Saturday, August 9, 2014

Donna Tartt's THE GOLDFINCH has GREAT EXPECTATIONS, how the tropes of one classic inspired another.

While greatly enjoying THE GOLDFINCH, I noticed more than a nod to Great Expectations. Tartt doesn't merely reinvent the familiar tropes of the classic but takes them in directions significant for our time. Like the painted goldfinch, the trompe l'oeil masterpiece of the story, this novel is both referential and its own entity. The fluff on the bird in the painting looks soft as real down but close-up is just brush strokes. Part of my pleasure in this novel was to be caught up in it, while noticing Tartt's sleight of hand.

Both THE GOLDFINCH and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are narrated by young heroes trying to make sense of strange destinies in journals they assume no one will read. Both are resigned to diminished expectation, when fate takes a sudden turn. The orphaned Pip, though exposed to wealth, literature and culture, through the stagy Ms. Havisham, had resigned himself to an apprenticeship at the blacksmith's bench, when a mysterious benefactor gives him the moneyed life of a gentleman.

When Theo loses his mother in a terrorist blast at the Met, he's taken into the wealthy Park Avenue family of his boyhood friend. His eccentric mother, Mrs.Barbour, runs a stagy household of formal meals and parties, where each family member has an expected role. And, as the expendable outsider, Theo desperately wants to fit in. Neither Pip or Theo know if these frosty women really care.

Then, just as Theo learns the family will adopt him, his long-lost father appears to take him to Las Vegas. Pip's barely started his apprenticeship, when a lawyer appears to take him to the city for a new life. Both of these changes have disastrous effects. Pip's descent into debauchery introduced by his dissolute roommate, includes expensive liquor, foppish clothes, and dinners with actresses. Unsupervised in Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a teen stoner, who introduces him to alcoholism, drugs, and shoplifting.

Pip's existence as an ersatz gentleman erodes his sense of identity and values. He acquires a cursory education for his new station in life but has no real purpose. Even spending money gives Pip decreasing pleasure, since it can't buy him the status he needs to win his beloved Estella. His hopes to establish himself also mean he divorces himself from Joe, the simple blacksmith.

Similarly, in Las Vegas Theo finds his old prep school jacket literally no longer fits. He's educated to be a "player," a gambler like his father, whose mystic philosophy of winning works, until it doesn't.  Boris, like Pip's roommate, is a dissolute influence. With no mother or real home, he teaches Theo streetwise ways to survive parental neglect. Crime acquires a certain legitimacy and glamour for Theo, until his father's loan shark comes calling.

When he dies, Theo flees to New York and ends up living with Hobbe in the Village. Like the blacksmith, Hobbe is a master craftsman, skilled in Antiquarian furniture. Both men are good natured with earthy appreciation of food and company. They serve as emotional anchors for Pip and Theo, who know they can always find a home with them. As a boy who suffered huge loss, Theo was attracted to the permanent feel of old things in Hobbe's shop.  As a man, he takes over the business side of the firm. Yet his duplicity, like Pip's, hurts his mentor.

A curious invention in The Goldfinch is Tartt's Pippa, the girl Theo loves. In some ways, she's a female Pip. Orphaned and raised by Hobbe, as Pip was by Joe, she is his counterpart in pragmatism. Though physically damaged by the blast, in which she lost the ability to become a professional musician, she seeks a stable life. Theo sees Pippa as his better self. But he is only her twin in having lived through the blast and lost a parent. But, where Pippa wants the salve of simplicity, with Theo there is only the recognition of trauma. Theo comes to understand his obsession with her (like Pip's for Estella) is due to the strange fact that her appearance at the Museum and his mother's loss were simultaneous. He experiences her purity and goodness as what's lost to him.

Theo plays out scenarios of dislocation and destruction. He desperately wants love but experiences estrangement. Possessing The Goldfinch, a painting beyond value, makes him feel complete. When 13 year old Theo first woke up in the devastated museum, he put the painting in a shopping bag to protect it. But when he fled with the bag, he unwittingly became an art thief. The 16th century work is of a bird chained to a stand. Though the bird's captive, the painting's luminous with a transcendent quality. For Theo, it's the last tie to his mother. He hides it for years, becomes afraid to look at it but the secret of the hidden painting separates him from everyone--except Boris.

