Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Books for an Uncertain Summer

Books for an Uncertain Summer

by Miriam R. Kramer

In looking ahead to this summer, no one was able to predict how their vacation plans might change when faced with furlough, joblessness, or simply cancellations. Our worldwide pandemic has altered most of our behaviors and postponed many of our goals. We protect ourselves as best we can while creating Plan B. In the meantime, books are more important than ever. Whether they provide escape or enlightenment, they are invaluable friends that shed light on the human condition. As usual in August, I review a grab bag of books for vacations and staycations, such as Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, Victoria Schwab’s YA (Young Adult) duology This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet, and finally, the bestselling exposé, Too Much and Never Enough, by Mary Trump about her uncle and current president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Lucy Foley has created a tautly planned thriller in The Guest List. Magazine editor Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater have planned a wedding on a remote, wind lashed island off the coast of Ireland. Jules controls the ceremony down to the last detail with the help of Aoife, the wedding planner. As Aoife notes, “Life is messy….You can’t control more than a single day. But you can control one of them.” Even this idea proves an illusion when the wedding goes terribly wrong. Foley switches back and forth between her point-of-view characters: the bride, the bridesmaid, the best man, the wedding planner, and the plusone wife. Interspersed are snippets from the wedding day and night, as she builds to a crescendo of disaster when the guests’ secrets are revealed. While Foley follows the formula she created with her novel The Hunting Party, about a New Year’s Eve bash in a remote location, The Guest List is more coherent. Gradually layers of deceit are peeled away and the plot veers in an unexpected direction.  It dovetails neatly and ties up all loose ends with its grand finale. If you’re looking for a beach or airplane read, whether you’re on a beach or an airplane, this book will fit your needs.

Victoria Schwab alternates between fantasy for adults, which she writes under the name V.E. Schwab, and young adults. Often there is little difference between her two approaches. In her duology of This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet, she presents an alternate America in which monsters roam the streets of Verity, V-City, one of the guarded cities that include Temperance, Fortune, and Prosperity. In between Verity and Prosperity, for example, is the Waste where a scanty number of vagabonds and monsters roam. The gritty metropolis of Verity is split by the Seam into North City and South City. In North City, the cold and cynical Callum Harker controls and even creates monsters, while Henry Flynn, a former surgeon, leads a task force of soldiers who battle the violence perpetuated by monsters sneaking across the Seam.

When Harker’s daughter, Kate, is expelled from yet another distant boarding school, she achieves her goal of living with her father and heads to V-City’s local Colton Academy. There she meets a monster masquerading as a human, August Flynn, member of the Flynn Task Force, who battles the monsters that creep across the seam to ravage North City. August is a Sunai, a rare monster meant to take vengeance against sinners, killing evil humans and the Malchai and Corsai, the other monster breeds. When Kate and August form an unusual bond despite their official positions as enemies, they start creating a way to handle V-City’s monsters and heal the city.

Schwab creates flawed, powerful heroes and heroines within this post-apocalyptic fantasy genre. She keeps suspense alive and still makes her characters relatable to a teenage or adult audience longing for independent and fierce characters. I recommend her other fantasy series as well. Aimed at adults, her Shades of Magic series includes the books A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light. Portraying a fantasy world based on four alternate Londons in the 18th century, these books are cynical and hopeful by turns.

Mary L. Trump, the niece of Donald J. Trump, has a PhD from the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, which she has used to analyze her terribly dysfunctional family. Her book Too Much and Never Enough smashed Simon & Schuster’s record for first-day sales last month with almost a million copies sold. By now you probably feel as if you know it by heart it from hearing analyses in print and on television. I recommend reading it anyways.

Her tell-all is slim and pointed. Although short, it is not remotely bite-sized. It sheds much-needed light on the president’s origins and attitudes. I found myself stopping at certain places to absorb her devastating insights, while reading more quickly through the family stories that illustrated them.

