The Golden Cage is Trashy Faux Feminism

The Golden Cage (2020)
By Camilla Läckberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 300 pages.

Where is the line between a steamy romance novel and soft porn? I’m not certain, but I’m sure that Camilla Läckberg (Jean Edith Camilla Eriksson) crossed it. Her newest novel, The Golden Cage, came with promo telling me that this Swedish crime fiction writer has written a dozen and a half novels that have been translated into 40 languages, so I guess her formula is working for her. It’s not working for me. I needed a shower after reading The Golden Cage and it wasn’t a cold one.

Many English speakers will recognize the title as a reference to living in a situation that inspires envy by outsiders but is actually a prison for those on the inside. Betty Friedan used it in her definitive feminist work The Feminine Mystique. More on Friedan in a moment.

Unless one is born into obscene wealth, most gilded cage occupants were once the envious ones on the outside. This is certainly the case for the novel’s putative heroine, Faye. She was actually born as Matilda, but assumed a new identity when she fled from a dark family secret in her native Fjälbacka, relocated to the anonymity of Stockholm, and reinvented herself. (Ironically, Läckberg lives in Fjälbacka.) In Stockholm Faye struggles at first, then acquires both a boyfriend and a BFF named Chris. The boyfriend has to go when Faye first feasts her eyes–and I’m being kind about the relevant body part–on Jack Adelheim, whom she identifies as both hot and a high flyer. Faye helps him build Compare, a marketing firm, and before you can say “knickers off,” they are filthy rich and the envy of their nouveau riche peers. It’s a dream life, but one that changes when Faye gives birth to Julienne and Jack becomes a workaholic and sexist pig. Faye abases herself to try to please Jack, but he’s soon addicted to porn and sleeping with half of Stockholm, before Faye discovers him with Ylva, a younger version of herself.

At this point, The Golden Cage becomes a revenge novel masquerading as feminist. Faye once again reinvents herself and launches a beauty product line named–you guessed it–Revenge. She draws investors from loads of women, including her landlord Kersten, who have one thing in common: Each has been screwed over by a man or two or more. At this juncture I should say that I “get” it. Millions of women have been abused (psychologically, physically, or both) by men and there’s no excusing it under the rubric of “the way things used to be.” Faye’s plan to avenge Jack’s sexism is, to say the least, unique.

All of this raises the question of whether this novel is feminist or just trashy. Jack is a truly despicable human being, but there is exactly one male character in the book who is anything more than a cardboard cutout chauvinist: Chris’ boyfriend Johan. There is also the question of what is morally justifiable. One theory claims there is no such thing as reverse sexism; another that says neither misogyny nor misandry is morally justifiable. If only these were the sole choices in Läckberg’s novel. Hers is a troubling amoral version of feminism, and almost none of how Läckberg extricates women from their golden cage is what Betty Friedan would have condoned.

The phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” comes from Pierre Chordelos de Laclos in the novel whose English title is Dangerous Liaisons. Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful 1988 film of that title, where the revenge is both frosty and complex. Now would be the time to say that Camilla Läckberg is no Pierre Chordelos de Laclos. A list of what The Golden Cage lacks would include wit, verisimilitude, and suspense. There is, however, crime. And let us not forget soft porn. Had I read the phrase “wet between the legs” one more time in relation to Faye, I might have hurled this book across the room despite the fact that it was loaded onto my iPad. In the opening line of my review I asked where the line is drawn between steamy romance and porn. Perhaps this novel reads better in Swedish but from where I sit, it’s not worth making distinctions. In English, The Golden Cage is trashy pyrite pulp.

Rob Weir  


Wax Packs Looks at Post-Career MLB Players

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (2020)
 Brad Balukjian 
 The Wax Pack is a high-concept book for baseball fans. In 2015, Brad Balukjian, a natural history professor at Merritt College in Oakland, bought a random unopened package of 1986 Topps baseball cards on eBay and spent his summer trying to track down the 14* players lying underneath the bubblegum. In 49 days, Balukjian put 11,341 miles on his 2002 Honda and fueled himself with 123 cups of coffee.

Balukjian chose 1986 because it evoked fond childhood memories of enjoying baseball with his father. Twenty-nine years later, the 34-year-old Balukjian was single, renting a room in Oakland, and in therapy for OCD and emotional issues. His coast-to-coast-to coast baseball journey took on a second life of sorting out his own life. His Topps pack included–in the order Balukjian discusses them–Rance Mulliniks, Steve Yeager, Gary Templeton, Gary Pettis, Randy Ready, Don Carman, Jamie Cocanower, Carlton Fisk, Vince Coleman, Lee Mazzilli, Doc Gooden, Richie Hebner, Rick Sutcliffe, and Al Cowens.

