Thursday, July 3, 2014

PARADISE GARDENS Thursday! Janet McCarthy meets her former lover with no memory of their past.

PARADISE GARDEN THURSDAYS! A Different Chapter Every Week

In this latest greatest of Paradise Gardens, Janet McCarthy meets her former lover with no memory of their past. This of course happens in NYC frequently, but in 2259 much more is lost and expected.

Thanks if you're following the Serial. If you're curious, below is the synopsis. There will be books in coming months. Official pub date is August 1st.

Scroll down for 80 sec reading. I'm last one on page. Thx.--SW

Weinstein’s PARADISE GARDENS is an Orwellian dystopia, set in a near future world where the Federal government has dissolved amid ecological breakdown. Corporate business flees to an underground colony, PARADISEGARDENS, the home of the United Business Estates (U.B.E). Left behind are the Unconnected, people outside corporate protection. In the U.B.E. employees are conceived as Superior or Average. Capitalism has devolved into feudalism.
The novel is suspended between the settings of 2250 in New York City and 3011 in the Underground U.B.E. Chapters alternate with a revolving cast of characters determined by the Psychologicians, the priestly class that manages the civilization’s data base. In this cautionary near-future, Upton Sinclair’s classic It Can’t Happen Here, has happened here. It is a vision at once strange and familiar. The recognition it brings is a dark pleasure.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is Angelica Huston channeling Colette? Read Vol. 1 of her memoirs, A STORY LATELY TOLD. Can't wait for Vol 2, WATCH ME, in Nov.

As a girl, Angelica Huston's mom would encourage her to read Colette and, of her many influences, this one may have taken root. In her first memoir, A STORY LATELY TOLD: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York (Scribner, Simon & Schuster), there is similarity to Colette in her acute observations; less about what people said, than their experiences and the lives they created.

There's also an account of her modelling years that reminded me of Colette's backstage look at the Folies Bergere. Both think they're not really the "type." Colette says she's too self-conscious, a writer performing a pantomime in a music hall. Angelica believe's she not beautiful enough. She had Richard Avedon's word on this. When her parents inquired whether he thought the young Angelica was model material, he'd said her shoulders were too broad. Angelica added a nose that's too large, eyes too small, a look not for conventional beauty. Both Colette and Angelica wrote about shoddy reality behind the "glamour." The artistes of the music hall, like the "girls," who model, were always without money. Payment for both was at the mercy of management's arbitrary rules..

Angelica and Colette also had in common childhoods in the country with artistic mothers. Sido, Colette's mother, was a water colorist, a lover of nature, an incredible gardener and cook. Ricki, a former ballet dancer once on the cover of Vogue, transformed rooms with her singular aesthetic, combining beauty, function and humor. Huston's worldly family was grounded on their Irish country estate, as Colette's was in a provincial French village. Oddly, the Hustons were readily accepted by the neighboring gentry, joining in the hunting and drinking. 

Tony, Angelica's brother, and she lived with their mother and servants in the cozy Little House on the estate, except when their father landed home between films. Then they were allowed in the Big House, an ancient building of cold stone, warmed by extravagant floor heating and the imaginations of Angelica's parents. They filled themed rooms with artifacts from all over the world. John Huston was a cultural potentate, bringing to his kingdom rare and usually expensive trees, animals, fabric or furniture. Once desired, objects appeared, even if, like his Matisse, he gambled for it. Amid the outrageous expense were always rumors of her family's imminent poverty. 

While Angelica was full of wonder for flowers and animals, water and rocks, Tony, a few years older, explored gunpowder and fed chicks to his falcon collection. Both  ran wild around the countryside, reined in by servants and their mother for meals, baths and tutoring. Eventually, they were sent to local Irish schools and, though an indifferent student, Angelica liked pageants and concerts. Occasionally, her father was in town to attend one or celebrate her birthday with a jewel.

Angelica was consciousness of her mother's growing sense of abandonment. She describes one evening, when Ricki planned an elegant party. She wore a sophisticated dress and when weather derailed the event, was alone, all dressed up with no place to go. Angelica ponders the performing world her mother gave up to marry her father; her expectations of the marriage, and the life she settled for. Months would go by, until John Huston would swoop in with the cast and crew of The African Queen or some other production, and the Big House would come alive. Ricki's job was to keep the estate in readiness for his arrivals.

John Huston loved showing off his life as the master of an Irish country estate. He'd dress like an aristocrat in tweed cloaks and hats. But his fabulous artifacts, whether Medieval or Renaissance, Japanese or Mexican, were the glory of the world, the backdrop of his life. The dogs and horses, the grounds and plumbing, and the education of his children, were Ricki's world. Glamorous, beautiful, she was also his proud possession and expected to perform, as were the children. Angelica recalls him quizzing her about the "news". He always challenged them to tell him something interesting they learned. The pressure of disappointing her father could reduce her to tears; sometimes of  anger, at the demands of her imperious, egocentric and yet loving, often solicitous father.

