Sunday, August 23, 2015

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, by Justin Gifford

Doubleday, 2015
265 pp

hardcover, sent to me by the publisher. Thank you!

I'm really liking my new idea of picking up a book about someone I know absolutely nothing about and letting it speak to me.  Two days ago I'd never even heard of Robert Beck/Iceberg Slim and now I'm beyond eager to read his work; two of his books should be arriving at my house this week.  Street Poison is in a word amazing.  

It took author Justin Gifford over ten years to research and put together this book, and right up front he says that at "first glance" writing about a guy who'd been a pimp for twenty-five years might seem to be "an appalling choice for a biography," since we're talking about someone who "abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime;" he also describes him as "one of the most influential renegades" of the past century.  On the other hand, even though "he is practically unknown to the American mainstream," Beck went on to write a number of novels as well as his autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life.  Robin D.G. Kelley, an historian whose work I respect, also notes in the New Yorker that it's not just in the mainstream where Iceberg Slim's work remains relatively unknown -- he states that he's "amazed" that "well-read people" are unfamiliar with Beck's writing as well.

As Gifford notes, Beck is a "mess of contradictions," --
"student at Tuskegee Institute, Chicago pimp with connections to the black mafia, amateur scholar of psychoanalysis, pulp paperback writer, family man, Black Panther Party sympathizer, Hollywood darling of the blaxploitation era, and godfather of hip-hop...all these things and more..."
 and that this  book "attempts to make sense of these seemingly incongruent identities." I will say I think Gifford does a very good job at trying to make his readers understand what factors went into the making of Iceberg Slim in each of these roles, and he uses Beck's writing to get to the heart of why his life took the path it did.  Two important factors Beck cites in his becoming "street poisoned" and turning pimp are sexual abuse at a very early age and his relationship with his mother after she'd split up with Beck's stepfather, who was the closest thing to a real father  providing the only stable family life he'd had up to that time in his life.

Gifford moves chronologically through Beck's life, using Beck's writings as well as other primary sources to present his readers with a picture of this man,  at times testing what Beck writes about himself "against the historical record."  Readers also get a view of the huge number of  challenges faced by African-Americans  in America's cities from the time of the Great Migration up through  1992 and the Rodney King Riots; the author also takes his readers into the growth of African-American activism and politics in general, but more importantly, directly into how events shaped Beck's politics and his writing, which ultimately inspired and greatly influenced a number of rap/hip-hop artists, blaxploitation films in Hollywood, and most importantly, a huge number of readers of his work. 

Let me tell you here and now that if you want nice-nice and sugar-coated life story, you are NOT going to get it here. Nor is it exactly "true crime," as I see that some people are regarding it.  It is downright gritty, mean  and in a lot of places, just plain ugly -- not solely in terms of the abuse of women, but also in white America's racist policies and tactics that kept segregation and the realities of Jim Crow an ongoing reality.  I'm also walking away with a huge desire to read the work of Iceberg Slim, who as I noted earlier, I had no idea even existed before picking up this book. As soon as I got past the preface and into his childhood, I couldn't look away no matter what, and I did an all-day readathon until I'd finished.  Highly highly recommended; this is the sort of book I just love.

 Please do visit Kelley's  New Yorker article about "The Fires That Forged Iceberg Slim", which is just downright great, in my opinion, and gives Iceberg Slim and this book a much more thorough examination than I ever could. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Meet a good husband and make a good life" -- Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The story of women in the 1950s, by Virginia Nicholson

Viking, 2015
with index, 526 pp


"Be a good girl
Lead a good life
Meet a good husband
And make a good wife." 
                           ---- (169)

My memory is a bit hazy about how this book came to my attention, but when I first saw the dustjacket cover, it reminded me a bit of the women of the 1950s that Anne Taintor uses as a backdrop for her sarcastic brand of humor that all too often hits home.   However, there's nothing Taintor-ish or humorous at all about Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes, which focuses on the lives of women in the UK from both working-class and privileged backgrounds during the 1950s.   Using a number of different sources -- diaries, interviews, memoirs, archives, newspapers, periodicals, the web etc., -- Virginia Nicholson offers her readers a very up-close and personal look at how women dealt with "some of the conflicting pressures and strains under which they lived" during this decade. For some women, it was a time of "ambitions, dreams and fulfillment," while for others, their stories combine to present a "narrative of fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness."  It is a spellbinding read; I hated having to put this book down for any reason. 

Nicholson examines the "tug of war" that was the "daily reality" of life for women during this decade. As she notes, it was 
"between society and the individual, prohibition and permissiveness, conformity and independence, passivity and ambition. Between identity -- and the empty shell."
It is through most of these stories of "fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness"  that the author skillfully finds a connection between these women -- from factory workers to debutantes presented at court to Princess Margaret -- that of being hemmed in by their family backgrounds or  the expectations of society. These women faced a number of "conflicting pressures and strains," encountered through sexism, class pressures, the reality of married life based mainly on the expectations of their spouses,  and in the case of an immigrant from Jamaica, the realities of racial prejudice. Another problem was education: since "society had determined that woman's place was in the home," and that "getting your man" was mattered most, a great deal of emphasis in a young woman's education went into preparing them in skills appropriate to their married futures.  While better-off girls were schooled  in such things as "poise and deportment," many pupils sat through classes in  "dairying, horticulture, cookery, dressmaking, mothercraft, and housecraft."  In one case, the girls were responsible for cleaning a "school flat... where they were expected to entertain the Headmistress to tea, prepare the meals, and to wash up afterwards."  Some girls from "segregated working-class communities" such as mining villages in the northeast,  were lucky if they could overcome their parents' ideas that education was wasted on girls, since "They only get married."  As the author notes, for these families,
"Educational deprivation was cyclical; stay-at-home mums lacked the vision or understanding to see how better schooling might advantage daughters otherwise fated to follow in their footsteps." 
Yet, even for those who managed to make their way through university, the prevailing point of view was that educated women were "NOT sexy," or even perhaps "spinsters or (whisper it) lesbians."  And speaking of gay women, Nicholson also touches on these women who had to fly "under the radar" because of the "almost pathological fear of lesbianism" that existed during these times.  In one case, a woman was committed to an "insane asylum" where after having confessed that she "had feelings for women," was sent for "aversion therapy," that "wrecked her for months."  Another big issue during this time were single girls who became pregnant and the sense of shame that their condition brought to their families; one woman in nursing school  who grew up totally ignorant of sex because her mother never told her anything got pregnant as a young teen and was sent to a home for unwed mothers to have her baby.  On her return, no one talked about where she'd been although most people in her small town already knew she hadn't been away "nursing" as her mom wanted her absence explained.

Many women, having been through the war years and having learned how to be independent,  now faced an entirely different set of standards. A number of women in this book dreamed of having a career, and some did go on to become "illustrious," but as Nicholson points out, "It took luck, talent and a different kind of ambition to break the mould and fashion your own life" in this decade. However, many successful women were often viewed as "misfits," since either they were unmarried (or as seen by society as unable to "find a husband,") or because of their independent natures that left them "unwilling to conform."   Some experienced  a sense of powerlessness and of isolation.   Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes also reveals a decade full of women's angst and emotional turmoil from the highest echelons of British society on down the ladder. The author quotes widely from several women she interviewed (and from other sources, many of these interviews and diaries) and adds in her own commentary to build a picture of the decade.  She makes it clear that while some women seemed happy with their marriages and their lives, there were plenty of others who were not. She also manages to incorporate how communities were built among women for friendship and for support. But, as Nicholson also reminds us, the sixties were right around the corner, and things were on the verge of looking up --  and many of these same women laid the  groundwork for a better life ahead for the next generation.

Ken Russell: The Teddy Girls

If you look at some of the reader reviews of this book written by women or men who lived during the 1950s, the majority praises Ms. Nicholson for capturing what women's lives were like at the time.  Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes is a captivating read.  There are parts of this book where the author sort of rambles, and I felt several times that it could have been pared down a bit, but overall, it's a really good, well-written social/cultural history that I couldn't put down. I'm not from the UK,  but the book held my interest and kept me turning pages.  

definitely recommended.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meno male che Silvio c’è: Being Berlusconi, by Michael Day

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
274 pp

hardcover; my copy from the publisher. Thank you!

"His only value is money and his only objective to save himself."