Balukjian bookends his sojourn with stories gathered in Duryea, Pennsylvania, where Topps cranked out 170 packs of cards per minute before closing the plant in 1996. Mary Lou Gula missed the steady employment and camaraderie at Topps, though it was hot, hard work. It’s not easy starting over when you’ve doing something for a long time. Balukjian wanted to learn if that was also true for the faces on the cards.

Getting to the major league usually entails devoting one’s youth to endless hours of playing, practicing, and attending coaching clinics. Those who become prospects spend around four years in the minor leagues, and just one in 33 will make it to the majors. Even then, the average career is less than 6 years; most players retire in their 30s. What one does for the next 30-plus years? What kind of person does one become once the cheering ends?

One revelation is that there is generally a reverse correlation between being a great player and a good human being. Jaime Cocanower, for example, grew up in Panama and lasted just three years in the majors. He now lives in Arizona with his wife, a teacher who works with Asperger kids. Cocanower experienced few problems with walking away.

Professional baseball is notoriously hard on marriages–especially for players from dysfunctional birth families. “Boomer” Yeager was tight-lipped about his unhappy childhood, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to imagine how it contributed to two collapsed marriages and struggles with alcohol abuse. Rance Mulliniks also divorced before he finally found peace in not being the center of attention. Most of the players in Balukjian’s wax pack divorced at least once.

Cocanower is an outlier in severing ties to baseball. Rick Sutcliffe had an afterlife in broadcasting, Yeager as a coach for the Dodgers, Gary Pettis with the Astros, Richie Hebner with the Blue Jays, and Lee Mazzilli with both the Mets and Yankees. Balukjian’s boyhood idol, Phillies pitcher Don Carman, became a sports psychologist who works for superagent Scott Boras.

Wax packers Carlton Fisk and Doc Gooden milked their fame while showing little respect for the fans who idolized them. Balukjian observes that Fisk, “never won any nice guy awards.” He comes across as a prima donna and world-class jerk. His agent claims Fisk is a private man, which begs questions of why someone wishing anonymity needs an agent, or why he agrees to act chummy with anyone who pays for an autograph.

The most direct way of describing Gooden is that he is simply bad news. Through his son, he extorted hundreds of dollars from Balukjian for an interview he never intended to give. Gooden is a junkie who has been arrested for everything from DUI and domestic abuse to child endangerment and cocaine possession.

The wild card in the wax pack is Balukjian’s attempt to connect with other black players. Gary Templeton was extremely open about being the “black kid” who refused to “kiss white butt." He accused his former manager "Whitey" Herzog of living down to his nickname, and cited racism to explain why the percentage of black major leaguers has fallen from 18 percent in 1976 to just 7.2 percent. Balukjian positions Templeton as a complex and misunderstood man whose pride was never broken.

On the other hand, neither Pettis nor Vice Coleman would speak to Balukjian, moments that provide space for Balukjian to discuss his own demons or speculate about non-present subjects. Often, these breaks are book-within-a-book digressions that weaken the book’s coherence. Plus, should someone in therapy try to psychoanalyze others? Vince Coleman’s run-ins with the law are fair game, but few fans would agree with Balukjian’s assessment that Coleman was “a pretty mediocre player” whose sole attraction was base-stealing. Coleman played for 12 years and was a career .264 hitter. That’s solid, even if not earth-shattering.

The book is much stronger when Balukjian immerses himself in the hometowns of the players. Al Cowens died in 2002, and Balukjian visited Compton and elicited remembrances from community and family members. Especially moving was Balukjian’s trip to Carman’s boyhood home of Camargo, Oklahoma, a dead oil-patch outpost now defined by crystal meth and low aspirations. Carman left it behind, a reminder that professional sports are often a one-way escape from nowhere. Metaphorically speaking, that’s a much longer journey than 49 days of crisscrossing America.

Rob Weir

* Normally there are 15 player cards, but one card was a checklist.



2020 How the AL East Was Lost

High fives for the Rays?

The self-styled experts and Vegas betters–ever notice there aren’t many  rich sports betters?–are picking the New York Yankees to go to the World Series this year. Says here they are wrong (and I’m a Yankees fan).