This country idyl broke down, when her parents began to separate. Soon, when her father came with his parties of important friends, Ricki was away. And at the Big House were various lady friends, though John eventually installed Betty to run the household. Ricki's absence from Ireland began in an amorphous way, Angelica muses. She must have learned of John's affairs. Yet, Angelica only knew that her mother was gone and Betty was in charge. It would be a year, until she and Tony were told of the separation, and more time before they went to live with Ricki in London. Yet, ever the empathic child, Angelica was aware of her mother's feelings of abandonment, as her father pursued himself in the arms of other women.

Ricki was less of an authoritarian than her father, except during Angelica's adolescence in the late 60's in England, when she kept after her about school and curfews. But there were also times, when Ricky traveled, not alone. Though she was careful to keep her private life from her precocious teenager, Angelica knew her mother was trying to rebuild her life. Angelica was also finding herself. At 15 and 16, she looked older, wore miniskirts and lots of make-up and flirted with men.  .

One of the strengths in this memoir is Angelica's ability to be both the child puzzling out her world and the adult making shrewd conjectures with an instinct for emotional truth. She shows both her self-involved teen behavior; the lies, skipping school, petty theft, and her wrenching attempts to become her own adult person. She has sex and feels used. She decides to become an actress and has a chance to audition for Zefferelli's Juliet. But then her mother lets her know that her father wants to manage her debut. He has her fly to Rome to work on his film. Angelica dislikes the script and feels no affinity with the part. Worse yet, the process of working with her father is devastating. When she's savaged by reviewers, she decides to pursue a modelling career.

Angelica's adolescence in London was shadowed by Ricki's bouts of depression, culminating with the news she was pregnant by a lover. Angelica, already resentful after meeting her father's love child in Rome, views the baby as another interloper. But her resentment disappears in real joy at the wonder of her baby sister, Allegra. Those feelings were soon dwarfed by the tragedy of her mother's death, abruptly killed in a car accident.

If  there's a "ghost" writing this memoir, it's the absence of Ricki and Angelica's attempt to make sense of that void. When John Huston takes Allegra and her nurse to Ireland, Angelica is relieved that her sister will be taken care of. Left on her own at 17, with feelings beyond the comfort of family friends, Angelica went to New York. While pursuing her modelling career, she did visit her grandparents at their restaurant in New York. And, though they never openly criticized Ricki's husband, they took extra care of her daughter.

Through old family connections, like Avedon, Angelica was introduced to Eileen Ford, and she soon worked with not only Avedon, but legendary photographers like Bailey, Penn, Helmut Newton, for shows by Valentino, Zandra Rhodes, and other great designers, crisscrossing Europe. Eventually, she became involved with photographer Bob Richardson, as muse and lover. His was a talent so attuned to her own, and yet so mentally unbalanced, that she began to come undone.

In this most painful part of the memoir, Angelica is unflinching about the reality she experienced. She describes the highs of their life together, both aesthetic and chemical, and the intense emotional connection that made her suffer through increasingly destructive lows. Apartments and belongings were destroyed but that was little compared to her battered spirit and increasing emotional fragility. In one of John Huston's most amazing roles, this father intervened to give his daughter a way out.

This memoir recreates the life of a exceptional and imperfect family,  How this artist became herself seems a triumph of what was best in these people--originality and stalwart affection.



Monday, June 9, 2014

Amazon vs. Hachette, David vs. Golaith or the reverse?


David Versus Goliath: Amazon Versus Hachette, Or The Reverse?

