Friday, July 30, 2010

Blogging Dilemmas Abound: Epic Buffy Post is Impending

As many of you may have noticed, there was an unfortunate lack of posting yesterday. I've really been making a valiant effort to put at least something up every day. I have a long, meaty post about the greatness and perfect structure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the works (don't mock. my post is very, very scholarly). And I was planning to put up some artwork today.

But, here's the thing.

It's gorgeously, finally, inexplicably beautiful out, and I have to go to the art store, spend some time outside of my blogging girl cave, and then get home in time to get all pretty for an event tonight that I'm being escorted to by the ever dashing inamorato. So. Yeah. Several hours in front of photoshop is simply not going to happen.

I recently discovered due to the valiant efforts of the obsessive people over at Cute Overload, that something called a piglet squid exists. Here is a photo of a baby piglet squid:

Now, the piglet squid is both charming and mysteriious. Their habitat is in the near darkness of the mesopelagic zone (delightfully, also referred to as the twilight zone). Some of their neighbors are fluorescent, though the piglet squid is not. Very little is known about this adorable little squid. Below, is the equally charming adult:

Have a lovely weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clown Dystopia

This is the old notebook holy grail image as far as I am concerned. A clown dystopia where all the fish have disappeared. It had to do with some long abandoned project that I can't even remember. Click on it to enlarge so you can read the captions.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Gangsters and Chorus Girls

As I say in all my bios, all I do is draw pictures and tell stories. That's it. I seem to be moving more and more into a place where I'm doing this more by myself on the page and in the computer, rather than on stage, collaborating with other people. Contrary to some popularly held opinions, I actually do like collaborating and life lived through photoshop can get lonely at times. But at least I finally, finally feel like I know what I'm doing and can work at a pace that isn't completely, bone-crushingly, agonizingly slow. So, should I draw/paint in a background into the above picture? Well, obviously.

I have a few projects in the works, at least in the talking stages, mostly with others. I'm looking to combine something comic book-y with something theater-y and I'm trying to figure out a way to do this which makes sense. I have some ideas. Most of them involve projections in some way. Which does worry me as so often, media of whatever kind is so poorly integrated into whatever the live elements are. Alvin Sputnik was just back in town with his Wii controlled show, which I loved, which didn't feel remotely compromised.

So, yeah. I'm gong to be spending a lot of time drawing a lot of chorus girls and gangsters and criminals and assorted show biz folk. Which really does make me extremely happy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nights at the Circus & Wise Children: Angela Carter's Last, Great Novels

Maybe I should elaborate.

Angela Carter's final two novels before her early death from lung cancer in 1992 are also, for my (pretend) money, the two greatest show biz novels ever written. I started reading Nights at the Circus on the subway ride from my parents house to Windsor Terrace on the very first day of my taking up residency in Brooklyn. For some reason, this feels deeply symbolic to me in ways that feel profound, but difficult to articulate. Why is it that one's life tends to change in so many ways at once? I spent a great deal of time my first winter in the wilds of Brooklyn wondering what I was doing there and I read an awful lot, but it started with this one book.

Nights at the Circus is written in three parts (or acts, or rings if you like). So many novels about theater, or show business wind up being a little like the novel equivalent of one of those HBO bio pics. Don't misunderstand me, I love HBO bio pics - but I mean they tend to be I guess really linear and about the subject matter in a way that really great literature rarely is. Nights at the Circus is a truly great book that most people I know have never read. Which just kills me.

It begins at the cusp of the 20th century in London. Jack, an American reporter sits in Sophie Fevver's dressing room as she tells him her extraordinary life story. Fevvers is the toast of Europe, the greatest aerialist alive - billed as "The Cockney Venus" she has two wings on her back, and may be part swan, part clockwork or a complete hoax. Her tag line is , "Is she fact or is she fiction?" and it's really the question of the book. In all Angela Carter's books and stories, people are always changeable, nothing is carved in stone. Women turn into tigers, men wake up women, you name it. But in her last two great novels, this mutability, her obsession with facades and performance is self-consciously theatrical. She achieves the tone in Circus of a gritty, music hall, magic realism, burlesque that is quite literally completely unlike anything else I've ever read. Little Fevvers was found as an infant on the doorstep of a London brothel just beginning to sprout little tufts of down on her shoulder blades ("Looks like the little thing is going to sprout fevvers!"), was raised there, eventually finding herself in a freak brothel run by an evil, tiny dried up puppet of a woman (who may actually be a puppet). The old whore who raised Fevvers may be an anarchist (the kind that blows things up), and the reporter wonders if Fevvers is actually a man, and if anything he is told is true.

The second act is set in St Petersburg as Fevvers has been engaged by Colonel Kearney's Circus for their Grand Imperial Tour of the Russias and Japan (to be followed by their Great Democratic Tour of the United States). Jack has signed on as a clown, and there is lots of truly disquieting drunken clown mayhem and strange self loathing monologues by the monstrous Buffo the Great who turns the American into "The Human Chicken". There is the ape act, with the drunken Professor who beats his poor, long suffering mistress (who used to work for a crooked spiritualist, playing dead children), the Abyssinian Princess (ahem.) who tames tigers, a high wire act that loathes Fevvers (understandably), a love sick strongman named Samson. And Colonel Kearney himself, the ringmaster and circus owner, a huckster from Kentucky with a remarkable pig named Sybil. The story telling is strange, meandering, and baroque. The third act is set in Siberia, and here it takes a turn into the truly bizarre and nearly mystical. Circus impresarios, murderesses, would-be rapists, amnesia, winged women, tigers caught in mirrors, a Russian Grand Duke, explosions, freaks, whores, truly educated apes. Lots of it is funny, some extremely unsettling. The whole thing is just gorgeous. Angela Carter books aren't about plots, hers are usually absurd burlesques, mad enough to demonstrate that plot should never be the point of good literature.

Wise Children is my favorite novel. In the world. That I've ever read. Ever. Which actually makes it a little hard for me to speak about it rationally, as I'm determined not to resort to the listicle. It's the story of a (mostly) English show business dynasty as told by elderly former chorine Dora Chance (the rest of the family possess the surname Hazard, of course!). In the true Shakespearean tradition the book is full of twins (I think there are FIVE sets), it's besotted with Shakespeare from top to bottom (intended). Dora and Nora Chance are (probably) the illegitimate twin daughters of the great stage star and Shakespearean, Melchior Hazard. As Dora says at one point, being illegitimate, she and her twin go on the halls. And that's really the meat of the book. It's about art and entertainment high and low and everything between. And about family. About parents and children and people who are parents in name only and about the people who raise and love them. The cast is enormous, and nearly everyone in the book is "family" in some way or another to the two Chance sisters, either by marriage, blood, adoption or coercion. Their father, Melchior, never acknowledges them officially - his American brother, Perry, steps up, puts his name on the birth certificate and becomes their adored and adoring uncle.