The Yankees were cheated out of two trips the Series by the now-disgraced-but-not-really-punished Houston Astros. Those were better teams than the 2020 edition. The Yankees lost the 2020 season because of what they did not do midsummer 2019. You read that right: 2019. In a season in which Aaron Boone should have been manager of the year for patching together a roster from the walking wounded, the Yankees failed to fire their medical and conditioning staff mid-season and waited until the winter to do so. The result is that they will open this season with an outfield of Gardner, Tauchman, and Frazier. Okay, but the $44 million outfield of choice­–Stanton, Judge, and Hicks–is on the disabled list. Maybe the late start will work to their advantage, but none of the three is likely to be 100%.

The DL also includes Severino, their # 2 starter, and Paxton, their # 3. It’s a damn good thing they signed (Gerrit) Cole to be their ace, or the Yankees would be done before the first pitch is thrown. Now the starters will be Cole, Tanaka, Happ, and then what? (Jordan) Montgomery will probably be # 4 and the last spot will probably come from farmhand contenders such as Clarke Schmidt, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Mike King. (It won’t be their # 1 prospect, Devi García who is raw and inexperienced.) With Britton, Chapman, Green, Kahnle, and Ottavino, New York still has MLB’s best bullpen; the pen is going to work hard early and is in danger of early burn out. Plus, everyone has to throw to Gary Sánchez, who is a terrible defender and a much overrated bat.

The lineup still features the wonderful DJ LeMahieu, wunderkind Torres, Voit, surprise star Urshela, and the return of on-base machine Andújar. All of the DL stars except Severino (Tommy John surgery) will return at some point as will suspended pitcher Domingo German, but who knows how effective any of them will be? (Paxton is a critical piece.) To free up salary to sign Cole, the Yankees had to dump a fine backup catcher (Romine) for a career minor-leaguer (Higashioka) and Gregorious, whose replacement is Tyler Wade, who no one in baseball likes as much as the Yankees. By the time players on the DL return, the Yankees might well be fighting for a Wild Card.

I pick the Tampa Bay Rays to win the AL East. If Snell and Glasnow are healthy, they will anchor a staff that already has Yarbrough, Morton, Chirinois, and a minor league system full of lively arms. The question with the Rays is simple: Will they score enough runs? Let’s be charitable and say there are some hopefuls such as Tsutsugo, Choi, Adames, and (José) Martínez. The outfield, other than Kiermaier, isn’t full of sluggers. In baseball, though, great pitching generally prevails over great hitting; far too many of New York’s feared bats lie splintered on the DL.

Are the Boston Red Sox the AL East dark horse? Call the Red Sox the if team of the East. If Sale isn’t a $30 million washed-up dead arm, if (Eduardo) Rodríquez’s 2019 output wasn’t a fluke, if Eoavaldi is healthy, if (Martin) Peréz manages to miss more bats than he hits, if Chavis lives up to his promise, if Devers doesn’t regress, if Verdugo isn’t a broken NL fraud, if Peraza adjusts to the AL, if Bradley hits above is weight (200), and if the Sox fill out the back of their rotation, they might surprise. Potentially, a lineup with Bogaerts, Benintendi, Devers, and JD Martinez is stronger than that of the Rays and the DL Yankees. That’s a lot of “ifs,” though, and the odds are low that enough of them will pan out. One if has already imploded; Sale is headed for Tommy John surgery.

In my heart of hearts, I think the Toronto Blue Jays are a year away from making serious noise, but sometimes good news arrives early. Get used to the names Bichette, Biggio, and Guerrero Jr. as they will soon be the best infield in baseball. The current outfield is the so-so Grichuk and hope that some young players will emerge. The catching is so thin that non-roster invite Caleb Johnson might make the team. Not good, because the pitching has more holes than Dunkin' Donuts. Giles is a tested closer, but you first have to get that far. It’s Roark, (Matt) Shoemaker, (Chase) Anderson, and Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old rookie from Japan. Anyone quaking in their boots? Didn’t think so. This has to change before the Jays are for real.

The only reason to discuss the Baltimore Orioles is to say how badly we feel for Trey Mancini and Alex Cobb. No one seems to know what’s going on with Orioles’ management. It’s sad to see such a once-proud franchise sink to such depths.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1.    Tampa Bay
2.    New York
3.    Boston
4.    Toronto
5.    Baltimore