Pip's secret benefactor, a reformed criminal, is also like Theo's Boris. Both are shadow "others" to their heroes. Boris is a kind of doppelganger, who likes girls and money, but is most happy when in danger through some business. In Boris' lack of limits with alcohol, drugs, risk, Theo sees a reflection both scary and attractive. Boris lives life with a connection Theo lacks but a self-destruction he understands. The difference is that while for Boris criminality is how he's survived, Theo knows his grand theft of the painting began with good motives.

Nevertheless, Theo's continued possession makes him duplicitous to himself. Outwardly his work and residence with Hobbe are stable. Yet his secret creates emotional distance and the need for constant manipulation. Playing to other's expectations, Theo becomes a gifted salesman. Then, favoring his "father's half," he does duplicitous deals to save Hobbe's business. His good intentions through bad means are echoes of Pip's risk of prison to save his benefactor. Pip thinks of nothing but to repay the man's generosity

Honesty and crime are muddled in both stories, not unlike Boris' beloved Dostoyevsky. In THE GOLDFINCH, the reader experiences with Theo how intentions can be viewed differently, depending on the circumstances in which a person finds himself. Boris and Pip's patron, the former convict, are both criminals and benefactors. They echo the theme of good intentions through bad means that follows Theo from his theft. In addition, the blame Theo feels for his mother's death colors all that follows. When Theo and Boris learn the Goldfinch is stolen by a gang of art thieves, they engage in a violent attempt to recover it. Not so amazingly, Theo's focus is now on preservation over possession.

At the end of THE GOLDFINCH, Theo, like Pip, finds himself much the wiser in a better life. For Theo, redemption, business and personal, brings a strange peace. This novel is smart and entertaining. Glad it got the Pulitzer.


Victoria Hetherington's novel, I HAVE TO TELL YOU ( will, I am sure, appeal to young single people in the working world. I  liked the Edie conversation in the beginning, where the girl skewers the guy about liking self-destructive women. I also liked the sexiness of the novel. 


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LAY IT ON MY HEART & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are told by small town kids who struggle; one with extreme evangelism, the other racism.

Harper Lee's classic novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, revealed the underbelly of racism through a young girl's narrative of injustice and hypocrisy in a small southern town. Something similar happens in Angela Pneuman's new novel, LAY IT ON MY HEART, (July, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), where Charmaine Peakes, a 13-year old raised in an extreme evangelical Kentucky town, struggles to reconcile her family's belief and the town's moral purpose with the downward spiral of their lives. Amazingly, this novel manages to be funny about the serious stuff.

That she is the granddaughter of the iconic prophet of East Windsor, whose "great awakening" attracted people to found the town, gives Charmaine a special status. But more important to her is the fact of her father's prophetic gift. He's revered by the town as a man close to God, whose writings are inspired. Charmaine wishes he had more time for her, though she accepts that he's "different" and struggles to fulfill his expectations.

Among these is the prayer without ceasing. While her father's been in Jerusalem, Charmaine tries to master this practice but finds it difficult. Continual prayer is supposed to be so automatic, it's under your thoughts and words. Yet no matter how she tries, she loses the thought and experiences no sense of the Holy Spirit. She wants to succeed to be close to her father. Not yet, she thinks on the way to meet him at the airport.

He's written her mother, Phoebe, that he's received a new direction, which she says is probably a series of articles. Charmaine, like her mother, is leery of revelations since the one to " live on faith alone," which meant he quit his job. Except for her mother's secret seamstress work, they would have lost their home. Charmaine prays to be strong enough for whatever course God has chosen, hopefully not incessant poverty.

At the airport, she hardly recognizes her father in the gaunt man wearing filthy tattered robes. Dazed by his surroundings, David barely greets his family and Charmaine can't help being embarrassed by his smell. That he immediately heads for their cabin by the river, is also disappointing, Charmaine and her mother can only hope that he will eventually come home.

Charmaine also worries that he's wandering in the dark, wrapped up in ceaseless prayer. This proves prophetic, when he stumbles into poison ivy, tries to kill the itch with bleach, and ends up in a hospital ward with serious burns. Then his possession by the Lord disappears, along with his ceaseless prayer, when a psychiatrist gives him medicine for manic depression. The prophet becomes a stranger, even to himself.

Phoebe is stunned by the idea of mental illness. She tells Charmaine the old story of how her father proposed marriage because God told him to marry her. When he recovers, he'll come to himself, she says. In the meantime, Phoebe gets a job as a substitute teacher, rents their house, and moves them to the cabin by the river, really a small trailer on a cement foundation surrounded by logs. For Charmaine this is a huge loss. Not only can't she visit her father but she has to leave her room and most of her possessions to a pompous missionary boy.

She begins 7th grade possessing a cat and some old clothes. Worse is the loss of
privacy in the claustrophobic cabin. And, as they sink into the struggle for daily survival on substitute teaching gigs, food is scarce. McDonald's is a luxury, when they scrounge coins for gas. So Charmaine takes the school bus, where her identity is constantly challenged from sexual teasing to Jesus Freak labels. But she's got a kind of internal discipline, viewed as "uppity," to withstand much of this, and she makes a couple friends.

For them, her father's absence is business as usual. Tracy's father started another family and stays when he feels like it. Kelly Lynne, the beautiful would-be cheerleader, never sees her divorced father, while her mother keeps starting over with new husbands. Charmaine is clear that divorce does not apply to her parents. Her father is ill and will come home. Yet she hears Phoebe, her confidant in close quarters, talk about how she never thought to doubt him. He was God's own and a wife was to "cleave" to her husband in all ways. She bitterly calls herself a fool. Charmaine doesn't say that cleave has two meanings, to tear apart and to stick together.

Charmaine's pastor asks her to choose people to "Lay on her heart" and she chooses her friends. They are not of her faith and she's questioning all she's been taught to accept. There's putting God first, when she doesn't feel a connection, and her father's prophecy may be mental illness, and the evils of lust, when she sees how repression in one townsman led to a twisted life. And while she respects the charitable values of her community, she dislikes the pity that's replaced reverence and the fact that financial aid hinges on her father's recovery.

In LAY IT ON MY HEART, Charmaine's foundation of belief cracks open with the reality of her father's mental illness and the hypocrisy of her community. Like Scout, she develops uncompromising honesty. She keeps faith with what she has experienced. At the end of the book, she climbs a water tower and looks down at all the places of her childhood. The police lights converge to rescue her but Charmaine has already rescued herself. She has found a place, where inspiration and sanity are one.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

PARADISE GARDENS Thursday! The Pavilion of The Psychologicians.

PARADISE GARDEN THURSDAYS! A Different Chapter Every Week


Paradise Gardens- Chapter 20- Year 3012, Underground

The Pavilion of The Psychologicians

It was a short trip from the pavilion of the psychologicians to the roof of the media estate, where Nate was to meet Madge Chilton. He could have taken the tube but he preferred the view from his two-seater. Waiting for it to spark into life, he meditated on its quaint saucer shape, a remnant of the last century’s futuristic fantasies. Why did they think all aliens would possess spherical spacecraft? Made little sense, except combined with helicopter technology.

What creatures of habit we are, he mused, as the saucer rose up in a vertical line, always looking back for inspiration. Even our ingenious underground references the projected ecology of space stations. How else would the engineers have learned to use the Earth’s core–almost a planet within a planet spun by streams of molten iron? The UBE owed its sun to that knowledge. The core rotated faster than Earth’s sun, underscoring that their day was a calculation of corporate necessity...

Thanks if you're following the Serial of PARADISE GARDENS. If you're curious, below is a synopsis of the novel.
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.

Brandon Melendez, Publisher, Maglomaniac

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.