Mary L. Trump’s grandfather, the patriarch of the family, Fred Trump, is revealed as a psychologically sadistic sociopath, someone who ignored his wife and children’s needs. As a successful builder, he used hyperbole to describe himself as “great,” “fantastic,” and other aggrandizing adjectives while worming his way into the good graces of politicians and government officials to earn tax dollars for building developments. His own home in Queens, simply called “The House,” by his family, was a breeding ground for psychological dysfunction and cruelty.

A workaholic builder and building manager in New York City’s outer boroughs, he used humiliation as a tool to promote obedience among his children: Maryanne, Fred Jr., Elizabeth, Donald, and Robert.  Despising his young children‘s needs as weakness, he created a terrified family constantly seeking his approval while never getting it. In the process, he warped them to inculcate his values. They included the overwhelming importance of making money, projecting wealth, and winning at all costs.  He wanted his children to be tough and invincible. Mary MacLeod Trump, the often-ill matriarch of the family, was a self-centered, cold woman who was frequently hospitalized during the children’s early years and beyond. Therefore, they had no one to turn to who would validate their needs and allow them to show vulnerability. It was everyone for himself or herself within the household.

Mary L. Trump focuses frequently on how her father, Freddie, disappointed his father as the oldest son. Fred Trump wanted someone to continue the business successfully, and Freddie was not a businessman. Fred humiliated her father over and over as Freddie tried to become his own man, working as a pilot and hoping to break free of the family orbit. Freddie drank enough to sabotage his own chances of remaining a pilot and went back to work for his father, who took him back reluctantly and gave him little to do. He constantly sought his father’s affection and acceptance, always coming up empty and drinking his pain away.

Freddie eventually died early at age 42. By that time his father had set his sights on his critical, cruel bully of a son, Donald, as his true heir and the inheritor of his empire. Mary Trump reveals how Donald constantly failed upwards. His father bankrolled his endeavors as Donald’s knack for publicity took the Trumps’ business into Manhattan. Fred saw his son Donald as his ticket to glitz, prestige, and useful contacts beyond the boroughs.

As Donald plowed his father’s and various banks’ money into his doomed Atlantic City casinos, he lived a consequence-free, sequestered environment in which he could do whatever he wanted, surrounded by more competent people who did his work while he took the credit. He had learned early on that his emotional needs would never be met, and that his father would only accept and approve a tough façade and a vindictive nature. His self-deluding opinion that anything he did was
“amazing” and “the best,” probably copied from his father, helped cover up his deep-seated fear of failure, insecurity, and desperate need for affirmation. As Mary L. Trump points out, any compliment he receives disappears into a black hole after he receives its instant gratification. His overpowering thirst for recognition is endless, which makes him easy prey for more powerful and intelligent government and world leaders to manipulate to their own ends.

Throughout the book, Mary L. Trump actually shows compassion for him and all her family members in considering the atmosphere in which they all grew up, without excusing their behavior. When Donald and his siblings committed tax fraud, along with cheating Mary and her brother Fritz out of any reasonable inheritance from their grandfather, they were doing what they had been taught to do: take advantage of those who were powerless, value them based on their current financial standing, and break any laws necessary to achieve their ends. When Mary and Fritz brought a lawsuit against their aunts and uncles, they canceled the siblings’ health insurance, which also covered Fritz’s sick little boy’s round-the-clock medical care. This type of cruelty was straight out of Fred Trump, Senior’s playbook.

It is evident to many White House watchers that the president, a cultivated sociopath groomed by his father, surrounds himself with yes people, sycophants, and criminals who can do at least some of his dirty business for him. Those who do not comply swiftly with his needs fall out of favor. Fired, they disappear into the swiftly revolving door of his staffers, who come and go based on their perceived usefulness and loyalty.

As a clinical psychologist, Mary L. Trump tells a well-written, compelling, and surprisingly detached story of how the president stopped evolving as a human being within the context of her family’s pathologies. She believes him incapable of change. After almost four years of watching him, many of us agree. We face an uncertain fall, hoping that Donald J. Trump will either resign or be voted out in November to prevent his malignant narcissism and incompetence from further undermining American democracy. While 2020 has proven difficult and unpredictable so far, there is always the shining hope that we will see this silver lining when the election rolls around.

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