Written by: 
Having spent my working life in the publishing industry, I have seen the roles of David and Goliath reverse quite a few times. Everyone likes to root for the underdog. The iconography is gratifyingly familiar. The smart boy with the slingshot aims his pebble at the forehead of the evil giant. His aim is true, the giant crashes to the ground.
In the late 70’s, when I entered publishing, the giant was the old “boys’ club” of New York publishers. It was an aristocracy of literary men, who dedicated themselves to making culture through publishing books, and legendary editors, like Max Perkins, were aspirational icons. John Updike, Philip Roth, Salinger (you know the names) were anointed by The New Yorker.
Editors at big publishing houses were revered and what they sought wasn’t based on numbers. Their's was an erudite nose for excellence in content and form, originality, even social relevance. Whether hailing from the Ivies or City College, writers of vision were exciting, treasures building on Nabokov or later Tom Wolfe. Editors were shamans, who found the rough metal and made the prose shine. The role of marketing and sales people was simply to sell and find creative ways to do it.
Publicity departments translated books into clever hyperbole to seduce media, who actually covered books as news. Yes, books were a product to be sold but did we have to talk about that? To broaden minds and perhaps change society, was the purpose that kept many on the phones. Truth is that young people may start in publishing with such ideals, though few leave with it. When poverty stretches into decades, there’s a limit. And something similar happened to the industry.
In the late 80’s, the tacky business of making money became ascendant and clout shifted to marketing/sales teams. In thundering meetings at big houses, the new Goliaths vetoed books. Editors couldn’t get the go ahead for great “finds” that were unlike successful books previously published. Magical numbers showed why such a book wouldn’t sell. Comparables replaced originality and the “iffy” book was left to smaller independents and university presses.
Imperiously, this Goliath demanded more formulaic commercial novels, along with the mix of cook books, business how-to and genre. Editorial was restricted to a narrowed category of “saleable” books to stay employed. But many were purged, along with staff copy editors and proofreaders. The Davids became literary editors with sufficient backing to form their own imprints within houses. These survivors hunkered down with tiny lists.
In this environment in 1995, Jeff Bezos and Amazon went on line. Wikipedia on Amazon: “an American international electronic commerce company. The world’s largest online retailer, which started as an online bookstore but soon diversified selling DVD’s, VHS’s, CD’s, video and MP3 downloads streaming software, video games, electronics, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry. The company also produces consumer electronics, Kindle ebook readers and is the major provider of cloud computing services." Amazon is a marketing and sales powerhouse of gigantic scope and huge clout. And yet, when it started, Bezos declared it David.
The Goliath he was slinging pebbles at was the traditional publishing industry, who didn’t know how to sell books and deserved to be losing money. Like many booksellers, Bezos seemed to really love books and the challenge of making them profitable. Online selling was nimble and less expensive. Down with the publishing snobs and their high prices! Go, Amazon. Power to the people!
Amazon was ingenious American capitalism, the little guy making publishing profitable again. It was reinventing the way books were sold and, at first people didn’t see Amazon as closing stores. What threat? It wasn’t as if you could go on line and thumb through a book. Amazon brought prices down by giving the big publishers competition. For once the little guy had won.
This narrative, only controversial among publishing people, was so embraced by the general public that Amazon grew into–a giant. Some years ago there was even the odd spectacle of this Goliath declaring itself an idealistic David. It sued a few traditional publishers, who decided to combat Amazon’s price slashing by setting a price for their product. Was this legal?
Back to Wikipedia. "The Sherman Antitrust Act is a landmark federal statute in the history of United States antitrust law or competition law passed by Congress in 1890. It has been used to oppose the combination of entities that could potentially harm competition, such as monopolies or cartels. The law attempts to prevent the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply. In other words, innocent monopoly, or monopoly achieved solely by merit, is perfectly legal but acts by a monopolist to artificially preserve his status, or nefarious dealings to create a monopoly, are not. Put another way, it has sometimes been said that the purpose of the Sherman Act is not to protect competitors, but rather to protect competition and the competitive landscape."
Amazon was able to legally smash the publishers, who received stiff penalties for “collusion.” Amazon wasn’t yet a publisher, though it was a seller, and its slash and burn policies were not seen as a violation of the “competitive landscape.” Unlike Amazon at this time, traditional publishers had the expense of producing books; with editors and copy editors, freelance proofreaders, printing and paper costs, cover designers, marketing, sales and publicity staff, warehouse, physical stores and the authors’ shares of the profits.
But Amazon retains its popular underdog status. Even now, in 2014, there is no anti-trust suit, though they are punitively restricting the trade of all Hachette books, penalizing the income of authors, and even the convenience of customers. Their purpose is to force publishers to agree to further reduce what they make on their product. According to Sherman, you can’t do such restrictions, that alter the competitive environment without being in violation of antitrust laws.
Amazon is no friend to the consumers. who want to buy these books or the writers. Worse yet, it has swung the sales/marketing pendulum so far in the direction of quantity over quality, that it threatens our very notions of what is of value to publish. In 2014, we are in the gold rush of what used to be called vanity publishing, but is now “self-published.”
These self-publishers, and the often expensive marketing/sales programs they charge authors, are a lucrative new area for the publishing industry. Since anybody with cash can be an author, Amazon makes even more money, if they topple the traditional gatekeeper of quality—mainstream publishers. And there’s a new vested interest, since Create-space is their own self-publishing entity.
The Amazon vs. Hachette stand-off has taken on emotional overtones, not unike the cries to open the Bastille and guillotine all aristocrats. Online there’s a self-righteous glee about a brave new publishing world of no standards by those who feel excluded by the snobs, the tastemakers of the establishment. And this attitude of being the little guy against the traditional Goliath of the diminished publishing houses is fanned by the snake oil merchants of the new self-publishers.
Yet Amazon, the crafty Goliath, has, besides its well-advertised self-publishing operation, a little known traditional publishing company, which only buys books from agents. And with their mastery of print on demand technology, they are well poised to dismantle the competition of traditional publishing companies. While Amazon has stated that gatekeepers are not necessary, it’s obvious they just want to be the only giant in town.
So we exchange an old cultural elite for a single dictator. Egalitarian shouldn’t mean reduction of quality to the lowest common denominator. More is not necessarily better. We have only to see the wasteland of a plentitude of TV channels with only a few worth watching to see what publishing might devolve into. While Americans may sneer, “elitest,” at traditional tastemakers, we envy European culture for the same considerations of quality over quantity.
If Amazon eliminates traditional publishing as gatekeepers now, when there are many quality books from imprints within houses, their vision—often idiosyncratic and not quite profitable—will disappear. Some small press books will fill the gap but literacy and intellectual freedom will suffer. Cheap books, like cheap music, are popular. But when writers and musicians cannot make a living, because their products are devalued, everyone is impoverished.
I think its Amazon’s turn to be slapped with an anti-trust suit for trying to destroy the competitive environment. Stun the giant and give the lillliputans, perhaps purposeful small presses with wholesale antenna and retail vision, a chance. Maybe their electronic eyes will envision a more useful target than a large yellow button that says, “Buy.”

