Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: HOME AGAIN IN PARIS: OSCAR, LEO AND ME by Matthew Fraser

MWF Books, June 12, 2013 ASIN:  B00DC7DZHI (Digital Book)

The word “home” does not simply mean the physical structure in which one lives.  “Home” represents happiness, family, love, emotional security, and familiarity.   When all of these are taken away, yet a person possesses a strong foundation, resilience and hope, a person’s life can be rebuilt.  Matthew Fraser is one such person. 

Mr. Fraser is an exceedingly well-educated man, with degrees from universities in Canada, Britain, and France.  In 1985 he went to Paris to earn his doctorate in political science at The Institut d'études politiques de Paris, known colloquially as “Sciences Po.”  He spent the next six years there.  Most of us who have had the opportunity to be a student fondly recall that period of our life, and Mr. Fraser is no exception.  That time becomes intrinsically wrapped up in our memories with a sense of place, popular culture, and friends. Mr. Fraser, a British-Canadian, returned to Toronto and became a newspaper journalist.  He met Rebecca Gotlieb, an attorney, at a dinner party in the mid-1990s.  They fell in love, married, and shared a life together.  Mr. Fraser and Miss Gotlieb were raising her son David, from her first marriage, and had another member of their family:  Oscar, a Bichon Frisé.  Tragically, in January 2003 Miss Gotlieb fell ill, was diagnosed with vascular cancer, and died within a fortnight.  David, then age ten, went to London to live with his father.  Mr. Fraser was so bereaved that he decided Oscar needed a companion, and he adopted a second Bichon who he named Leo.  His career as a journalist and co-host of a weekly television news show had changed as well.  With nothing left for him in Toronto, in 2006 Mr. Fraser accepted a part-time position as a research fellow in Fontainebleau, France just thirty-five miles south of Paris.  And Paris was an old friend.  He brought his two best friends, Oscar and Leo, with him.  By far, the most satisfying aspect of this memoir is Mr. Fraser’s relationship with his two bichons.  His “furry kids” are his link to the world, the world of nature, the world of people, and the world of the living.

After residing for four years in Fontainebleau, and enduring a weekly commute to lecture at the American University in Paris, as well as at Sciences Po, Mr. Fraser locates a flat (apartment) for rent.  And what a flat!  The building is an Art Deco classic.  Best of all, it is in in the 7th arrondisement on Quai d’Orsay, which will allow Mr. Fraser to take Oscar and Leo on many great walks.  The fashion designer Valentino occupies the top floor.  While Mr. Fraser does not have an enormous financial capital, his “social capital” as a lecturer at Sciences Po carries more sway with the agent and the landlady.  So Matthew, Oscar, and Leo become residents of “Poodleland.”

“An uncharitable reference to these upper-crust Parisian precincts where rich ladies can be seen primly walking their well-coiffured little dogs down the wide and prosperous boulevards.”
Mr. Fraser manages to inject every one of the ten chapters of his memoir with exquisite details of French life.  This memoir is very exciting and enjoyable on an intellectual level.  Mr. Fraser’s prose is both smart and pleasing.  Each walk with Oscar and Leo is an opportunity for Mr. Fraser to acquaint the reader with aspects of French history, as well as a chance to reveal more personal encounters with very distinctive personalities in Paris and Fontainebleau.  For example, he goes on a tour of The Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, a pet cemetery founded in 1899.  It is the final resting place of some 40,000 animals, including the canine film star Rin Tin Tin.  Mr. Fraser contrasts this monument to how much the French cherish their pets with a barbaric annual French custom.  French families typically will get a puppy for the children at Christmas.  Then, when summer arrives, so that nothing interferes with the all-important one-month summer “vacance” (vacation), these same families will leave 60,000 pet dogs on the side of the road.  Mr. Fraser is most adept at depicting the many paradoxes which lie at the basis of French life. 

“France may be a society that has long valued public order; yet the French people are rebels driven by a constant impulse to defy, protest, and revolt.  Civil disobedience is a national sport in France.  I call this French national character moral chaos.  It is deeply embedded in the French psyche.  The petty criminal and respectable bourgeois are united in their inclination to disobedience in even the most banal situations – from turnstile jumping in the Metro to cheating on tax returns.”

The reader cannot help but root for Mr. Fraser.  He is a charming, gracious man who is unafraid to reveal his humanity, in how he acted and reacted to several dramatic, devastating events.  He is not destroyed because he has reconstructed his home.  It was a pleasure to be a guest in that home.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Review: THE BLING RING: How A Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood And Shocked The World by Nancy Jo Sales

It Books, May 14, 2013 ISBN 978-0-06-224553-3 (Trade Paperback)

In her first book, seasoned journalist Nancy Jo Sales pulls off quite a hat trick.  She simultaneously keeps the reader fascinated, entertained and engrossed. Certainly, this story has all the right elements for a good true crime book—youth, beauty, Hollywood, celebrity, wealth and, of course, crime.   “The Bling Ring” (or “TBR”) refers to seven people:  Rachel Lee, Nick Prugo, Alexis Neiers, Diana Tamayo, Courtney Ames, Johnny Ajar, and Roy Lopez, Jr.,

“…a band of teenaged thieves that had been caught burglarizing the homes of Young Hollywood.  Between October 2008 and August 2009, the bandits had allegedly stolen close to $3 million in clothes, cash, jewelry, handbags, luggage, and art from a number of young celebrities…The Bling Ring kids were from Calabasas, a ritzy suburb about thirty minutes from L.A., and that’s why I headed there.  There’d never been a successful burglary ring in Hollywood before, and somehow it made sense that it would be a bunch of Valley kids.  I wasn’t sure why it did, but I thought if I went to Calabasas I might find out.”

Miss Sales originally wrote about the Bling Ring kids in her March 2010 Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”  She is an East Coast journalist who often writes about yet maintains her objective distance from “the celebrity industrial complex.”  Filmmaker Sofia Coppola optioned Sales’s story, and her film adaptation opens tomorrow, June 14, 2013.  I have no doubt many audience members, both teens and adults, will want to see the film because they wish to see beautiful actors wearing gorgeous clothes getting into all sorts of mischief.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?  These were good-looking, fashion-savvy kids who, in the words of one young woman’s attorney, went on a sort of “shopping spree.” But this IS a true crime story which Miss Sales delivers without irony.  The interviews and exchanges with the Bling Ring kids proves, yet again, that truth is stranger than fiction.  TBR carried out their burglaries by being equally naïve and extremely devious.  They had detailed surveillance on their targets with the tools of their generation:  Google Earth, Twitter, and TMZ.   TBR robbed the residences of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Brian Austin Green, and Audrina Partridge.  Sales interviewed the Bling Ring kids, and has captured each one’s narcissism and “wannabe” sense of entitlement from growing up near the rich and famous.   Parts of the evidence against TBR were photos they posted of themselves wearing stolen items on their own Facebook pages.  These “celebrities” are, in fact, actual human beings who became victims of terribly invasive crimes.  And these “kids” are, in fact, actually criminals.

Nancy Jo Sales writes with stylish, crisp and keenly intelligent prose.  There’s a sassy turn of phrase here, a nod to Raymond Chandler there.  I particularly like Miss Sales’s L.A. cop connection “Vince.”  Smart investigator that he is, he knows why TBR did what they did.  They did it for the money!   She employs  history, economics, politics, sociology, and psychology while deftly moving the story along.   Her examination of what compelled and allowed these “girls and boys” to commit these crimes is provocative and profound.  This book would not have been half so pleasurable without Miss Sales’s dissection and analysis of how and why our 21st century society has become so obsessed with celebrity, wealth and fame.  THE BLING RING by Nancy Jo Sales is the thinking person’s summer read.