Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: A middleclass fantasy.

It’s already been a couple of months since my last visit to New York City.  And one thing that has stayed top of mind comes from an excursion to a Broadway show.  That show is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  (Book and lyrics by Robert Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, directed by Darko Tresnjak.) Maybe the reason I’ve spent so much time thinking about this show is that I bought the soundtrack so I’ve had lots of time to get to know the music better. With that additional insight, you realize there’s something else going on here.  Because as you start to understand the show and its lyrics, Gentleman’s Guide starts to deliver a big wallop of social criticism.

It’s misleading at first.  As my friend Kelly Hindley noted after seeing the show, “Gentleman’s Guide was like getting to eat a giant bowl of your favorite dessert with no calories—just pure frothy delightful enjoyment.” And it is enjoyably frothy. But with closer inspection to the themes and ideas expressed in the show,  I felt like the musical might be a commentary on the struggling middle class, a treatise on the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.

The basic premise of the story revolves around Monty Navarro, who as the show opens learns that his dead mother was a member of Britain’s illustrious D’Ysquith family, although she was disinherited for marrying a common Castilian musician. As the story unfolds, Monty learns that there are just eight people in line ahead of him to become Lord D’Ysquith. Soon, Monty Navarro is finding it surprisingly easy to murder those that stand in his way.

So how does this show embrace themes of rich vs. the middle class.  There are a few ways ways.  Like the way it muses about the privileged.  Some songs are scathing critiques of how clueless and heartless the rich can be.  Take I Don’t Understand the Poor sung by Lord Adalbert D’ysquith, the current Earl of Highhurst.  Here’s just a brief moment from this delightful song:

I don’t understand the poor.
And they’re constantly turning out more.
Every festering slum
In Christendom
Is disgorging its young by the score.
I suppose there are some with ambition.
Say, the pickpocket, beggar, or whore.
From what I can tell
They do quite well.
They’re rising above
And its work they love.
But I don’t understand the poor.

And if that’s not enough, there’s my favorite character in the show, Lady Hyacinth D’ysquith who is perfectly proper and delightfully offensive.  She performs Lady Hyacinth Abroad in which she asks for philanthropic ideas of how she can compete with her rich society lady friends. First, she heads to Egypt to start an orphanage in Cairo. Lady Hyacinth’s hopes are that her largess won’t go unnoticed, “The sniping will be stilled, and the empire will be filled with homes for bastard children in my name.”

When Egypt doesn’t work out, Lady Hyacinth heads to India where she imagines her own leper colony. “When we arrive they’ll hobble out to greet us, their toothless grins would melt a heart of stone! And every dilettante, will envy me and want a colony of lepers of her own!”

Still not satisfied, Lady Hyacinth leaves for deepest, darkest Africa to civilize a village in the jungle. “It can’t take long to learn their mother tongue! Of words they have but six, and five of them are clicks, and all of them are different words for dung!” She gets in one final dig calling out Daisy Greville, Lady Hyacinth’s arch, society nemesis who seems to have cornered all the best charitable opportunities. “It’s Daisy Greville’s loss. She’ll never come across, a tribe of backward natives worse than mine.”

My friends and I love to imagine my inner old lady, Gertrude.  I think Gertie would love to be Lady Hyacinth’s middle-class friend, lunching together at fancy restaurants and then returning to tell friends how "horribly delightful Hyacinth is."

These songs lambasting the rich for their insensitivity and cluelessness about how real people live are a refreshing message for us middle class types.  Maybe that’s because I can imaging Donald Trump or the republican leadership humming songs like I Don’t Understand the Poor as they take their morning showers. But there’s an even sneakier middle-class message being delivered in Gentleman’s Guide. Let's all keep in mind that amidst all this frothy fun, Monty Navarro is a serial killer.  And yet, the audience is on his side the entire show. You kinda want him to succeed.  And even when he’s put on trial for one of the murders (the only one he didn’t commit), he gets off scot-free, as show ends happily and Monty settles into his new life of largesse. Of course, now he has to worry about his demise.

Now I know this show is a send up.  But the fact that the mostly middle-class audience laughed delightedly as one privileged rich old white person after another died says something about the issues we face in the world today, particularly the ever growing divide between the rich and the rest of us.  And while I’m sure plenty of the world’s uber wealthy enjoyed and laughed at this show as much as I did, the message delivered here should at least have them looking over their shoulders at an increasingly frustrated and growing society of poor and middle-class people.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book thirteen: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.

A while back I opened my Sunday New York Times and there was this interesting image on the cover of the Book Review. It looked like something you might see from feminist artists The Gorilla Girls or maybe even Barbra Kruger.  It asks the question, “Would you like this more if a man made it?”  I’ll start with the obvious comment.  It’s a little rich that the Book Review would have this question on its cover since the publication is notoriously bad when it comes to the equal treatment of men and women in its pages, featuring dramatically more male authors and reviewers than female.

Of course, since I’m in the middle of my year of reading books by and about art and artists, the graphic immediately caught my attention.  Because the question of how the art world treats women has always been of interest to me.  So I immediately downloaded The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.

The novel follows the career of Harriett (Harry) Burden.  She finds herself in a situation many women artists find themselves in: The largely male dominated art world ignores them. Tired of the situation, Harry embarks on a project she calls Maskings, in which she finds men willing to act as masks.  They present her work as their own. The result is a series of three successful shows over a number of years.