Sunday, May 18, 2014

An Indie rock star gets the tour of her life in WONDERLAND, a story about an artist's come-back

In WONDERLAND by Stacey D'Erasmo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014) Anna Brundage is caught between her rock n'roll desire and a hard-won security. At 44, she's a knock-out, tall and thin with long red hair and huge sensitivity. Anna is attuned to the essence of  places and people, whether Janus-faced, loving, limited or something else entirely. She comes by this perception, and the habit of sifting reality, from her father, an art world immortal, whose family's life was an itinerant journey from one country to another, one site to the next, as he made art by destroying derelict buildings. When Anna inherits a piece of his rubble, a valuable relic of this mythic man, she's given the means for a second chance.

Anna, who had several albums, walked away from fame for seven years. Now she lives in a tiny but enviably cheap apartment in Manhattan and teaches carpentry at a girl's school. Besides the apartment, she's got an amiable ex-husband, colleagues and students, and gnawing memories of her performing life. At night she writes songs and, when she's got enough, contacts a tour promoter. Though she believes she's old, past it, surprisingly, the promoter takes her on. Am I just a novelty act, nostalgia fix, she wonders, but then he talks about the lasting success of her album, Wave. He calls her legend.

So Anna sells her rock for one last tour and auditions musicians. She finds platinum haired Alicia, artist of the bass fiddle, and Zack, guitarist and Juilliard drop-out, who she thinks of as her "kids." Her drummer is not a kid and knows his chops, but Anna realizes her band lacks synergy. Sounds and psyches are turned inside out before the band comes to inhabit her songs. Ready for the Wonderland tour, also the name of the journal Anna keeps, they hit the road.. In the bubble of tour life with nightly performances in different places, Anna records in her meandering journal, recollections of  previous tours and her childhood wanderings--a collage of people and places, as well as emotional upheaval and lost opportunities.

Amid the mood swinging burn out of performance, party, crash, Anna slides into the "what ifs" of alternate lives she might have lived in this place with that person. If the usual task of mid-life is to reconcile oneself to what's lost, Anna's is to consolidate her beginnings, the artist she aspired to without knowing it, the performer she became, then the wife and teacher she grew into and almost last, the daughter and sister she always relied on. Yet on tour, she evolves and devolves. Hard to tell which, when she wakes up in a hippie village in Denmark, spots a handsome man fixing a bike, and falls into sex with the stranger.

It feels a familiar, almost comforting pattern of tour sex, a pattern of road life she's not experienced for years. More introspective now, she tries to sift her feelings, even plays with the idea of what a future with this guy might be like, but she's onto the next city. What's left is a memory of the feet of the bike guy, which remind her of a married man she loved passionately, and, despite the years of distance, she feels there's a reckoning due.

Fan-based rooms, noisy clubs, concert halls; each venue has it's own weather inside and outside.. As they travel to Prague, Berlin, Latvia, Rome, the act's mostly a hit. But Rome evicerates Anna. A bad luck city for her family, where her father's near fatal accident occurred, it's also here she met her lover over the years, who fit perfectly and wasn't right. Anna sifts remembered images, as her immediate self meets her lover on the Wonderland tour. Making sense has more urgency than making love.