I mean it when I say nearly every sort of enterprise that might hire an actor makes an appearance: Shakespeare (of course), music hall, vaudeville, burlesque, English pantomime, Hollywood movies, game shows, commercials, children's television, cooking shows, and on and on. The Chance sisters are raised in a theatrical boarding house by their beloved Grandma Chance (vegetarian, pacifist, nudist and drinker of créme de menthe). The appearances by real life luminaries are blessedly few and far between. Famous people are mentioned occasionally, but they remain off stage. There's a lovely description of a Fred and Adele Astaire routine - the girls' first show, and the first time they see their father in the flesh. There is also a whole Dan Leno routine in a seaside theater in Brighton, and he becomes an actual character in the book, playing Bottom in a disastrous movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I had no idea that Dan Leno was a real person until I read my always charming inamorato's book on vaudeville. I may have even said out loud, "Oh! He's real!" to an entire subway car.

One of the most wonderful things about the book is Dora's voice. She's a smart, working class dame who learned how to write from her former boyfriend, just referred to by his nickname, Irish. He's clearly drawn from a mixture of Fitzgerald and Faulkner in their Hollywood years. She's by turns hard boiled and sentimental, and the set pieces are wondrous: the winter orgy outside of a burning mansion, the set of the aforementioned film of Dream, the entire Brighton sequence. The last line of the book, after a raucous party filled with centenarians, butterflies and incest, is "what a joy it is to dance and sing".

Wise Children is cast pretty much entirely with people who until fairly recently wouldn't have been allowed to be buried in cemeteries along side so-called decent people. Self-invented actors and performers and impresarios. That is to say, my kind of people.

Note: There will likely be further posts later. My Angela Carter claims don't rest just on these two novels. There is also the criticism, the translations, many other novels, the radio plays, and the truly glorious short stories and fairy tales.

Angela Carter is the Greatest Writer of the Last Half of the 20th Cenury and Anyone Who Thinks I'm Wrong Can Go Fuck Themselves

Have I made myself clear?

Okay, then.

Friday, July 23, 2010

And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming (if I normally wrote about sandwiches. which i don't. whatever)...

There was an unfortunate break in service today here at Caviglia's Cabinet, as real life annoyances made an unavoidable incursion into our blogging schedule.

So, in honor of my day of frustration, I have chosen to share with you a recipe for my favorite dish: the grilled cheese sandwich.

You will need:

2 slices of white bread (Arnold's Country White is excellent, or any good pullman loaf)
2 slices of American cheese (Kraft, people! Kraft!)

Butter, lots of it. (sweet, not salt. The best you can afford.)

Take about two tablespoons of butter, put it on a plate and wait until it is soft.

Spread the butter so that it thickly coats the two slices of bread.

Unwrap the cheese slices and place one whole on the bread, and tear up the second one so that it covers all the empty spots on the bread. You want a solid coating of cheese! It's especially good if you arrange it so that it hangs out the side slightly so that it will caramelize in the pan.

Speaking of which, turn the heat on the stove to medium. If it is too hot, it will melt the butter, and toast the bread before the inside gets melty, which would be disastrous.

Place sandwich in pan (Note: the buttered sides of the bread should face outwards). Let the butter melt and the bread get a nice golden brown. Flip the sandwich with a spatula and do the same on the other side.

You should now have a perfect grilled cheese sandwich!

Obviously, the permutations are endless. You can use nearly any kind of cheese or bread, and add anything you like: avocado, tomato, mushroom, whatever. Sometimes, the cheese does not get melty enough if one has other ingredients in the sandwich. In that case, I have found that covering the pan briefly while it is grilling will work.

For grilled cheeses available for purchase in NYC (and good ones are skockingly difficult to come by) the best traditional grilled cheese can be found at Junior's, in Brooklyn. It's just perfectly toasted and melty. My favorite non-traditional one is 'wichcraft's gruyère and caramelized onions on rye. Tom Colicchio really does know what he is doing. And they will happily add avocado if you like at no additional cost! Which you know is almost unheard of. And it costs like $5.50. So, the best sandwich is a really good deal!

Last week I read Mary Roach's excellent and completely hilarious Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, where I discovered this gem:
I give you a sentence, my favorite sentence in the entire oeuvre of Alfred Kinsey, from Sexual Behavior in the Human Female: "Cheese crumbs spread in front of the copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male."

Look. I realize the picture of the rat with the banjo has very little to do with anything, but it's been a super frustrating day, and it is so cute, so just leave it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old Notebooks All Smeary and Forgotten

I was looking for some notes I had made on Giant Squid six or seven years ago, so I looked through a bunch of old notebooks and found some smeary, blurred pencil sketches I had mostly forgotten about.

The first was something inspired by Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (more on that later):

The next was a plague nun - something Lucy Troma related.

And a quick pencil and acrylic sketch of Lucy and Treena:

Wow. You can really see how rusty I was, and hadn't been drawing or making art of any kind (I mean of the picture rather than word variety)in over a decade before I did these. Well, I'm off to draw tonight to continue the process. Anyone want to come?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

8 Arms To Hold You

You know, I have a stack of Netflix movies just staring at me from the top of the TV making me feel guilty. Maybe I'll watch one this morning. Or, like, not. I think I want more coffee.

Last night I saw a 1933 musical at Film Forum called Moonlight and Pretzels that was directed (sort of shockingly incompetently)by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund. B musicals are always a good time.

Oh, look. I thought it was going to rain today, but it looks really nice out. I'll probably sit around the park drawing things and reading. I'm about 50 pages into Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath. I'm loving it so far. I've read pretty much all his other books - he does modern gothic pretty much better than anyone. It's so funny as he had the most gothic upbringing of any modern writer. He was raised on the grounds of Broadmoor (the hospital in England for the criminally insane)where his father was a doctor.

Happy birthday to me!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Convenience Food and The American Dream: Don Draper Knows All

How did this happen? How? How did something like Jell-O (tm) salad get classified as something that was desirable, or even edible? How did we as Americans start cooking with condensed soup? Why the convenience revolution? Wait. I fucking love convenience. So why am I complaining?

Many years ago à propos of nothing, a very good friend asked me, "Did your mother cook with soup?" I looked at her blankly for a moment, and then replied, "Yes. My mother cooked with soup." Apparently, her boyfriend's mother did not, and he was horrified when she explained what she meant (side note: his family were very rich WASPs from Connecticut and, though their ways are foreign to me, after having met his mother, I'm willing to bet she did, in fact, cook with soup). Convenience foods are sneered at. They are processed, unnatural, and most damning of all, low class. We jeer at repulsive recipes like Monterey Soufflé Salad and Jellied Bouillon With Frankfurters - and rightfully so, as both hot dogs and seafood should be segregated from gelatin products forever. But I think it might be time to reappraise convenience in light of their interesting historical context.

Okay. Picture this. You have to make dinner for your family. If you are super lucky, it is a family of three or four. Even more lucky (and even more unlikely) you have servants to do this for you, or at least to assist. You must make sure the stove is fired up with either coal or wood (depending on where or when you live), you must go to the market and buy your food as the refrigerator has not yet been invented. If the ice box has, you must make sure you have actual ice to keep things cold. If you live in a city, the ice man comes around and you better hope you can afford to pay him. If you don't live in a city, I honestly have no idea. You might have to kill, pluck, gut, or skin something. Because of the whole refrigeration issue things like cooking fat might be rancid. Nothing (or almost nothing) comes in packages, greatly limiting your meal planning choices. If you have gone completely mad and decide you want a yummy congealed salad (the unappetizing name for salads made out of gelatin before the ascendancy of Jell-O(tm)), it would involve the boiling of bones and feet of dead animals. You may want to review the aspic section of Julie & Julia to get an idea. Basically, the whole cooking process was a messy, difficult, time intensive nightmare.

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries various products and appliances were invented and marketed, making the whole business infinitely easier and quicker. Part of the quid pro quo of what we usually now jokingly refer to as "labor saving", was the emancipation of women. Wives have always been stuck doing the endless, time consuming, sucky tasks, and things like the blender, frozen TV dinners, instant mashed potatoes, and those handy little packets of Jell-O(tm) must have been just great. The dawn of a new era. Middle class housewives now had the time to take a yoga class. Go back to college. March against the war. Or, like, shop. See, good for everyone and prosperity reigned.

So, what happened to our new Eden made of freedom and astronaut food? The natural food movement happened, hippies happened. Sally Draper came home from Stanford and turned her little nose up at the Ambrosia Salad of her childhood. She worried about her children eating vegetables covered in pesticides. She worried about big agro and corn subsidies. And suddenly, people were plucking and gutting and cooking with whole grains, but this time around all the best people were doing so, and the lower middle class and the working poor were eating convenience food that they would take home on their way back from ten hour shifts at Wal-Mart as they couldn't afford and didn't have the time to prepare the grass finished beef or the organic spinach covered in sand that Sally brought home to her children after volunteering at the co-op.

One day, Sally had her father over for dinner, and after chowing elegantly down on the lime marinated grilled free range chicken breast, quinoa pilaf and wilted bitter greens, he lit up a cigarette ("Daddy. The kids."). He stepped outside and looked at the Manhattan skyline as the sun went down.

"Free range." He said.

"What's that?"

"You bought free range chicken. Why?"

"The antibiotics. And fewer chemicals. It's less cruel."

"That's what everyone says when asked that question. Less cruel. Fewer antibiotics. But do you know exactly what free range chickens are?"


"The first person who uttered the phrase "free range chicken" aloud was someone like me, and he did so in a pitch meeting. I'm sure someone suggested "more humane" and someone else said "less cruel" and lots of other people spoke about mangled feet and mass production and about how this product was different. Then, someone in the room, someone like me, remembered that advertising isn't about negatives. It's not even about specifics. It's about the feelings it causes in the consumer. It's about happiness. You say fewer chemicals -"

"There are fewer chemicals -"

"Maybe. But that doesn't matter. You bought this chicken because it made you feel better about yourself. Buying this chicken made you feel, just a tiny bit, like you were a part of a lost America, an America -"

"Daddy, are you drinking again?"

"Ha ha. Think about the phrase 'Free Range'. What does it make you think of? What do you picture inside your head? The great expanses of the West. Cattle. Mountains. A lost vision of farms and settlers and America as we want it to be, an America as it should be. A John Ford vision of a past that never was. That's what 'free range' means to people. That's why people feel good about buying this ordinary, everyday chicken, that was raised in an ordinary farm upstate. Maybe they use fewer chemicals, maybe it is less cruel, that's fine. But "free range" doesn't actually mean anything. It's no different than calling a drink mix 'space age'. They're just words that make you feel better about yourself, and about the world we live in which is cruel, which uses chemicals, in which things die. The words 'free range' make us forget that - for the few short minutes between when you read the label, and when you hand your credit card over to the checkout girl"


"And the product is far more expensive, which lends an air of exclusivity to this pioneer dream. It never fails."

Incidentally, a new season of Mad Men premiers on AMC this Sunday, July 25.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Babs!

I can't believe I missed this (or that certain, ahem, other people missed it), but last Friday would have been the 103rd birthday of my all-time favorite movie star, Barbara Stanwyck. Born in Brooklyn, she was orphaned when she was a toddler (her mother was pushed off a streetcar by a drunk, her father vanished into the wilds of Panama), and raised by a variety of relatives and in a series of foster homes until she started tagging along on tour with her chorus girl sister. She got hired herself in the 1922 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies (at age 15! Making this an All Follies day on my blog!). She also worked as a dancer in Tex Guinan's nightclubs for several, no doubt, exciting years. She got her first straight acting gig in a play called The Noose, when the producers thought that some stunt casting would garner them some publicity, so they hired Barbara, a real chorus girl to play the part of a chorus girl (and they named her, too - she had been born Ruby Stevens). The rest, as they say, is history. Excelling in comedy, drama, noir, westerns, you name it, Barbara was the best. if you haven't seen The Lady Eve or Double Indemnity or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers there's something wrong with you. So watch them. Now. If you have and didn't like them, you are clearly reading the wrong blog.

Below, find part one of Baby Face, her 1933 pre-code corporate pot-boiler (also featuring a very young, non-cowboy John Wayne). You can watch the rest of the movie on YouTube.

Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted For the Stage

I am pretty solidly video game agnostic, at best.

Back when I was 9 or 10 years old we had a really primitive, text based adventure game on our computer that was linked to my Dad's office via one of those War Games-style modems (I've provided a link to a picture for all you kids who may not know what I'm talking about). It was really buggy though, and you always wound up hitting a point where you would be stuck in a tunnel or something. And we had an Atari when I was in middle school. This is pretty much the extent of my video game experience. Oh. Occasionally, if I'm sick or catastrophically depressed I'll play a hidden object game or something. Essentially, any sort of game that happens in real time makes me anxious and upset.

So, yeah. I'm hardly the target audience for Piper McKenzie's Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted For the Stage (unlike their monkey show, where I was the precise target audience). Luckily, however, one exception notwithstanding, all the video games adapted had their greatest popularity when I was, like, twelve, so I pretty much knew what they were talking about. Of even more interest, each of the five video game adaptations also serve as a parody of a modern theatrical style or playwright. A Beckettian Frogger, a Stanley Kowalski-like oaf, hurling barrels at his Italian neighbors, and, best of all, an unbelievably delightful Brechtian musical about a round, voracious capitalist plagued by ghosts. Jeff Lewonczyk (AKA Mr. Hope Cartelli) penned the pieces, Gyda Arber directed beautifully, and I'd like to particularly mention frequent Piper McKenzie collaborator Fred Backus for his truly inspired portrayal of PacMan.

Everyone should go as it is super entertaining, and buy your tickets in advance as the gaming community has seemingly jumped on this like a theater starved pack of wolves. The performance I attended was packed to the rafters (with strangers!).

I have to say though, I am now hoping to one day see a Busby Berkeley style Space Invaders. Maybe performed in a swimming pool.

Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted For the Stage is being presented as a part of The Brick's Game Play festival. Tickets can be bought here.

Olive Thomas: Patron Saint of Chorus Girls and Art Models

When a girl dies young it leaves a perpetual question mark over her life asking what might have been. For various reasons, Olive Thomas has always been a particularly interesting question mark to me. She was young (but exactly how young is open to conjecture as, to paraphrase Angela Carter, the date of an actress's birth is often a movable feast), beautiful and had an exquisite knack for seizing the main chance, holding on, and turning it to her advantage.

Her early life reads like something out of a Dreiser novel. She was born in a depressing, blighted mill-town near Pittsburgh sometime between 1892 and 1898 (most sources seem to split the difference) as Oliva (or Oliveretta) Duffy. Her father died when she was a small child, thrusting the family into brutal poverty in a time and place when the phrase "brutal poverty" really, really meant something. She dropped out of school by 14, got work behind the counter of a department store, and was married to Bernard Thomas by 16. At some point, she left her husband and moved to New York City where she had relatives and got work in a Harlem department store. She charged him with cruelty, received a divorce, kept his Anglo name, and never went back.

In 1914 things took a dramatic turn. Legendary illustrator Howard Chandler Christy ran a contest for "The Most Beautiful Girl in New York". Olive saw the advertisement, ditched work, and won. Or so the story goes. There has been some noise that she met him via a more typical casting call, and the contest was a magazine publicity stunt. Unlike many other legendary beauties from early in the century, Olive Thomas is still gorgeous, probably a large reason for her 21st century popularity. Almost immediately, she became a popular and well-paid artist's model. William Haskell Coffin painted her for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (if anyone can find a picture of the cover, I would love to see it. The online cover archives for the Post are patchy, to say the least, which is a terrible shame). She often posed for Harrison Fisher, who arranged a meeting with Florenz Ziegfeld who immediately hired her for the 1915 edition of the Follies. Thomas, however, later claimed she arranged the meeting with the impresario herself. Either way, Flo was smitten, and her career was pretty much made.

She was featured on the main stage of the New Amsterdam for a season, and then was moved to the much racier Midnight Frolic. Legend has it that she carried on an affair with Mr. Ziegfeld, inciting the wrath of his wife, Billie Burke. Angering Glinda, the Good Witch, is never, ever a good idea! This (to use a cliché) meteoric rise has always made me wonder: what was it like and what (or whom) did she have to do? Who did she have to sleep with? Flo, almost certainly. And likely Fisher or Christy. Or maybe not. Was she that beautiful? What was life as a chorus girl in 1915 like. Birth control was problematic, tampons hadn't been invented, and Victorian morality was still the norm. Rumors abound that Olive started posing naked for the lens whilst still back in her backwater in Pennsylvania, and one wonders if this helped precipitate her dash for the big city. From what one has read about NYC poverty in the nineteen-teens, what wouldn't one do to escape if one had the looks and the opportunity. Starving genteelly, honor intact, holds few charms outside of fiction if one doesn't particularly trust in the Kingdom of Heaven. Aggressively well-read (and upper middle class) Louise Brooks sneered at her fellow chorus girls saying they "...thought Ravel and Debussy was a French bicycle act." Thomas would doubtlessly have been one of those girls. But, as most people who worked with Thomas would attest, she may have been uneducated, but she was far from stupid.

As painted for the program of the Midnight Frolic (above), she looks both angelic, and sexily post-coital, dishabille, négligée off her shoulder, cigarette lit. Much like Louise Brooks would be ten years later, she was swept up by the incipient café society, the Conde Nast crowd of newspaper magnates, socialites and politicians who (according to rumor) bought Olive jewelry worth tens of thousands of 1915 dollars. It must have been unbelievably exciting for her - she was less than two years out of her depressed Pennsylvania town. Movies came next, acting in some serial shorts and making a splash. She then met Jack Pickford sometime in 1916. He was Mary's bad boy little brother, and from everything I've read about him, he seemed like a pretty nasty piece of work. They secretly eloped in October of '16 (actor Thomas Meighan - a former West Egg resident - was the only witness). They had various reasons for keeping it a secret: she thought it would be damaging to her film career if it was perceived that she had traded on the Pickford name, she knew Ziegfeld would be angry and she wasn't ready to burn that bridge, and his family was opposed. In her autobiography, Mary Pickford wrote that Olive came from "a different world", i.e. musical comedy, and that they were both just badly behaved children and should wait. I'm pretty sure the phrase "from a different world" is likely code for "that Irish whore", but maybe I'm wrong. Some people have posited that she opposed the marriage to protect Olive, who though far from innocent, was at this point just a hard working starlet and had never gotten into any real trouble, while Jack was bad, bad news.

She was quickly signed by Thomas Ince (rumors abound that he was murdered by William Randolph Hearst!), and made increasingly more important films, becoming a star, and all without any help from the Pickford name or family. She and Jack were often separated by their shooting schedules, and then by his Navy service. They publicly acknowledged the marriage in '17. Their marriage was characterized by fights, break-ups, lavish gifts sent in apology, infidelity and drinking. They were young, beautiful, rich and famous in a world that had no real scandal machine. It was so early that no one had died yet, it was all seen as good fun and the worst excesses were hidden from the public or glossed over. In his films, Jack mostly played handsome college boys. Olive was a little more interesting. Louise Brooks and Clara Bow may have been the quintessential flappers, but Olive was the first. She mostly played sexy, yet innocent baby vamps (and a surprising number of jewel thieves). Very few of her films survive, and the only one that's easily available is one of her last, The Flapper (1920). In it, Olive is shockingly natural. She still has her Irish good looks, but she appears a little heavy to modern eyes and maybe I'm wrong, but I think you can see her hard living on her face. Her car crashes became something of a running joke in the press (not funny: running over a 9 year old boy, who survived). She and Jack managed to get some time together, renting a house in West Egg for the summer (I would kill for a picture). The war was over and Jack received a General (as opposed to an Honorable) Discharge from the service. His family connections prevented him from being thrown in jail for pandering ("introducing" pretty girls to officers in exchange for receiving lighter duties) and drug dealing (Jack was a morphine addict like many veterans. The difference was, Jack didn't become addicted after receiving injuries, just, you know, for fun).

