Monthly Archives: August 2011

Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower

book by Shana Alexander

annotation by Tina Rubin

Author Shana Alexander tells the “real” story of the 1980 murder of Herman Tarnower, the doctor behind the Scarsdale diet sensation, by Jean Harris, his lover of fourteen years. Written like a nonfiction novel in the style of Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book gripped me from the outset. Excellent journalist that Alexander was (she was the first female to write for Life magazine), she clearly asked the tough questions that she knew would shape a compelling narrative.

Jean Harris was the headmistress of an exclusive Virginia girls’ school and, as the title suggests, very much a lady. How did such a well-bred woman become a murderer? I was intrigued by Harris’s descent into hell because it sounded much like the journey of the main character in the novel I’m writing. I want my protagonist to ring true, and Alexander provided the real-life character study I was looking for. She portrays Harris as a successful, professional woman with a good upbringing, and no history of mental illness, who becomes victimized by her own unquenchable hunger for Tarnower’s love.

As it turned out, Harris killed Tarnower by accident while she was trying to commit suicide. This was a different story than I expected, yet even so, I gained insight into the factors that shaped Harris’s character and caused her to make the choices she did. Much of her background was similar to what I had attributed to my main character, so I had the satisfaction of knowing that psychologically I was on the right track. Harris’s father was impossible to please, her older sister was clearly the favorite, and she nurtured a romantic notion of love that could only disappoint. The picture that emerges of Herman Tarnower, too, is similar to my antagonist: intelligent, talented, and arrogant to the extreme. This is a man who goes out of his way for no one. Continue reading

The Tender Bar

book by J.R. Moehringer

annotation by Wendy M. Fontaine

The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer is a carefully constructed puzzle. Each piece, no matter how oddly shaped or seemingly insignificant, falls into place to form a picture that makes sense only when viewed as a whole.

The story is about the author’s upbringing by a single mother and the guidance he receives from a community of men who frequent a bar (Publicans) in his hometown of Manhasset, New York. At first, Publicans served as a father figure for the author, since his own father disappeared when he was a baby. Later on, the bar became a distraction from college, a retreat from failure, and a comfort after loss.

Details bring this story to life and make the book read more like fiction than memoir. Moehringer describes how people talked, how they looked at one another and, most importantly, how certain memories made him feel. He routinely describes a scene, whether it takes place at the bar, in college or in the newsroom where he worked as a New York Times copyboy, and asks himself, “OK, now what was that really about?”

That kind of writing makes The Tender Bar an excellent example of hindsight, the element that distinguishes memoir from other genres.

In the first chapter, Moehringer describes his father, Johnny Michaels, as a popular New York City radio personality. Even though his father was absent, Moehringer listened to him growing up, and referred to him as The Voice:

“When Grandma and Grandpa went to war over the grocery money, when Aunt Ruth threw something against the wall in anger, I’d press my ear close to the radio and The Voice would tell me something funny or play me a song by Peppermint Rainbow,” he writes. “I listened so ardently to The Voice, achieved such mastery at shutting out other voices, that I became a prodigy at selective listening, which I thought was a gift until it proved to be a curse. Life is all a matter of choosing which voices to tune in and which to tune out, a lesson I learned long before most people, but one that took me longer than most to put to good use.” Continue reading