WONDERLAND is a road trip but in its rock n roll heart, it's about the soul of an artist. Anna looks for reality in green rooms, places to dress and wait, noting plush carpets and  mini-bars, run-down peeling paint and beer smell. One minute the band's holding hands before the show, the next they are ecstatically spent from performing and moving through fields of fans. Anna's working all the time for the moment when she's not working; when the song's hit a chord throughout the room, when she's lost in the sound of her band. And sometimes they're off, way off, and it can be her fault. Some emotional crack that's come through to the others, or a sense of fragmentation.

The kaleidoscopic truth-telling in her journal includes her failures. Her promoter can barely tolerate her lateness for sound checks and rehearsals. There's the time she let herself get lost onstage. Though she's the leader and boss, so allowances are made, grief--when her father died--evokes Zack's mutiny and Alicia's vulnerability. In an artistic sense, they are her kids and she's responsible for her show. And sometimes they just can't pull it off. When they try to record in a chalet, there's no coherence no matter how hard they try; when they got flooded out of a outdoor concert, when a pristine venue with affluent preoccupied people shows no engagement.

But Anna does pull it together in a big way. One night she runs into an old colleague, Ezra. Homely and brilliant, famous and strangely obscure, drug addicted yet long lived--he's an international celeb. When Anna sings with him onstage at a club to a chanting mesmerized audience, her comeback is certain. Toward the end of WONDERLAND, she better navigates the phantasmagoria that is her tour but looks forward to its end. There's rest in a return to her tiny apartment and she enjoys the girls she teaches. Then, with success behind her, Anna finds herself with a more final decision to make. Will she choose home or take an offer to go to Tokyo?

Will Anna continue the touring life or opt for stability?  The decision has to be made completely on her own. Was she a success?  Ann was certainly again a star. But what did that mean, in an era always looking toward the next new thing?  She was old and became new, why? Anna knows she's a fool to her sister, living a safe family life, that her mother, remarried to a genial man, worries about her. In the end, Anna is her father's daughter. It becomes incidental that he never liked her music, as she defines her spiritual inheritance.

Stacey Erasmus' brilliance is that she also looks at Anna's father, who was undone by his art. In the mystery of why he never recovered, is the secret of Anna's come-back and the call to her art. WONDERLAND is the sense memory of an artist's life. The tour has a kind of phantasmagoria aspect. And it's fitting her father's present is her way back to not just find what was lost but to consolidate herself as an artist and a woman..

This is an ambitious book. I have never read an account of a female rock and roller at mid-life again finding herself. And, since life is a continual come-back, you hope she'll have some happiness but know she will inevitably falter and perhaps recover herself. Wisely, Erasmus didn't wind this up tidily. We don't know what will happen to Anna. But then neither does Anna.  The drugs, sex and rock and roll  are actually depicted without being cliche. I found WONDERLAND more authentic in showing the interior life of a rock star than the Jim Morrison biography, No One Gets Out of Here Alive. Recognition of Stacey D'Erasmo's everywoman was sheer pleasure.


Monday, April 28, 2014

The limits of hypnotism & perversity explored in the Belle Epoch crime story, LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT

LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoch Paris (1880-1914) recreates an era of giddy entertainment and eccentricity. Paris was a place of incessant spectacle. Clubs featured Jane Avril's bawdy dancing, a boxing kangaroo and even a bizarre vaudevillian, who sang Clair du Lune from his anus. Sarah Bernhardt’s pet tiger and the coffin in her bedroom made eccentricity glamorous. 

There were also dazzling achievements in the Paris Exposition of the Future, the Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world, a vast Hall of Machines and Edison's phonograph. But while optimism for the new century was high, so also was fear of what was to come. The fragile Republic was in danger of collapse and syphilis made madmen of nobles and low-born alike. People became fascinated with the macabre and lined up, as though for a picture show, at the morgue for viewings of the newly dead. They also bought new wide circulation newspapers that sensationalized the bloodiest of crimes.

In LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, Steve Levingston shows how this mix of optimism and fear set the stage for a strangely theatrical crime. It also accounts for an mass unease about hypnotism, in its heyday--a common cure for headaches and cramps. Amateurs put their friends in trances, society ladies held hypnosis salons, traveling shows featured entranced people, who would strip down, bark like a dog or bite a potato and call it an apple. While the public appetite remained, there were fears. Could a person commit a crime unknowingly? Could a hypnotized group overthrow a government? 

Charcot, a Parisian medical authority on Hysteria (the mental illness catch-all of the era), was convinced an entranced person could not be coerced to abandon their “moral reserve” and commit a crime. In Nancy, outside Paris,  Liegois, a lawyer, was able to demonstrate hypnotized subjects that shot guns and administered poisons. All powers of reason and judgment were lost in chilling experiments, where subjects became automatons, acting at the will of the hypnotist.

The debate might have remained academic, but for Gabrielle Bumpard. This lovely, if troubled, young woman fled her wealthy family to travel to Paris. Though adventurous and headstrong, Gabrielle was a remarkably receptive hypnotic subject. After a few months, her money gone, she went to a trading company to ask for a job. In the Director's chair, she met Michel Eyraud. Over dinner, she stared into his intense eyes and became “putty in his hands.”

A year after Gabrielle came to Paris, they faced the guillotine, accused of a horrific crime. How they got there is the fantastic story of the Inspector Goron, head of the Paris detective bureau. Deftly, he dealt with a press hot on his heels, criticizing his lack of progress. The case hinged on persistence and chance. At first, Goron had just a routine disappearance of  a wealthy man, who wore an expensive ring. Then there was a corpse in a smashed trunk smelling up the countryside. How he connected the corpse with the missing man, was a triumph of  instinct and skill at the new science of criminology.  

There is also the saga of criminals on the run with multiple identities. From San Francisco, to London, back to Paris, where, unexpectedly, Gabrielle, who managed to escape Eyraud, turns herself in. Finally, the heroine of tabloids, the "Little Demon" finds the spotlight she’s always craved. But she must answer her interrogators and her memory is strangely arbitrary. Hypnosis becomes her defense, the first in any legal system. When Eyraud is finally run to the ground, the trial begins. What’s at stake is no less than the viability of the French judicial system. If Gabrielle is found not responsible for her actions, then criminals will have an easy defense. The French also fear their nation is sliding into degeneracy, personified by a murder staged as though it were a bedroom farce.

Yet while Eyraud is revealed as a delusional brute, Gabrielle is an enigma. Is she an amoral demon or the passive instrument of a con man, who asserted his control by hypnosis, guile and terror? That she was beaten was unsurprising; women were commonly compared to cutlets, "the more you beat them the tenderer they are." But Gabrielle was said to live in terror of her lover, truth or hysteria? Red marks were observed on her neck. 

For the school of Nancy, Gabrielle was not guilty, unable to resist hypnotic suggestion. For Paris, she was a degenerate, responsible for her actions and worthy of the guillotine. In the end, a kind of justice was served. And Inspector Goron was celebrated until another day, when politics took his job. Levingston credits Goron’s memoir of the case, as a source for this enthralling book.

In our day, modern defenses of under the influence usually mean drugs or alcohol. Only occasionally do you hear of  the animal mesmerism of one person bending another completely to their will. Charcot cited the age-old idea of human dominance, strong over the weak, not  hypnotic suggestion, as the source of control over Gabriel. Yet she fits hypnotism's fugue-like consciousness. We have come some distance in accepting that state as an excuse for a crime. There was a recent case where a driver of a car in an accident was declared not guilty, because they were under the influence of a hypnotic sleeping medication.

This is the best true story I have read in recent memory. It's in the tradition of some great literature, like Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, a fiction no stranger than the reality of LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT. In Livingston’s hands, fact is as potent as fiction.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Destiny intersects with passion in FALLOUT, an elegant,sexy,novel of 1970's London theater

Sadie Jones' FALLOUT (4/29, Harper Collins) begins with young Lucasz Kanowski in 1961 and ends with him in 1975, and, though the novel's set in London, it's not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but the insular theater world. FALLOUT is a backstage story of  young talented theater people with the will and personality to transform the London theater. How this group matures, as artists and human beings, learning about love, their potentials and limitations, reflects an era of tremendous social and political change.

Yet this novel is more about the personal that the political, which separates it from novels about the 60's and 70's, such as Charles Degleman's Gates of Eden, in which the two are intertwined. Leigh, the stage manager in FALLOUT, is shaped by Feminism in her responses to men and her fury at commercial "randy" material that degrades women. But what makes Jones' novel original is her focus on time and destiny; how they can intersect in ways we call  fate.  

In the beginning of FALLOUT she telescopes time to show young Lucasz on the day he breaks his mother out of an asylum, taking her to London to see paintings. He passes Nina Jacobs, who's dealing with her own mercurial mother, when she sees the boy with the strange woman wearing galoshes. In that uncanny moment, recognition passes between them. This emotional sense memory at a critical age, she's 11, he a year older, proves indelible.

