July 14, 2008

Book review: "Hats & Eyeglasses," by Martha Frankel

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Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling
By Martha Frankel
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin / ISBN: 978-1-58542-558-7

Of all the different types of literature I now read and review on a regular basis, easily none of them are more difficult to pull off than the personal memoir, for a variety of reasons I'll be going into later today; and that has me constantly reading on a regular basis a whole series of only so-so memoirs here at CCLaP, ones not necessarily badly-written but nonetheless containing a whole plethora of problems, and for which I never quite know what to say. Now add to this that so many memoirs are written not by full-time authors but rather people trying their hand at a full-length book for the first time, simply because they have a compelling story from their real life that they believe worthy of being told; that now compounds the problems facing me as the reviewer as well, and keeps me on my toes as far as what I have to say about it. As I've said here before, I don't like deliberately being mean in my reviews, but also feel that my main responsibility lies with the site's readers, and in letting them honestly know what I thought of a particular book; and this is complicated enough on its own, without adding something like the memoir genre, full of complicated factors for success that most authors mostly miss, no matter how good of writers they are.

Hats & Eyeglasses, by Martha Frankel

And thus do we come to today's book under review, this year's Hats & Eyeglasses by former Details columnist and entertainment journalist Martha Frankel; as you've probably guessed by now, it is a personal memoir, supposedly detailing an intergenerational streak of gambling addiction that runs throughout her family. Or, at least that's the impression the publishing company wants you to have, judging from the various obvious clues they plant all over the cover -- it features a giant quote from Jim Berendt, after all, that starts with, "A bluntly honest memoir of gambling addiction," plus mentions on the inside dust-flap that it is "a tale of passion [and] addiction," plus even features as cover-art the image of a card-player drowned in an endless dreary green sea, the body no longer even seen, just a sad floating hat and a perky Ace of Spades. But see, here's the thing -- it's not really about gambling addiction. In fact, given that the addiction part of the story isn't even referenced for the first time until three-quarters of the way through, you could argue that what the majority of this book is about is how freakin' great gambling is, and especially all the endless macho codification behind the card-game poker -- the endless made-up terms, the endless imported cigars, the endless black outfits and indoor sunglasses -- which needless to say will come as a bit of a shock to former and borderline gambling addicts, who were thinking they were picking up an inspirational tale about one particular addict bottoming out.

And this of course gets us into one of the first major problems with writing a personal memoir in the first place, which is -- what's the subject of your personal memoir? Contrary to what logic might tell us, it's actually much easier to put together, hone and perfect the storyline of a completely fictional project, because it comes with the natural limits we need to shape it into a great story; we think of the compelling thing first, then build just enough of the story around it to explore that compelling thing, with the story neatly over when we feel we're done exploring of that compelling thing. When you base a story on real life, though, you're suddenly referencing a compelling storyline that has been going on 30, 40, 50 years or more; and suddenly it becomes a lot more difficult to determine what exactly in that massive storyline should stay in your eventual book, what should go, what ties in to the central point you want to get across by writing the book in the first place, and what would simply not interest a general audience of complete strangers. If your story is about alcoholism, is it appropriate to mention that sip of beer you'd get from your uncle every Christmas when you were a kid? Is that a pointless detail to bring up, or key to understanding your entire experience? And what is the main point, anyway? Is it that your own adult choices led you to this place, or that your childhood influences guaranteed that you'd end up there no matter what you did?