When Harry finally reveals the truth, the critics are doubtful, one of the artists denies it, and what was supposed to be Harry’s grand triumph becomes the source of immense depression, frustration, and anger.

This book is masterful in the way it discussed the gross inequalities of the art world, what makes art valuable, and how artists arrive at their vision.  That’s when I liked the book.  And Hustvedt makes some convincing arguments about the gulf between the value placed on art from women vs. men.  Take this passage as recalled by Harry’s grown daughter:

Harry’s face was a reproof. Money is power, she said. Men with money. Men with money make the art world go round. Men with money decide who wins and who loses, what’s good and what’s bad.

I offered the comment that this was changing, slowly perhaps but changing nevertheless; that more and more women were getting their due. I had just read something about it . . .

Harry's expression turned bitter. Even the most famous woman artist is a bargain compared to the most famous man—dirt cheap in comparison. Look at the divine Louise Bourgeois. What does that tell you? Harry’s voice cracked. Money talks. It tells you about what is valued, what matters. It sure as hell isn’t women.

That's a powerful bit of writing. I like The Blazing World best when it engaged in conversations about the value of art and of women’s roles in the art world.

I also liked that the book explored the duality of personality.  Often Hustvedt uses her characters to explore how our sexuality, personality, and gender are probably more fluid than most of us are willing to admit.

There were things I didn’t like about the book.  The novel uses a construct that is quite trendy in the world of recent literary novels.  Each chapter is told from a different perspective and with different writing styles. The premise is that the writer is actually a researcher trying to determine what really happened during the life of Harriett Burden.  The book uses Harry’s journals, interviews with acquaintances, and other transcripts to tell the story.  The result is that some sections (like Harry’s journals) make for great reading. Other sections just seem like interruptions to a better book.  Also, this book has footnotes.  And anyone who regularly reads my book posts knows that I’m baffled by the use of footnotes in novels.  They annoy me. It's a literary trend that I find infuriating.

But it would be unfair for me to end on the things that didn’t inspire me. Because this book is worth reading and explores feminism in an interesting and engaging way. The world can definitely use more conversations like this.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book twelve: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti.

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti wants to be a better story than it is. The book is the story of a very particular, hand-crafted cheese created in Guzman, Spain. There's a cave dug into a hill on the edge of town, outfitted with an old door.  Inside, villagers told their best stories and secrets. I wish the stories and secrets of this cheese had been more engaging.

In 2000, the author found himself in this room with Ambrosio Molinos, a Spanish cheese maker who used a family recipe to create Paramo de Guzman, a cheese that is highly-prized the world over.  Ambrosio doesn't last long as a cheese craftsperson.  For a variety of reasons, he gives up his craft, alienates many of his friends and family, and even contributes to the demise of the famed cheese.

This book was written over more than a decade and I think that hindered the focus of the story.  Well that and the fact that the book doesn't end as dramatically as the story would suggest.  It fact it's a bit of a fizzle.  But that's not the reason I didn't much enjoy the book.  Paterniti spends much of the book whining about how hard it is to be a writer.  He prattles on about missing deadline after deadline. He bemoans the fact that he can't seem to pull together a workable draft.  All of that just gets in the way of the more interesting story and characters.

And then there are the footnotes. I'm seldom a fan of footnotes particularly when they don't seem necessary.  And while some of the notes in The Telling Room were interesting, even fun, the vast majority were distractions.

Nonetheless, The Telling Room did make me wish I could travel to Spain for tasting of Paramo de Guzman.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Book eleven: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

The New York art scene, earth/land art and the artists who make it, and my home, the state of Utah all reside high on my list of favorite things. Throw in the fact that I lived in Italy for a couple of years and it's no surprise that I liked Rachel Kushner's latest novel, The Flamethrowers. I might not have realized how much I liked the book because I might not have read it if it weren't for a couple of facts: This is a book about artists and art, my literary theme for 2014; and it appeared on just about every 2013 top ten list that I respect.

The novel tells the story of Reno, a female artist living in the 1970s who has a penchant for speed. An early work finds her filming herself as she races a Moto Valera, an Italian motorbike at breakneck speeds across the Utah Salt Flats. Things don’t go well. But as Reno notes, “I felt [art] had to involve risk, some genuine risk.”

The motorbike is a gift from her older boyfriend, the wealthy Italian, Sandro Valera.  His wealth comes from his family who makes premium tires and motorbikes back in Italy.  Sandro lives in New York and doesn't like his family history so he’s initially disappointed when Reno wants to go to Italy. You can see why Sandro takes issue with his family.  His father Valera has made most of his money by exploiting the Brazilian workers who produced the rubber for the company’s tires.

Ultimately Reno joins the cause of radical protestors that overtook Italy in the seventies. Her affair with Sandro falls apart, and she becomes somewhat disillusioned with life.  In the end she returns to New York.

Reno is a fascinating, darkly funny, and tragic character. Kushner writes her with richness and with a feminist idealism that is just insecure enough to raise questions about women in society that seem right for the time and yet relevant today. In fact, there's a lot in the novel that resonates for both the historical needs of the 70s and today.  With issues of income inequality, worker protests, or the extravagances of the rich, Kushner boldly confronts her readers with an incendiary series of events.  Events that had me thinking about the world as it stands today.

There are long passages in the mid part of this book that are dizzying, and not necessarily in a good way.  Although they may be there to give the book a more realistic sense of the 1970s. But with its sparkling prose, complex characters, and sweeping story, The Flamethrowers is well worth the read.