That same sense of destiny grips Lucasz in 1968, on a rainy street, when he meets Paul Driscoll, a fledgling producer, and Leigh Radley, a Cleopatra-eyed, stage manager. Lost in his provincial town on their way to meet a local playwright, they stop Lucasz fordirections. Though he doesn't know them, he senses these people are his friends. And, when he hears them talk about theater, he feels he's come home.

FALLOUT  traces Lucasz's instinctual journey to London in search of his future. Amazingly, he finds Paul, moves into his apartment and the two decide to form a theater company. Leigh joins them, sharing their vision of  socially relevant plays, from coal miners to an adapatation of Kafka's Penal Colony. The producer and the secret playwright, who gets a job chucking trash, form an emotional triangle with Leigh. Though intensely attracted to Lucasz, she becomes the girlfriend of the "safer" Paul. For Lucasz, who survived a traumatic childhood, it feels good just to live with people he admires. Eventually, the trio have a hit play that's a critical success.

Parallel to their rise in the theater is that of Nina. The daughter of a bit part actress, always on the make for opportunities and men, which to her are often the same. Despite Nina's emotional fragility, she becomes an actress and is set on a path for success. But commercial theater is far from the search for meaning that drives Paul and Lucas' enterprise. And then she is mentored by a sleazy producer. Tony's almost a steriotype of the drug-taking, sexually excessive producer. Ambitious and driven, he's skilled at exploiting emotional vulnerability, as well as making money and building his prestige with the press. He rises in commercial theater, as does Nina, for whom he finds the perfect vehicle. She becomes a star but feels a prisoner in her marriage to this man.

When she and Lucasz again meet, he's a "hot" new  playwright and it's the attraction of sameness. Both are talented yet suffer emotional pain. Great passion is ignited that quickly threatens hard-won professional success, social status, and ultimately, their hold on sanity. What saves FALLOUT from romance cliches is how adept Jones is at showing kinds of ability and vulnerability. While Nina and Lucasz are similarly at risk, Paul and Leigh are better able to protect themselves. But their ability to "play it safe," becomes a different kind of pathology--a love more about service than affinity.

These nuances of character ring true and help with the authenticity of a familiar back stage story. Yes there's the ingenue that becomes a star but she's got an individual sensibility that makes you understand her strength and fear for her fragility. In Lucasz, the playwright, Sadie Jones creates a vision, that crosses Stoppard and Beckett and yet has a humor that goes with the character. Paul is also a person I might have met, a modest hard worker with a passion for his art form but he's so solidly middle-class you respect his values. Leigh is perhaps the most original creation. The daughter of a groundbreaking feminist, she must navigate between that ideology and the second class status of women, not just in theater but her era. Her tireless ingenuity, practical anger and uncompromising intelligence, make her transformation the one most unexpected and desired.

I found this book a wonderful read. Surprising depth of character, accidents of fate that feel like life, and emotional FALLOUT that heralds new maturity, make this a very satisfying novel. There's also lots of fun inside theater here for anyone who's had a creative life in the theater or just been a young artist.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bridging the gap between past and present: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, LITTLE FAILURE and the DEATH OF BEES

In Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip has reconciled himself to a life at the forge, when he suddenly learns he has a fortune and is to become a gentleman. In LITTLE FAILURE, Gary Shteynart's memoir, Igor leaves his semi-invalid childhood in the Soviet Union and suddenly becomes Gary, a healthy school boy in the U.S.A. Two sisters, Marne and Nelly, hide their parents' bodies and suddenly are on their own, scrambling for survival in Glasgow, Scotland in DEATH OF BEES.

These are first-person narratives by bewildered children struggling to emotionally process the past, while trying to succeed in an unfathomable present. Bridging that gap is crucial. And when they fail, they fall into chasms of self-destruction. Pip dissipates his potential on a dandy's wardrobe, fine liquors, and elaborate suppers with actresses. Igor, who becomes Gary, since Igor is to Americans the name of a hunchback, finds himself a middle school pariah ridiculed as the Red Gerbil. But when he's accepted to Styvesant, a prestigious New York High School, he only aspires to the stoner crowd and becomes an alcoholic. Later, at Oberlin College, he's a scary falling down drunk. 15 year old Marne, who protects her sister, abandons herself to drugs, alcohol and sex with a married drug dealer.

Absurdity and writing save Gary, as well as a kind encouraging grandmother, Marne and Nelly's macabre humor is thin cover, until Lenny, an elderly neighbor, gives them a home. Similarly, though Pip rejects his brother-in-law, the simple but faithful blacksmith, the man's affection and offer of refuge is stabilizing. Though they find some adults who provide refuge, you still fear for these children. There lives are overwhelming and you don't know if they will be casualties or emerge from the abyss. What's eternal about these books is less the adult sop about the "resilience" of children, than their resourceful creativity. Even so, chance plays a role for these children to find a bridge out of a past created by crazy adults.

In GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip, mistreated for years by his sister, also fears for his life because of a rough encounter with a desperate criminal. His future seems to have little promise of  his higher aspirations, the ideals in books he's been exposed to through Ms. Haversham, a wealthy spinster. Pip feels badly about not wanting to be a blacksmith but his fortune is used mostly to buy things and learn manners, the surface of a gentleman. Turning his back on the blacksmith leaves him adrift, without purpose. It's not until the identity of his benefactor is revealed and he loses his money that he finds a destiny. He leaps to the aid of the man and redeems himself.  In the end, Pip integrates the old values with a new self. He wins his old love and a path opens.

In LITTLE FAILURE Igor's Soviet Union is a place, where asthmatics get mustard plasters instead of inhalers and his parents' lives revolve around protecting him from attacks. Constantly, Igor fears suffocation. His parents joke about their "Little Failure," who cannot take a walk without risk of an ambulance. His father builds a ladder to the ceiling to help him overcome his fear of heights, but Igor remains afraid, especially of his father. When his father hits him, Igor rationalizes that it's how he shows his love. Red ears stinging, he retreats into fantasies of space travel in a rusty playground rocket or the noble Lenin of a statue. Then, supposedly for his future, Igor's parents give up their jobs, apartment, and beloved relatives to go to Queens, NY, where Gary is only shunned for his foreignness and poverty. Through his talent, writing a satirical novel, he goes from untouchable to creative, an identity he takes to the prestigious Styvesant high school. His parents believe his admittance, means he's launched into the Ivy League and a career as a lawyer. This justifies all their sacrifices. Yet Gary lets them down.

Much  is expected of him but he's got the burden of being a "Little Failure." Gary succumbs to despair more times than he can stand. Only when he backtracks, does he begin to understand failure and make a bridge to the success he will become. In the end of LITTLE FAILURE, he returns with his parents to visit the former Soviet Union. He realizes who he was, as well as how his Americanized parents look younger, healthier than their Russian counterparts. He, as well as his parents, achieved lives they could not have anticipated.

In THE DEATH OF BEES, Marne and Nelly's parents are wildly dysfunctional. Home is a dirty trash-filled falling apart house. The sisters do not mourn parents, who neglected and abused them. Marne gives Nelly her cornflakes and coke and sees her off to school, where she also goes--after digging holes, transporting volatile bodies, planting graves, and figuring out cover stories. Marne worries about Nelly, who found their mother hanging in the garage. Nelly with her love of Bette Davis and sometimes offensive theatricality was already odd. Yet Nelly's got an uncommon talent for the violin. As Marne cynically observes, school authorities trot her out to look good, but no one hires a teacher to advance her.

Authorities in this book only make life worse. Marne doesn't want herself and Nelly split up in foster care. At 16, she can legally raise Marne, but must hold it together until then. Her father a drug addict and dealer, was always unreliable. Mother, constantly high, spent their food money on drugs and booze. Much of this has been observed by Lennie, who is supposed to be a gay "perv" but provides a wholesome alternative to their hideous home. He plays duets with Nelly and worries about Marne's behavior, though academically she gets top scores without studying. Her ability is fortunate, when her parent's welfare checks stop coming and she has to take jobs. First there's her work for the local drug dealer in his ice cream truck. Then she cleans house for a former teacher, an immigrant forced to flee his war-torn country. But her efforts come to little, when Lennie dies and a horrific grandfather surfaces. He gets custody and, worse yet, only wants Nelly.

Marne's powers of improvisation seem stymied, until Lenny's aid reaches beyond his grave to provide them a sanctuary at the beach. Marne is given a respite to reconcile her parent's demise and figure out how she and Nelly will carry on. The girls begin with dead parents but are given Lenny's legacy, the conscious act of making a gracious life; creating music, food, and living up to the best in you, regardless of what others think. Lenny, who was a gay man, not a perv, showed them that love has ethics. You end THE DEATH OF BEES believing they are already fulfilling his prophecy.

This may be a fictional ending but it does happen in real-life. A look at Igor's real-life triumph as the American novelist, Gary, and you see that ability can triumph. Circumstances are not necessarily fate. But while a character can be forged in crisis, many people get lost in dark emotions. Sometimes they make a new path. That's why these books seemed similar. Perhaps classics, like GREAT EXPECTATION, are narratives that follow an eternal pattern and make it visible. When life reinvents that pattern, some fictions reinvent life.