My introduction to this "Teflon tycoon," believe it or not, was through reading the Salvatore Montalbano novels  of Andrea Camilleri, one of my all-time crime-fiction novelists. I've been reading him for years;  he's another crime-fiction writer who integrates social and political commentary into his work, and Berlusconi has been a target of his for some time.  Then in June 2011 (I just plowed through my back issues to check the date) I was reading my New Yorker and I found an article called "Basta Bunga Bunga" by Ariel Levy which perked up my interest in this man even more,  and I've been following his antics ever since. And trust me, he is a man worth watching.  When I first got this book in the mail, the cover made it look like a tabloidish sort of thing so I was a bit hesitant, but as things turned out, I didn't need to worry at all -- not Day's style.

The subtitle of the book, "The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga" is an apt descriptor of what this book covers. Author Michael Day has tracked Berlusconi's rise from his first inroads into his multi-billion dollar empire (reputedly with money from the Mafia)  through his being banned from ever seeking political office again and the sex scandals which became very public  --  a) a colorful story to say the least and b) a reminder of exactly what can happen when one man (and his cronies) abuses his power of office.    Just to set the record clear, in answer to one reader-reviewer's comments, Being Berlusconi is not meant to be the ultimate biography of this Italian former prime minister; rather, it is exactly as stated in the title: it is the story of Berlusconi's rise as a businessman (through real estate and sleaze TV)  and politician and then his decline and fall from political grace. Day takes the reader through his subject's  three terms as prime minister, clearly evoking the high levels of corruption emanating from his office ( For example, in the face of legal trouble, Berlusconi's parliamentary supporters simply came up with laws designed to make it nearly impossible for any decisive court action to touch them, or they bought off magistrates), but also examining the hot-ticket items (taxes, especially) that would convince voters to keep this man in office, despite everything he's done.  Day also puts Italy's politics and culture into perspective, explaining why people were so taken with Berlusconi.  He explains  the existence of Italy's "all-pervasive" culture of
 "partisanship and cronyism -- with family, friends and tribe doing everything in their power  to keep their their grubby grip on social financial advantage,"
and how Berlusconi "exploited Italians' adherence to the creed," taking "its grip on the country to a whole new level," causing him not to work "in the best interests of the nation," but rather to keep alive "the friendships and loyalties" he needed to sustain his "business interests, runaway libido and legal battles."

 While most people probably are aware of Berlusconi for his sex-related scandals with young girls (including the notorious "Bunga Bunga" and Rubygate scandals), Day clearly shows that there's more to this guy than just being a lecherous politician  -- while he certainly delves into Berlusconi's amoral side,  he reveals exactly how intelligent and savvy this guy really was, literally stopping at nothing to increase his political and economic clout. While "Bending the rules and benefitting (sic)  from friendships, acquaintances and associations is endemic to Italy," Berlusconi clearly made it an art form.  As Day states, the reality was that  Berlusconi "simply -- and very skillfully -- exploited ambivalence toward the rule of law that was already there."    At the same time, the author shows his readers a Berlusconi who is plainly an idiot. As just one example, he showed up uninvited at a Holocaust memorial ceremony held in Milan,
"...which marked the opening of the commemorative site at the city's Central Station.It was from this forbidding fascist-era structure that thousands of Italian Jews were sent in trains to the death camps" 
Berlusconi snoozed through the entire ceremony, then when it was over, took to the press to say that Mussolini "hadn't been that bad -- apart from those slightly draconian race laws -- and had done some 'good things.' " Or then there's the time, after the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake where he said something along the lines of how people made homeless because of this devastating quake should look on it as an adventure -- a sort of camping trip.  As one person summed up Berlusconi so nicely, "His only value is money and his only objective to save himself."

at the Milan Holocaust ceremony from The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2013 (photo by Daniel Dal Zennaro)
Being Berlusconi is a fascinating look at this "trash-TV mogul" who over the course of three terms as Prime Minister "left Italy to economically stagnate, morally decay and in some cases, physically fall apart."  If you have to ask who is Berlusconi, it is either not the book for you OR it is a great place to start if you're at all interested in the people behind the scenes of international politics.  It is in no way boring -- and seriously, every time I'd turn a page I'd wonder just what this guy was going to do next.  To answer reader's criticisms of this book, it is definitely not meant to be a tabloidish sort of exposé or a trashy beach read, so if that's what you're expecting, forget it.  This guy, plain and simple, is a living example of the perils of letting personal interests come before the needs of a nation.

my thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for my copy.