Ince's company folded due to financial problems and she was quickly snapped up by the Selznick Pictures Company where she was paid $3000 a week, an astronomical sum in 1918. In many of the interviews she made during her film career, she talked about one day wanting to direct. It's since become a cliché, but it was a far from typical goal for a starlet in pre-1920 films. All her coworkers tell of a voracious curiosity about the mechanics of filmmaking. She made everyone tell her how things worked: how to shoot a scene, how to operate the camera, what about the lights, etc. She was foul mouthed, hard drinking and uneducated, but also bright and ambitious, i.e. much like many film directors (and, lord knows, studio heads) of the era. It's this more than anything that makes me wonder where her career might have wound up had she lived.

Olie and Jack decided they needed a second honeymoon in 1920 after all their fighting and time apart, so off they went to Paris. (I will take this time to issue a warning to my readers: if the phrase "syphilitic junky" can be used to accurately describe the person you are married to, THIS IS NOT A MARRIAGE YOU WANT TO BE IN! RUN!) According to reports, Jack and Olive's time in Paris was spent mostly in their usual pursuits of drinking and fighting. On September 9th, after a night of drinking and (allegedly) cocaine in the shady dives of Montparnasse, Olive went into their hotel bathroom and downed a bottle of mercury belonging to Jack, used to treat his chronic syphilis. It was an ugly death, and it's exact causes are still in dispute. Murder, suicide or accident? My vote is for accident. The label of the mercury bottle was in French, it was on a shelf near headache medication, and Olive was likely wasted. It would have been very easy to grab the wrong bottle and quaff it down before realizing what it was. The only possible motives for suicide that people have put forth are that maybe she had caught Jack's syphilis, or maybe she was distraught over her failing marriage. The thing is, until then, Olive hadn't seemed to have a suicidal bone in her body. She was all survival and ambition, she was no little girl lost. And saying it was murder is just silly. She and Jack's marriage was stormy, but forcing her to drink poison seems awfully unlikely.

Her body was brought back to New York, and she was interred in the Pickford vault in Woodlawn Cemetery. My all-time favorite murder victim, William Desmond Taylor, spoke at her service. Like many Follies girls, Olive had been painted by Alberto Vargas. After her death, Flo Ziegfield commissioned a posthumous portrait (left). What Billie Burke thought of him having a naked portrait of his dead mistress hanging in his office for the remainder of his life is unrecorded, but one may imagine. Over the next 80 years she was mostly forgotten, interest in her reviving over the past few years due to a Hugh Hefner financed documentary and the Eastman House's restoration of The Flapper. But the story doesn't end there - according to many reports, Olive's ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theater, no doubt bored at having to watch performance after performance of Mary Poppins.

(Note: the image at the top right is a drawing of Olive by Raphael Kirchner, [EDIT: I have subsequently discovered that this famous painting does NOT depict Olive, but is, in fact fellow Follies alum, Marcelle Earle. She discusses posing for it in her (highly recommended) memoir, Midnight Frolic.])

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It Always Comes Back to Squid

According to this silly engine, I write like H.P. Lovecraft.

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


As anyone who knows anything about me is aware, I have long been fascinated by tentacled beasts or, as they are more scientifically referred to, cephalopods. And also horror short stories from the golden age of short stories before The New Yorker made genre a dirty word and we all had to read about people's marriages imploding in the suburbs (that's what Mad Men is for!). We seem to be in the midst of a Lovecraftian revival.

Look! There are even accessories:

And I do have a documented fondness for native Rhode Islanders. So, yeah. I'm all for it. But genre short stories were written and published by the hundreds, and few are still read today.

One of my most prized possessions, book-wise, is a set of three elephantine short story collections edited by Dorothy L. Sayers titled The Omnibus of Crime (Second Omnibus, etc. for the two subsequent volumes). The first one is the most expansive, containing an excellent, long essay by Sayers on the history of mystery, detection and horror. She begins with the Romans (Aesop and stories from the Apocrypha). My God, I love Dorothy Sayers. If she was still alive, she would have an awesome blog. Anyway. The book is divided into two main sections with many (MANY) subdivisions. The first is Detection and Mystery, which is further divided into Primitives (further divided into Oriental, Latin and Greek), and Modern (too many divisions to list, but she does any literary taxonomist proud). The second section is Mystery and Horror, with two main sections. One being Macrocosmos (Stories of the Supernatural), which is further broken up into three sections (all of which are further broken down): Tales of Ghosts and Haunting, Tales of Magic, and Tales of Nightmares and the Borderland of the Mind. The second subsection is Microcosmos (Stories of the Human and Inhuman), which is further divided in two: Tales of Disease and Madness and Tales of Blood and Cruelty.

The first Omnibus of Crime is 1200 pages long, and the two subsequent volumes aren't much shorter, though less obsessively organized. Her choices are uniformly excellent throughout. Then, about 20 years ago, the indefatigable Ellen Datlow joined forces with frequent collaborator Terry Windling (I saw the two of them read at KGB a couple of years ago and almost died of happiness), and began editing an anthology of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. The book grew to gigantic proportions, with essays in the front, and dozens of stories per issue. Starting in the 17th Annual, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant took over for the doubtlessly exhausted Windling. Obviously, like all anthologies, they can be a little hit or miss, but over-all the quality of the stories is superb. Sadly, the 21st annual was to be the last. There are many wonderful anthologies out there, and lord knows I have a backlog of thousands of pages to read. But I want more.

And more tentacles would be nice, please.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Favorite Murderess: Lydia Gwilt

To add to my continuing series of blog posts on subjects that only I care about, I bring you my ode to one of my favorite fictional murderesses: Lydia Gwilt, from Wilkie Collins's 1866 novel Armadale. Collins is one of the very few men whose fictional murderesses are up to my (clearly) ludicrously high standards. And he is, by and large, criminally ignored and under-rated.

Armadale is one of the less frequently read of his four great novels of the 1860s (in addition to Armadale, they are The Woman in White, No Name, and the world's first detective novel, The Moonstone). There are interesting and well-rounded female characters in all of Collins's novels (including the first female detective in The Law and the Lady), but Armadale is my favorite.

It's a book about the sins of fathers being inherited (or not) by sons, and about dualities. There are at least four characters in the book named Allan Armadale. But villains are always (or often) more interesting than heroes. The villain of Armadale is Lydia Gwilt, the beautiful red-headed murderess at the center of all the action. Wilkie Collins was a free thinker and a feminist in a backwards and repressive age, and his villainess reflects this. Lydia was an adventuress who led a picturesque life full of murder and marriages and crime. She consorted with nobility, thieves, con-artists and abortionists. Her introduction in the novel is a glorious slow build. She is more or less properly introduced around page 185 via a letter from one of her confederates and doesn't truly enter the story proper until after page 300. But before that, right from the beginning of the novel, there seem to be shadowy females appearing everywhere. A wicked servant girl. A veiled figure. A failed suicide. The vision of a woman standing by the lake in a doom-laden dream. As readers, we only find out later that all these women are in fact Miss Gwilt.

I don't know that anyone could argue that she isn't monstrous, but she is wonderful, and oddly sympathetic at times. Her crimes don't spring out of any sort of delight in wickedness, but out of need and resentfulness and a true psychopath's version of expedience. The novel is partly epistolary, so we read lots about what is going on in her head from her letters and diary. The main body of the book takes place when young Allan Armadale has just come into his majority. His greatest friend is the dark and mysterious Ozias Midwinter who, it turns out, is actually Allan's biracial cousin, also named Allan Armadale, whose father (named, naturally, Allan Armadale) murdered young, rich Allan's father (no prizes for guessing his name!) many years previously. Got it? The fate of the two young Armadales is entwined with Lydia's through family history, wicked deeds and through the crazy prophetic dream of Midwinter's.

For my money, Wilkie Collins wrote some of the most entertaining books ever written. I don't know if it was the opium talking, but his imagination continuously veered off into weirdness that surpassed even his BFF Charles Dickens (except maybe for in Bleak House when that guy spontaneously combusts). His books are full of crime, murders, obese Italian super-villains with a fondness for white mice, intelligent women, legless mad geniuses, mental hospitals, abortionists, schemes, mad women, spying, cons, complex characters and an over-riding sense of social justice. I mean, how many other novels published in 1866 feature a black hero? How many novels published in the 19th century as a whole feature a black hero? He should be more widely read, and the main reason he is not is that he has been placed by the stuffy literary powers that be into the box called "entertainment" rather than the one called "literature", so the people who are most likely to enjoy his books often miss out on them entirely.

Monday, July 12, 2010

May: If You Can't Find a Friend, Make One

May is one of those movies I feel that no one likes as much as I do. Well, me and Roger Ebert. He was the one who saw it at a festival, championed it, and made sure it received some sort of distribution. The New York Times dismissed it by calling it an ordinary slasher flick which left me wondering if Stephen Holden even bothered to watch it. It's a strange, modern, Frankenstein tale full of desperate need, not a slasher flick at all. I think of it more as a romantic comedy that goes horribly, terribly awry. As I am not a real journalist, this is going to be yet another listicle - this time enumerating the things I like about my Favorite Modern Horror Movie.

1. At the top of my list is the cinematography. This is a low budget indie horror movie made on a shoe-string and it's just gorgeous. The interiors inside of May's apartment are lit so beautifully, it looks like a Rennaissance painting - deep shadows and tones. The DP's name is Steve Yedlin.

2. May's only friend at the top of the film - her doll, Suzy. It looks a little like one of the dolls Dame Darcy makes, but isn't. All she does is talk to her doll, go to work, and sew - clothes for herself and her dolls. Partway through the film one realizes that May believes the doll is talking back - likely in the voice of her mother. This manages to be subtle, disturbing and sad.

3. The movie begins as if it's a strange, quirky romantic comedy. It made me think about the behavior of most heroines of regular romantic comedies an how other people would react to their odd behavior, if they too, were not stuck in a romantic comedy. I think it might be something like this. The object of the strange, solitary May's unfortunate affections is Adam, played by Jeremy Sisto. He's a film student who works as a car mechanic. She, like that other homicidal loner, Dr. Horrible, quasi-stalks her crush object at the local laundromat and engages in awkward conversation. All the scenes between May and Adam are priceless. He's a horror movie aficionado with all kinds of Dario Argento paraphernalia in his apartment who claims to like the weird and dark. But he is just a sane guy who likes horror movies. So when he is presented with actual, real life strange and dark he is rightfully disturbed and runs screaming for the exit.

4. The whole thing takes place in normal Los Angeles. The characters live in normal apartments that young people could afford. May works in a veterinary hospital for a doctor with an incomprehensible accent. The characters go to the laundromat and eat deli sandwiches in the park during their lunch breaks.

5. Their first date ends when Adam kisses May and makes a thoughtless comment about it seeming like she's never kissed anyone before. Of course, she hasn't, so she freaks out and runs away. On their (ill-considered) second date, Adam shows May one of his student films. This is one of the best scenes ever. First of all, it's completely believable as a student short. It's about three minutes long, in black and white, and shows a young couple on a picnic who wind up cannibalizing each other. May sits happily on the couch watching, and then scrunches closer to Adam as the mayhem starts. When he asks her how she liked it, she says, "It was sweet." The brilliance is, the short film is charming enough, that this isn't a completely crazy response (i.e. the couple remains happy as they literally devour each other, it has a goofy score, etc.). So, Adam doesn't seem like a moron for being okay with this. And then, when he presses her for some criticism (as one does), she says, "I don't think that she could have gotten his whole finger in one bite, though. That part was kind of far-fetched." He looks slightly disconcerted.

6. Lots of Breeders songs are used on the soundtrack early in the film. I mean, who doesn't like Kim Deal. And this adds to the quirky romantic comedy feeling at the beginning.

7. A dark haired, pre-surgery Anna Faris is May's co-worker at the clinic. Faris thoughtlessly seduces May, then dizzily turns her attentions to a classic mean girl. May's apparent bisexuality is not presented pruriently. It's really clear that May is so desperate for some kind of human connection that gender really isn't a huge issue.

8. Angela Bettis is really terrific. She's been kind of typecast, playing Carrie in the remake, and playing mental patients in both Girl, Interrupted and on House.

9. It's such a sad story. May's descent into madness is triggered by a simple, happy event: she gets contact lenses that replace the glasses she has been hiding behind since she was a child. It's this that gives her the tiny amount of confidence required to start talking to Adam. At first, it looks as if a new, more integrated world will be opened up for her. Instead, it just leads to horrible disappointments.

10. It's a real, old fashioned, psychological horror movie. It's not torture porn or a dead teenager movie. May is both Victor Frankenstein and the monster. You feel sorry for her and want things to work out for her. And you feel badly for her victims, too, as their only crime is the typical thoughtlessness and casualness of the times we live in. There's a nice little scene late in the movie where Adam sees May in the park reading (an anatomy text), and he tries to be kind to her, but she is too far gone. But, like I said about Ginger Snaps - May is a real horror movie. It's beautifully and intelligently made, but there is A LOT of blood and violence. There is a particularly upsetting scene in a school for blind children (FYI - May doesn't do anything bad to the kids, there's just a lot of broken glass and it's very upsetting for everyone. Lesson learned: if your best friend is a small, fragile doll encased in glass, don't hand her over to a class of blind children. It will all end in tears.). And as indicated, she tries to make a friend. Out of parts. If you don't want to see this, this is not the movie for you.

11. The opening shot. See below:

This is the third in my favorite films of the Aughts series.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Completely Un-Photoshopped For Your Viewing Pleasure

I photoshop nearly everything, at least subtly. Pretty much all my facebook profile pictures have had something done to them.

So, here I will try to break the habit which has quickly become a compulsion. Unphotoshopped, unmanipulated images from last night's drawing session.

Baby steps.

Apocalypse Girls Strike Back: The Sequels

Pretty much every zombie story I've ever watched or read is set when zombies are new. People from our civilization, people just like us, contending with this new scourge. What's so interesting about both Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth, and its sequel (or as she calls it, it's companion novel) The Dead-Tossed Waves, is that her characters and their families have lived with zombies for generations. They are a fact of the world they live in as much as car accidents or muggings are in ours.

As in her first book, Ryan's imagining of this post-industrial, decimated United States is one of the best things about it. Waves is set some 30 years or so after the end of the previous novel, and we follow Gabrielle (or Gabry), Mary - the protagonist from Forest's daughter. She has grown up in a lighthouse in a small community next to a decaying amusement park. All the towns are walled, to keep out the undead, much as towns in medieval times were (but they had fewer zombies). The tone is elegiac, as people's lives are almost unbearably hard. Everyone looks back to the time before "The Return" (i.e. the zombie apocalypse), but without technology, the books, the science, all of it is being forgotten. This is Ryan at her strongest. What I found a little less compelling was the romance. As in her first book, there is a tragic love triangle. The relationship that springs up between Gabry and one of the young men in the story seemed overly telegraphed. The whole thing seemed kind of rote.

One thing I liked about both of Ryan's books was that her heroines in each were so flawed, and problematic. Gabry isn't the most admirable teenager. By the book's end she's a murderer, and the fact of that wasn't really satisfactorily dealt with. The murder made sense for what we had learned about Gabry, who wasn't painted as the strongest character. But it was never discussed. No one in the book ever suggested to her that maybe she could have had another choice. There is obviously going to be another installment, so I hope the matter isn't dropped. Ryan is a good writer, but this entry in her saga took a while to get cooking, I feel as another draft may have been a good idea. I also kept on thinking about what a friend of mine said once about Twilight on facebook: that for all its problems, it does romance really, really well, when in most YA books the obligatory romance usually seems a little forced.

Catching Fire is Suzanne Ryan's second entry in her Hunger Games Trilogy (the next book is due out this summer), and as with her first, the thing is like crack cocaine. Unless you have a much stronger fiction reading constitution than I do, you will be up late finishing it. It picks up where the first book leaves off, with Katniss Everdeen having won the vicious games (for a description, go to my last blog post - the link is above). Her win and its circumstances has helped foment dissent in Panem (the post-apocalyptic country that used to be the United States), and the government is responding the way dictatorships usually respond to imminent revolution - with brutality.

I loved this book. Collins writes popular fiction the way it should be done - clearly, intelligently, and grippingly. Unlike Dan Brown and his ilk, she can write. I found the love triangle in the first book to be somewhat irksome, but in this one I had no problem with it. Katness has been put in an untenable situation. She is being pulled and manipulated by President Snow and his government, by the media (government run), by the burgeoning revolutionary forces who see her as a symbol of their cause, by her neighbors who mostly want to keep their heads down and to work and not starve. Her romantic life has lost all sense of authenticity, as part of her popular "character" (think in terms of reality television) is the romance with her fellow Hunger Games contestant, Peeta, which started off as a lie, but there may be real feelings there, but there has been so much dissembling at this point, no sane person would be able to see their way clearly. This is complicated stuff for a book aimed at 14 year olds.

Collins has created a real-seeming, tough world. Very bad things happen to people we like. When the government cracks down, it is like the Soviet Union under Stalin. There is no reality, only "reality". People inform on each other, no one trusts that the phones or their homes aren't bugged. As the book ends, true revolution has begun and I'm extremely curious to see what will happen. The government Collins has invented is a nightmare, but she's smart enough to make Katniss suspicious of the revolutionary forces who hold her natural sympathies. They act with the expedience and disregard for individual life that is endemic in revolutions. This isn't Luke and friends defeating the Empire, for which Collins should be commended. I think her books might actually be kind of great. Katniss is a terrific hero, in the great tradition of heroes: she's reluctant to be one. I also love that her toughness and resilience comes from the life she's led: not from special training, or magic skills, or the kiss of a good witch. She's a good hunter because she was brutally poor and her father was dead. She's tough because if she wasn't she wouldn't have survived the famine and poverty of her mining town. The only fault I found with the book, was the one that is endemic to middle books in trilogies - there is a lot of dealing with the repercussions of book one and leading into the final conflicts of book three. That said, even with another round of Hunger Games, I didn't find it to be particularly repetitive, and am avidly looking forward to the next installment.

Mockingjay - book #3 - is out on August 24.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Art in the Tropics

If you are lucky enough to currently be in the environs of St. Barth in the Caribbean, you may also be lucky enough to be able to swing by and take a look at the solo gallery show by talented painter (and fellow former resident of West Egg), Jennifer Presant, who snagged a residency in paradise.

It's hot out. Drink a mojito and look at some art.

Info here.

(Image: Red Night, oil on linen, 27" x 60", via

Tigers of Wrath, Horses of Instruction: Walton Ford is My Diety, Dammit

"Many of them have vanished in the last couple of centuries... and many other populations, subspecies, and whole species are in jeopardy. Because of their charisma, their handsome scariness and thrill value - they'll probably long remain popular as zoo attractions. But it won't be the same. When they're lost from the wild, they're lost in the deepest sense."
When I first saw Walton Ford's paintings, I loved them. But, I'm just talking about reproductions of his paintings - in magazine articles, or illustrations on book covers. The first time I saw his paintings in person was at his 2006 Brooklyn Museum show. I've seen modern paintings that I've loved, that brought me to my knees, that made my insides melt. But I'd never seen work by a modern painter whose technique was that rigorous, who demonstrated cliff-diving levels of bravery, and who was so intellectually interesting. I know it's not all about me, but I really felt as if he had painted them all just for my own personal pleasure.
"We stand no higher than third on the food chain of power and glory."

Let me explain. We'll begin with the basics. Walton Ford works on paper - he paints with watercolor, gouache and ink. As I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, when using wet media on paper it's about as easy to fix mistakes as when one is carving in marble. I always get a little rush of adrenaline when painting on paper. When looking at reproductions of Ford's paintings in magazine's or books, one thinks of Audubon's work, and the watercolors of 18th century illustrators and naturalists. One thinks of works that are small. Even when one sees measurements below the reproductions like 60"x 40", 59"x 119 1/2", and 144"x 216", it doesn't quite register how large these paintings are until one walks into a gallery and sees them covering a wall each. And they are on paper. Painted in media that will brook no error. That alone is awe inspiring.
"Lions and tigers may be big and fearsome, but leopards are stealthy."

As you can pretty much tell, Walton Ford paints animals, a pursuit that was held in deep disrepute until Mr. Ford came on the scene. I've also talked elsewhere abut how representational painting got very little love of any sort for most of the 20th century, about how people who liked to paint people or animals or ships or parrots most often wouldn't wind up in the Fine Art departments of one's school, but in the Illustration one. But things are changing. Walton Ford is nine years older than me, and from what I've read was a RISD legend: obsessive, iconoclastic, brilliant.

"Life is hard, life is good, life is enriched by complications - he seems to feel - so it should be. A forest without bears is empty."
But Walton Ford isn't a naturalist or just a painter of interesting (or made up) fish, birds and animals. He's an artist. His paintings have content. More than any other modern fine artist he has a sense of history, and most often history as it relates to colonialism and the natural world. As with the paintings of the 18th century naturalists, there are writings in pencil, titles written or painted in large, old fashioned copperplate script, or in tiny annotations. One can spend all day with his works and still find more and more in them. He has whole series of paintings of apes seemingly based on some of the more disreputable aspects of who Ford calls "Dirty Dick Burton". He means, of course, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (who has nothing to do with the actor), the Anglo-Irish soldier, writer, linguist, poet, hypnotist, explorer and translator. If you don't know who Burton was, you should. He translated the first complete English language Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra, he spoke dozens of languages, was the first Westerner to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he trained to be a Dervish (and likely converted to Sufism), he traveled throughout Africa in an attempt to find the source of the Nile - at one point for over 100 miles with a spear through his face. It has also been conjectured that Bram Stoker used him (at least partially) as a model for Dracula. He was also complicated, racist by modern sensibilities (but pretty shockingly broadminded in some ways by any era's standards), and reactionary. This is a tangent, but it's the sort of tangent that is inspired by the always interesting Mr. Ford. Knowledgeable without being didactic, and never charmless.
"The universe is a very big place, but as far as we know it's mainly empty, boring and cold. If we exterminate the last magnificently scary beasts on planet Earth,, as we seem bent upon doing, then no matter where we go for the rest of our history as a species - for the rest of time - we may never encounter any others. The only thing more dreadful than arriving on planet LV-426 and finding a nest of aliens, I suspect, would be to arrive there, and on the next unexplored planet, and on the next after that, and find nothing."
I don't mean to get all doomy. All the quotations in this post are from David Quammen's book, Monster of God: the Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, the cover of which is graced by a Walton Ford painting. Both Quammen's wonderful book and Ford's extraordinary work make one look at the world and the creatures in it, and our place as a species among them. Not in an alarmist way, but perhaps in a way that enables us to see history as a little wider and longer than one commonly does, even in these post-Darwinian times. In some ways we're all monsters and all saints and all unthinking beasts; monkeys, birds, tigers, and humans all. But I do know that the one great gift we have as a species is to reflect upon the world around us and make objects that enable our fellow homo sapiens to see the world as we do. This is not something panthera parda or leo can do, or ursus arctos, or papio anubis. Just us.

All pictures are by Walton Ford. If you have lots and lots of dough, his work may be purchased through the Paul Kamsin Gallery.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Maisie Dobbs and the Synchronicity of Finding the Perfect Book

I truly believe in paying attention to the whims of the universe. In particular, I believe if one doesn't think about it too hard or think about it too much, the streets of New York City will offer up exactly the book one should be reading at a particular point in time. The most striking example of this was when ten or twelve years ago I was looking at Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat collection (which I desperately wanted to read at the time - and rightly so as it turned out) in Barnes & Noble, but I really didn't have the money to buy books at full price, so I just walked away. The very next day someone was having a stoop sale around the corner from my house and they were selling the very same book in perfect condition for one dollar.

Often, people on my street will just leave books out on their stoops for people to take, free. Offering up books to the world is always a good thing. About a year and a half ago, someone left a book out I had never heard of. It was called Maisie Dobbs and was clearly a historical mystery and the cover art was nice - it looked like a WPA era print, so I picked it up. There are an awful lot of historical mysteries out there right now, and most of them are of middling quality. Sometimes the history is fun, but the mysteries are simple or the characters are very two dimensional. Or, in one notable instance, one finds out that the author of the historical mystery series one is reading is an actual murderer. I'm usually left feeling as if my genre needs are left a bit unfulfilled. But historical mysteries are my weakness, and I can't stay away.

All that said, I was more than pleasantly surprised by Maisie Dobbs. Jacqueline Winspear writes well and wears her research lightly. The first book in this series (currently numbering seven, I've read the first five) set in 1929 London, follows Maisie on her first case as she sets up an office as a private detective and psychologist. The case is fairly simple and the resolution is a little embarrassing (there is singing). What really made Winspear's first offering for me was Maisie's backstory. She begins as a working class girl in London, sent into service at the age of thirteen. She manages to receive an education through the good graces of her employers and their friend Dr. Maurice Blanche - European intellectual, teacher and spymaster. She gets herself to Cambridge, and then when the war breaks out in 1914, she joins up as a nurse. The war scenes are phenomenal. Winspear clearly did her research and has turned it into scenes have a day to day base level reality that one rarely finds in this kind of fiction. As I said, the mystery itself isn't great, but I usually cut authors a lot of slack on their first books. She had a great deal of backstory to contend with and she was clearly still in the process of finding her way.

I gave her next book a shot, and I'm happy I did as it was better than the first. I've enjoyed all of her subsequent entries. She does fall into some common mystery writer tropes (her faithful assistant, too many coincidences), but the quality of her writing is superior to most genre writers (and I love genre). The thing that stands out most to me is what Winspear has achieved in terms of tone. The Great War looms over all the stories and colors everything. All the mysteries relate in some way to the war. There is a constant melancholy in the books that is nearly always palpable - death is never viewed casually as it is in many mysteries. At times Maisie can begin to feel a little Nancy Drew-ish in her perfection, but just as I begin to think this, her life falls to pieces because of her need for control, self-reliance and perfection. The problems inherent in class-jumping in post-war England is also well explored.

In the most recent book in the series I've read (An Incomplete Revenge), the worry that Europe may be heading into another war is starting to be felt. I love that someone is in the process of writing a series of historical mysteries whose over-riding theme is the cost of war (I love that someone is writing a series of mysteries with any kind of over-riding theme). We are also learning more about Maisie's mysterious and long dead mother which has been lots of fun. And we're watching as her relationship with her mentor Dr. Blanche disintegrates. And we're watching the world change through Maisie's intelligent eyes. And the covers are all lovely.

But, back to the synchronicity of finding books in New York. I found this wonderful series completely by accident. Maisie, who believes in the power of meditation and of letting your brain work for you and not forcing things, believes some things are meant. Winspear has written her to be a little bit of a mystic. Now, finding an enjoyable mystery series is certainly a pleasure, but it's not necessarily life changing. I often think, and it's always a good thing to be reminded of, that sometimes pounding away at things and control and over-planning (all my faults, people, all mine) are counterproductive. So, yeah, looking at what your neighbors and the universe as a whole have decided you should be reading is maybe not the worst way to go about one's day. Does that make sense to anyone else?