbouring cities or towns that you didn’t hit but would plan to on your next trip there. With the best fiction you get a sense you’ve been transported to a different time or place. With these calendars you can joyously feel you’ve lost all sense of place.