Sunday, July 28, 2013

July 28, 2013 Sunday Salon update

Leaving for Maine in two weeks. Reading Paul Doiron’s latest Maine warden mystery to set the mood. Even though Massacre Pond takes place in the woods of eastern Maine, and I will spend most of my time on the beach and in the family rooms of friends in south coastal Maine, my Maine nostalgia’s triggered.  Doiron’s such a knowledgeable and wonderful writer. His Maine Guide stripes show in his descriptions of flora and fauna, people and issues.  Maybe I’ll even be ready to write the review while in Maine.
Other reading news: Finished reviewing Book two of Jane Gardam’s trilogy: The Man With the Wooden Hat. Have also read book three, Last Friendsand need to write that review this week.
On the audiobook front, I have been endlessly listening to Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), and I still have about 14 hours to go. Gordon-Reed is convincing in this heavily researched, highly extrapolated book as she makes her case for what the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s elite slave family were like – including the most famous one, Sally Hemings, the mother of his children  -- and half-sister of his wife. (Yes, I buy her views).
            Carefully constructed like a court case, the book sounds like it’s written by a lawyer --- and guess what, it is. Gordon-Reed is a professor of law and history at Harvard.
It’s not a style that appeals to me, even as I acknowledge that it is the appropriate approach to this material. I find myself an impatient listener, craving story instead of supposition and argument. I appreciate what I’m learning, but I can’t wait to move on to lighter fare. Hope to finish before the long car ride to Maine.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Wedding guest readers get retelling of Feathers’ marriage in Gardam’s “The Man with the Wooden Hat”


        Elisabeth, Betty, Bets, Macintosh, Mrs. Waterproof, Raincoat, Feathers has almost as many names as her husband: Edward Feathers, Monkey, Eddie, Teddy, My dear chap, Old Filth, Filth (Filth also being an acronym for Failed in London, try Hong Kong).
Jane Gardam revealed many of Filth’s facets and some of his secrets in Old Filth. She does the same for his wife’s Betty’s multi-sided personality and hidden history in The Man with the Wooden Hat. The two books, as hinged together as their subjects, form a diptych. A third book, Last Friends, recently added more views, more backstory, to their story.
            The pair offers a portrait of a marriage across continents during the last century beginning with Filth as a Raj orphan, and Betty as an internee in a Japanese camp in Shanghai, China, during World War II.  They marry in Hong Kong where Filth makes a bundle practicing law in construction, bridges, and dams; and then becomes a judge while Betty struggles with her dreams of having a family. They later retire to the Donheads in the quiet Dorset countryside of England.
While the focus of “The Man in the Wooden Hat” is on Betty, whose love stories include lust, dogged faithfulness and unconditional maternal love, it’s the titular man in the hat who orchestrates the intrigue and is, in turn, most intriguing himself.  Albert Ross, is the hinge that keeps Elisabeth and Edward, and this diptych hitched.
           We learned in Old Filth that the Feathers’ marriage was childless, that Betty and Filth’s nemesis at court, Terry Veenering, had once had an affair, that Betty was deeply moved by the death of Veneering’s son, Harry, and that Albert Loss redirected Filth’s life a couple of times. We learn how and why all these happen in “…Hat.”
          More specifically what we learn in “….. Hat” is that Betty is not childless by choice. As a to-be bride she surrounds herself with the children of her best friend and hopes like her to have many – perhaps 10.   Instead she only fleetingly serves as substitute mother for Veneering’s Harry. Harry’s the one who recognizes her true caretaker nature – the raincoat, a Macintosh for others, protecting them from life’s storms, a nurturer, a mother.  He’s the one who calls her by her true name; he’s the one who observes that her married name, “Mrs. Feathers sounds like a hen.” (The hen like other objects later takes on further significance; it’s the shape of a tree, an indicator of the home in the Donheads.) She, in turn, serves as his benefactor.
       Albert Ross serves as Filths.’ In Old Filth, when Edward is 16, Ross intervenes on his behalf, saving him on a sea voyage and ensuring that he is met on return to England. Filth, in turn, gives him his most precious possession, his father’s watch, for the favor. Later Ross is the solicitor who directs Edward’s legal career to Hong Kong, subsequent success and great wealth.
            Something of an exotic, Albert Ross is first described as a Chinese dwarf and then said to be  “only notionally Chinese,” preferring “to be known as a Hakkar, the ancient red-brown tribe of Oriental Gypsies. Like others he goes by several names. He is sometimes called Albert Loss. It is really Albert Ross but the R was difficult for him to pronounce.  He is often referred to as “Albatross,” or “Coleridge” or “Ancient Mariner.” And like the albatross of Coleridge’s most famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he brings both fair winds and favorable circumstances (to Filth) and a curse  (to Betty).  Part sorcerer, part magician, he wears his top hat, shuffles and reads cards.
He intervenes several times more in “….. Hat,” sometimes by his presence, sometimes by the suggestion of his presence.  
         Awkward, dispassionate Filth proposes to the solid Betty –  a woman he describes as “a good sort.” All he asks is that she promises never to leave him. Abandoned so often in his childhood, he cannot bear being left again. Betty discovers passion (and Veneering) “an hour too late,” and rethinks the marriage.  It is the dwarf who shows up to ensure she follows through – and he manifests in one form or another – as a dream vision or a wooden doppelganger each time she questions her vows.  When Betty sees the later in a museum, she has the urge to see just what it is under the hat.  It’s a sneak peek.  What’s there will not be revealed until both Betty and Filth are gone, and the last page is turned.
            What’s curious is this reader almost missed that the book both ends and begins with Ross.  A dwarf is seen at the split driveway that goes to Edward’s house before Veneering buys the adjacent property.  He also seems instrumental in steering Betty here years before during a convalescence. Could it be he’s the indirect cause of the kindling of friendship between Feathers and Veneering after Betty’s death? Could be that the two living right next to each other is no mere coincidence the way it seemed in “Old Filth.”
            This revisiting previous versions of the story and telling the tale slightly differently is typical of Gardam’s style. We see the locale of the Macintosh-Veneering tryst in two very different lights within pages of each other.  Ditto the home in the Donheads though more pages intervene. We see Elizabeth and Teddy’s wedding and a replay of it.  In the two books we revisit the retirement and Filth’s view of Betty’s death with different details. Veneering’s arrival next door, their meeting and subsequent conversations reveal more of their affairs and what each knew – or guessed about them.
            Samuel Taylor Coleridge was evoked on page 1 as the only poet celebrated for visiting a Donhead. In his great work the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the mariner is doomed to wander and retell his tale. He tells the story to a wedding guest.  It is in Gardam’s retelling, “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” that we, the readers are guests at the wedding – and listeners to the subsequent tale of marriage of Edward and Elisabeth Feathers, along with their very own albatross.
               What a truly great invitation we’ve been given.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Michael Frayn's "Skios:" Go see the movie: it's better than the book