In a fictional project, you can answer all these big questions first, then hang a plot around these big answers that nicely ties the entire thing together; with a memoir, however, you're having to go into a giant, messy, much bigger storyline, the storyline of a person's entire real life up to that moment, and carefully pluck out this narrative thread and underlying motivations that fuel all good literature. And this is part of why I say that memoirs are one of the trickiest types of books you can attempt to write, and why I'm always astounded that so many beginning writers choose this exact genre as their first projects. Because when all is said and done, Frankel's real life does not exactly fit the naturally compelling three-act structure that publishing companies are desperately seeking when signing books like this -- her story is more the one of someone who can generally handle gambling all right, who in fact enjoyed it in an in-control way for decades as long as it was restricted to physical get-togethers, who only developed addictive behavior when it moved to the online realm, who quickly recognized her addictive behavior and removed herself from it all before hitting the proverbial rock-bottom. And I can just picture a whole room of marketing experts over at Penguin sorta sighing when they heard this story, and saying, "Why, that's not James Frey Oprah Freaking Book Club material at all! Quick, get me John Berendt on the phone! Johnny baby, we need a quote about gambling addiction, asap! Hey you, Chip Kidd, get me a picture of a sad-looking ocean for the front cover, pronto! And Photoshop a playing card into it, damnit!"

And what makes this particular book doubly frustrating is that the real answer to it all is laying right there in front of all of them, and that no one involved with this book picked up on it; that the really compelling story is of why she loves physical poker get-togethers so much in the first place, of the way it psychologically frees Frankel for the first time in her life to act "like one of the guys," i.e. aggressive and creative and spontaneous and intelligent, or at least in her mind is how she's always pictured "male behavior." This is a naturally fascinating observation, I think -- that as long as the poker was mostly about the actual events, the opportunity to revel in the very traits she had always felt the need to repress as a female, the actual gambling itself was always very much under her control, with it never becoming an issue until discovering the world of 24-hour-a-day poker with virtual anonymous strangers from the comfort of her own couch while laying around in a bathrobe. At this point, Frankel admits, the poker unto itself became a very different thing in her mind, a falsely hyped pure competition done just for the sake of competition, even against anonymous strangers you'll never meet, a subconscious compulsion aided by overwhelming encouragement from an etheral "Other" (society, advertisements, peer pressure, etc) to just do so and not make waves. Or in other words, the exact behavior she was raised to believe that "proper women" exhibit in public.

That's a fascinating way to look at the issue, I think, a highly original concept that you could easily hang a whole book on; if I had been the editor of Hats & Eyeglasses, for example, I would've laid out the book in two halves, her physical-poker years and her online-poker ones, stressing more the emotional differences between the two activities and how they curiously and subconsciously fit perfectly the traditional gender roles the middle-aged Frankel has always felt in her life, not so much try to make it a traditional "gambling addict bottoms out" tale like the real publishing team at Penguin did here. And this of course gets to the heart of what I've been saying about memoirs being such a tricky genre to tackle; because when all is said and done, this story is certainly not badly-written in any way at all, contains an inherently interesting twist, and in general has all the other things a professor might check off on a list during a beginning writing course, as far as what a story should contain in order to be successful. It's just so tricky to get all those parts to line up when it's a personal memoir, and in so many cases precisely because it's a true story, and the author is so close to the events and cannot see them dispassionately. And that of course is another big reason why fiction is ironically much easier to actually write than personal memoirs, because we feel much more comfortable throwing away large chunks of stories when they're fictional, changing other large chunks. With true stories, many people get afraid or protective of the entire unedited narrative plotline; it's hard for them to remove big chunks without crying out, "But that's how it actually happened!" I've said it before and I'll say it again -- true stories do not necessarily make for good literature, which makes it even more baffling why so many beginning writers precisely choose them as their first full-length book projects.

Hats & Eyeglasses is a noble try, but unfortunately still kind of a mess, with a kernel of a unique story in there but a manuscript that sorta zig-zags sloppily back and forth across it. This is not necessarily an indication that Frankel is a bad writer, and in fact I'd encourage her to tackle a fictional project along the lines of the gender subjects mentioned above; just that she too took on the challenge of a personal memoir and had some problems with it, just like 90 percent of all other people who attempt memoirs do. This says more about the genre itself than Frankel, I think, but nonetheless caution should be taken with her book.

Out of 10: 7.2

Read even more about Hats & Eyeglasses: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:41 AM, July 14, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |