Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book twenty-one: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

While reading about Stewart O'Nan's most recent book Emily Alone, I came across another of his books that got handsome reviews and had "lobster" in the title.  As the author of Art Lobster, I figured it must be a sign that I should read the book.  So I downloaded Last Night at the Lobster.

Here's a book that seems right for the times.  It's the story of Manny DeLeaon, the manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster that corporate headquarters has decided to shutter, even though it's mildly profitable.  Only four of the employees, including the manager will keep their jobs.  To do that, they'll have to transfer to an Olive Garden in a nearby suburb.  To make matters worse, the last day for the restaurant is December 20, casting a shadow over holiday festivities.

Manny has been a dedicated employee of the company, striving to tow the corporate line and lead by example.  His one wish is to have a perfect last day.  But the world conspires against him.  The staff is limited, because really, why would you show up for your last day if you've been laid off.  And some of the employees who do show up are just plain pissed about the situation resulting in busted windshields and slashed leather jackets.  And then there's the blizzard, which means almost no one will show up for the last dinner at the Red Lobster. As a side note, snow seems to be a prominent literary theme in O'Nan's writing.  OK that's based on having read two of his books.  But I like the way he beautifully writes about snow and how it suggests both an impending sense of doom as well as a cleansing hopefulness.

As someone who has had to deal with the realities of corporate America, and who wonders if business leaders have lost their ability to show empathy for the workers they employ, this book forced me to question many aspects of my life.  And sometimes that just what you want a book to do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book twenty: Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan

I liked Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan.  But it may be hard for me to articulate why.  It's the story of a woman near the end of her life.  Her husband Henry has been dead for several years and the children have long since moved away.  She spends her days with her trusty, if somewhat misbehaved dog Rufus and her best friend Arlene doing the things that women of certain age do.  There's not much more to the book than that.  Which seems like it might be boring, its uneventful-ness making the story dull, even quotidian.

So why did the book appeal to me so much?  Maybe it's because I've been in a melancholy mood lately and Emily Alone reads with just enough gloominess that it's like commiserating with an old friend.  Maybe it's because I related with so many of the characters on so many levels.  I related to Emily not only because she reminds me of my parents and the issues they face as they grow old, but also because as I grow older, I'm often left wondering how I'll cope with old age.  I related to Emily's kids who probably don't visit their mother enough (guilty) or call enough (guilty) or even know how to juggle the ideological and political differences that have grown between them (guilty again).  And I related to Arlene and Emily's friendship; but then again, I've regularly admitted that there's a little bit of "old lady" in me which means I can imagine spending an afternoon with the two ladies, wandering Red Butte Garden or visiting the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

I also liked the book because in infiltrated my life.  Since reading the book, I've had more than one "Emily" moment.  There was getting my beloved car back from the body shop and lamenting that it will somehow never be the same.  There was waking up one morning to a "road closed" sign at the end of my street and fretting about all the trouble the situation would cause me. And there was the frustration associated with visiting a museum gallery overrun by noisy third graders.

Yes, this book reads more like a collection of short stories than a plot-driven novel.  It's more a meditation on life at the end of life than a traditional exercise in story telling.  But with its wonderfully developed central character and  it's pensive prose, Emily Alone is a book that's hard to not like.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book nineteen: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal.

Remember how I just recently re-read Amistead Maupin's Tales of the City.  And how I commented on the zany plot twists that make the book fun to read but are totally implausible?  Well, as if determined to prove me wrong, my next book is a non-fiction tale that boasts so many zany plot twists and turns, it puts Maupin's Tales to shame.

The book is The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor by Mark Seal.  It tells the story of Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, who was born in a small German town and almost immediately began planning his departure. He makes his way to the United States where he begins to deceive just about everyone around him thanks to the elaborate personae he adopts. From the East Coast to the West Coast, Gerhartsreiter makes friends and somehow pays the bills using his charm and significant intellect.  And just as people start to suspect he might not be who he says he is, he moves on to a new place and a revised identity.

His final identity is as Carl Rockefeller, pitching himself as a distant cousin of the famously blue-blooded American family. He's married, and uses his wife's substantial income to buy homes and lead the life of a wealthy Boston-er.  They now have an 8-year-old daughter together.  That's when things begin to fall apart.

This book reads like one of those 1950s thrilling true-crime stories.  It's hard to believe that anyone could succeed at these types of fraud in our modern society.  And yet, this story made headlines just a few years ago as Carl Rockefeller's life fell apart.

What makes someone go to such lengths to create a outlandish stories in place of a real life?  It's even harder to understand why we believe them.  But a friend of Carl Rockefeller who was interviewed for the book may have some insight:

"I'm an architect.  You know what I do for a living? I hallucinate. I hallucinate things and they become real.  I have an office.  I attach dollars and cents to this.  But it may be that all of us in varying degrees do this because otherwise we would be stuck with a preexisting reality."

Maybe we all are partial impostors.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Expecting the unexpected in New York City.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes New York City the unique experience that it is.  Maybe it's because you're always bumping into surprises.  So much so that you get to a point where you expect it. Here are a few random surprises from my last trip to NYC.

Subway mosaics are everywhere.  But I wasn't expecting this wall of golden mosaic, reminiscent of a Gustav Klimt painting.

Retail is an endless source of surprise in New York.  Here are two examples.  First, on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art we ran into the Gagosian store with these fantastic Murakami inflatables in the window.

I didn't make it out of the store without purchasing a stuffed version of the artist's iconic mushroom-cloud skull complete with brightly-colored flower eyes.

At the normally impossible-to-spot Commes des Garcons (CDG) store in Chelsea, the urban-camouflaged storefront was lavishly festooned in preparation for the release of a line of clothing co-designed with Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons.

The CDG store still sported its tags by some of the world's best street artists like this from the artist known as Space Invader.

If my street-art creds were better, I'd know the name of the artist responsible for this sidewalk painting.

Finally, I like the way art by today's most noted artists just seems to magically appear.  On a gray, rainy day near the noise and chaos of the World Trade Center construction site this spectacular crush of metallic red, Jeff Koons' Balloon Flower (Red), is a delightful surprise.

Utah quilted.

Recently, I visited the LDS' Church History Museum to see the works by LeConte Stewart.  While I was there, I ran into another exhibit, Pieces of Me: Quilted Expressions of Human Ties.  The exhibit is presented in a way that can only be described as garish.  And it's next to the museum's permanent exhibit, A Book of Mormon Celebration for Children, which means the galleries were filled with a lot screaming and banging.  I'm still not sure how the kids were celebrating the Book of Mormon, but it involved a lot of yelling and a whole lot of banging blocks or hammers or something.

But even with all of that, there are some interesting quiltss to see at this exhibit.  Let's start with the 19th Century, dizzying handiwork of Thomas and Betsy Bullock.  Robbing Peter to Pay Paul delivers an intoxicating pattern with astonishing quilting.

And if you think that people might have to be mentally unstable to undertake projects like this you might be right. Seymour B. Young, who was the director of the Utah asylum for the insane, believed that minds must be kept busy to aid the health and well being of the patients. So he taught patients craftsmanship skills like quilt making.  The result?  The psychedelic imagery of Asylum Quilt (circa 1877) created by the patients.

There are also some delightfully strange quilts celebrating Mormon milestones.  To All Worthy Male Members created in 1990 by Emma Allebes celebrates the 1978 announcement allowing blacks to hold the priesthood.

My favorite quilt in the show is Do Not Remove by Penalty of Law created in 2008 by Miriam and Michael Zabriskie. This large quilt is decorated with hundreds of tags taken from clothing, most of them old and many of them with ties to Salt Lake City.  I spent a good ten minutes lost in the intrigue.

I love this label from The Paris, Salt Lake City.  I'm thinking of requiring all of my friends to now refer to me as "The Paris."

And how about this, Bill Blass created clothes specifically for ZCMI.  I've never missed ZCMI more.  Oh, and look.  It's Botany 500 creating clothes for The Paris, Salt Lake City.  That's right, The Paris gets clothes from all the top brands of the day.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Utah painted.