     Michael Frayn’s play “Skios,” is better than the novel.

     However, the later was longlisted for the Man Booker prize while the former hasn’t been written. (Yet, to my knowledge.)
     Frayn, whose laugh-a-minute play “Noises Off” has been produced over and over by countless professional and community theaters, is an established master of theatrical farce.  Deservingly so.  "Noises Off" is so well written it seems it would be hard to screw it up.
            In Skios he attempts to skewer the globe-trotting speaker circuit and extravagant foundation conferences of 21st century life the way he poked fun at  theater companies and their backstage blunders during the production of an imaginary play called “Nothing On” in “Noises Off.” And while he comically nails the pretentiousness of hoity-toits at the pinnacle of  “civilization,” I wondered why I felt only mildly amused, mildly bored as I turned page after page of this short novel.
     Perhaps it’s the people. 
     The embodied stereotypes of stage are fuller; stereotypes on the page seem so thin they almost topple over.
     Gathered for the foundation’s annual Fred Toppler lecture, those people include a range of one-dimensional characters from the semi-wealthy to embedded intellectuals and a token poet, to the silent Russian grand dame.  But the focus is on two types: the pudgy, aging, bland academic, Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has been invited to deliver his lecture on Scientometrics, and imposter, playboy, cad, Oliver Fox.
       Of course both play against several female types.  Chief among them is the organizer of yearly foundation house party, personal assistant, neat, nice, Nikki --so collected she looks like she belongs in a deodorant commercial. When she gets to the airport fantasy gets the better of her and she hopefully greets the rakishly good-looking Oliver Fox as Dr. Wilfred. Fox, opportunistic flim-flam man that he is, goes along for the adventure.  He’s arrived early to the island for a tryst with a woman he met in a bar as a substitute for one who had rented the villa for them both, and then changed her plans.
An adventure it is.  Two Greek taxi drivers, brothers Stavros and Spiros, whose limited English helps propel the plot, crisscross characters and luggage to opposite ends of the island. The whole turns on coincidence and mistaken identity; sexual tryst possibilities; jockeying for advancement; parallel, juxtaposed scenes; missed communications and miscommunications; and a shell game of passports and luggage.
     Nevertheless, the jokes often fall flat.  (Example: Yes, the second coming was at hand. Eric could sense it. Christian would come and he would be terrible.) Hah..... 
     Perhaps it’s the pace. Instead of the rat-a-tat tat repartee of dialogue, much of the humor often occurs in description slowing down the action, rather than speeding it up to rollicking, the way it might be if delivered by actors.
            My mild response is not due to the intricately, carefully choreographed plot.  Each element balances on another in a complex house of cards, often just movements and moments away from potential collapse. Dramatic tension builds as the lecture looms. Dr. Wilfred’s there to speak on “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” Can Fox fake it through the presentation the way he fakes it through all that comes before – casual conversation, question and answer period and dinner? Then another layer gets added: philanthropy may be a cover for something more nefarious. The Fred Toppler lecture offers a crescendo surprise worthy of epic farce.  An ending I would love to see on screen.           
     Screen, again. Perhaps, no certainly, the problem is genre.
     I read distractedly, constantly imagining the play, the movie. I want to hear the characters, see the sets.
      Why, I ask repeatedly, did Frayn write this as a novel?
      Perhaps, there are too many characters for the modern stage –  only amateurs could afford such a huge cast and even they might have trouble. 
     Maybe a movie? 
     Perhaps Frayn planned all along to write a screenplay based on the novel’s reception.
      Many years ago I had the chance to attend a lecture in which the keynote speaker, a well-known theater critic, joked about a conversation he had with academics about Shakespeare. One said it was a pity Shakespeare didn’t write novels. Oh how they missed the point of plays!
             I think of the difference now.  Some of it’s in the timing. Reading, though progressive like a play, allows you to go back and savor, to sink in; a play unfolds in space and time at it’s own pace taking you with it – or not. Frayn is so good at creating side-splitting farce, the kind it’s nearly impossible to withstand – unless you’re the one in control of turning the pages.
            While I won’t recommend this book to friends and family, I’ll go see the movie with them. 
            When it comes out.