Here's a surprise. The Salt Lake Art Center is not open on Sundays, which has always bugged me a little bit because I think Sunday afternoons were meant for museum visits. The surprise? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Church History Museum is open on Sundays.  For an organization that believes in keeping the sabbath day holy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Church agrees that visiting a museum is an appropriate activity for a Sunday afternoon.

How did I discover this fact?  Well, I went to the museum as my second stop on Salt Lake City's current circuit of LeConte Stewart exhibits.  There are two shows featuring the artist's work; a joint effort by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) and the Church History Museum.  I started at UMFA to see more Stewart paintings in one location than you'll ever see again.  And all of those paintings represent places in Utah. 

The exhibit at UMFA is titled LeConte Stewart: Depression Era Art.  I wasn't expecting to like the show as much as I did.  Stewart's paintings from the 1930s are melancholy, even bleak.  That realization that things were troubling for many Americans during the depression makes this show relevant today.  Here are some paintings I found interesting.

A whole gallery is dedicated to the idea that small businesses struggle in a bad economy.  Hometown businesses shutting down were featured in a number of Stewart's paintings.  As the son of a small business owner, I found these paintings beautiful.  Here's Untitled (The Golden Rule) (c. 1930s, oil on board), my photo may not show the detail, but the business shows torn curtains and broken windows.

And here is the Green Front (1935, oil on canvas), which shows a general store in Kaysville, Utah owned by W.D. Adams and Sons.  While the store survived the depression, the painting still evokes the realities of doing business in a struggling economy.

I enjoyed seeing Stewart's painting process in action.  Stewart worked from real life, not from photographs.  He made sketches and then painted studies before completing the final work, and many of those studies were beautiful and on display.

For example, Smith's House (1937, oil on canvas) was shown next to one sketch and two oil studies.

Then there's this photo of a brilliant painting, Approved by Postmaster General (1936, oil on canvas) shown next to a small study for the same painting.

One of my favorite paintings in the show is Private Car (1937, oil on canvas) showing unemployed men hitching a ride on a train in hopes of finding work somewhere else. By the way, what a great title for a painting exploring this subject matter.

In the study for the painting, the men are absent.  While beautiful, it somehow lacks the same emotional impact.

Stewart also had a fascination with houses.  Bleak, lonely houses that were struggling to survive in a time when households around the country were facing foreclosures.  Here's one of my favorites featuring three homes; The Smiths', the Jones', and the Browns' (1936, oil on canvas).

My second stop was at the Church History Museum where the exhibit was titled, LeConte Stewart: The Soul of Rural Utah.  Side note: What's with the carpeting?  I don't think I've ever been to an art museum with carpeting.  Polished concrete? Sure. Hard wood? Definitely.  But carpeting?  But other than the carpeting, this show was displayed beautifully; maybe even better than at UMFA.  Most of the paintings were landscapes which I found less interesting than the introspective paintings at UMFA.  But there were some standouts.

Here's Country Funeral (1948, oil on panel).  This is a painting that forces the viewer to create stories.

Some of my favorite paintings were about religion.  Stewart was a Mormon.  He was commissioned by the LDS church to paint murals in several temples.  For me, religions are at their best when they're commissioning artists to celebrate their beliefs.  And in this show some of the best paintings are Stewart's depictions of LDS temples in which he painted murals.  I like these paintings for two reasons.  First, they're buildings that are architecturally interesting, built when the church was dedicated to making each temple unique, unlike now when temples seem to be little more than glorified, cookie-cutter stake centers.  Second, I love the way the buildings reference temples built by the great cultures of the Americas; which seems appropriate considering the Book of Mormon's story line.

This is Hawaii Temple Construction (1918, oil on canvas).

And here is Alberta Temple, Evening (1921, oil on panel).

If you like Impressionism mixed with a good dose of the American west painted by the likes of Maynard Dixon, both of these shows are worth a visit.  Or, if you just want to take a little pride in the art of Utah, both shows are worth a visit.