8/24/16

Bryson's Cranky Look at Britain Has Sublime Moments

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THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING: ADVENTURES OF AN AMERICAN IN BRITAIN
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 2015, 376 ppp.
* * *

Few travel writers rival Bill Bryson's magical mix of humor, celebratory wonder, and gentle critique. Bryson’s search for the ‘perfect’ American small town in The Lost Continent (1989) is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In it—and books such as I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1999) and his hilarious Australian sojourn In a Sunburned Country (2000)—Bryson manages both to expose readers to godforsaken locales, yet find the sublime in small moments and unexpected discoveries. He has always called attention to head-scratching idiocy, and has expressed bafflement when finding Homo sapiens in habitats unfit for human consumption, but his barbs generally battle for attention with self-deprecating humor.
The Road to Little Dribbling—the title is ironic; no such place exists—is a sequel ­to Notes from a Small Island, his 1996 walkabout Britain. Bryson is an Iowan by birth, but has lived much of his life since the 1970s in England—first as a student working at a defunct sanatorium in Surrey, but also in Dorset, Yorkshire, Hampshire, and London. He is married to an Englishwoman and is in the process of obtaining UK citizenship. Little Dribbling contains numerous laugh-out-loud passages and, like his other books, takes us to out of the way places where few wander and more should—Noar Hill, Silbury, the remnants of Motopia, the Meon Valley, and Derwent Water among them—and regales us with tales of long-forgotten English eccentrics. (No one does eccentricity as well as Brits!)
What’s missing from Little Dribbling is empathy. What once amused Bryson now infuriates him. The book is filled with discursions and rants that, frankly, only a writer as famous as he could get past editors without reworking the tone. At age 64, Bryson seems to be cultivating the image of grumpy misanthrope. There is liberal use of the F-bomb, mostly for cheap affect, and even more liberal denunciation of people he encounters as “idiots” and “cretins.” Sometimes it’s richly deserved. He recounts an incident in Austin—though what a trip to Texas has to do with a book about Britain is uncertain—in which he checked into a major hotel. When he gave the clerk his London address, she asked where it was located. When she couldn’t locate England, Britain, or the UK on her computer pull-down menu, she insisted there could be no such place. I despair for America’s future. How does one get out of junior high school without having heard of London? But, wait—it gets worse.  Our dumb-as-dung cowgirl was perfectly content when Bryson told her to try “France!” Okay, she deserves the label “idiot.” But the overall sense of the book is that a lot of people annoy Bryson—sometimes merely for their audacity of occupying physical space.
At his best, Bryson makes us chortle. Little Dribbling is filled with quotable hoots. His take on Britain’s declining rail service: “It is like rigor mortis with scenery.” He skewers a talentless but venomous authoress as an airhead who finds herself “progressing through life with breasts that must weigh thirty kilos each.” He uses the phrase “knobhead in ermine” to lampoon an archaic British class system that bestows honors on people who don’t actually do anything. He is equally witty in discussing Britain’s legendary inefficiency, its penchant for erecting monuments to people it forgets the moment the first pigeon alights, and its obsession with rules, especially those that are contradictory.
The overall portrait of Britain from Bognor Regis to Scotland’s Cape Wrath—places Bryson determined are the actual most-distant points in the United Kingdom, not Land’s End and John o’Groats as the tour books say—is less sunny than that of Notes from a Small Island. He sees a nation in the midst of transformations that are destroying remaining pockets of charm and replacing them with squalor, noise, and litter. He confesses missing the Britain he came to love in the 1970s. Is he right, or is this a further manifestation of encroaching Old Fuddydom? I’ve been to many of the places he writes about and if the losses he mentions are accurate, I’d cast my vote for saying that Bryson is on to something. Britain without charm is, well, Sheffield and Birmingham. There is a palpable sense that Britain outside of Greater London is a dire place interrupted up by enclaves of grace.  
U.K. readers are sure to notice that Bryson gives short shrift to Wales and Scotland and doesn't go to Northern Ireland at all. Although he didn't intend this, Bryson's Anglo-centric travel through what he constantly calls "Britain" might be a harbinger of the U.K.'s post-Brexit future. Scotland desperately wishes to remain in the European Union and will probably schedule a new independence vote. Northern Ireland leaders now ponder whether unification with the E.U.-member Republic would be better than remaining inside a declining United Kingdom, and some Londoners have pondered leaving as well. Oh dear! Again, without intending to do so, Bryson allows readers to imagine a post-empire Britain. In an odd way, he gives comfort to American readers. At least we have our collective idiocy to keep us together!
I don't mean to make this book sound glum.  Bryson recounts some truly magnificent moments—and describes places I've added to my bucket list.  His humor is sharp, even when he's more acerbic than amusing. My advice is to give it a spin, but don't be afraid to skim when Bryson's ramblings turn into rants. Decline—broadly defined—isn't pretty, but remembrance, time warps, and unexpected renaissance can be. A final thing—avoid Bognor Regis!
Rob Weir
           

8/22/16

NFL Time? No Thanks!



It’s just about time for more football. Color me disinterested. In my view, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the greatest threat to public health since opioids. Think I’m kidding? Check out Goodell’s public record on CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). It is a textbook case of rapacious capitalism—denial masquerading willingness to grind up athletes to protect a multi-billion dollar investment. There’s little that differentiates NFL owners from Gilded Age coal barons. If you’re a parent and you let you kids play football, you might as well accelerate time, take a baseball bat, and repeatedly smack your kids over their heads, because that’s what a few years worth of football will do their brains.Oh yeah, it also makes them grow up to be jerks.

If it were only the refusal to take CTE seriously…. Let’s call the NFL the National Fraud League. With the possible exception of FIFA and the IOOC, there is no sports federation on the planet that extorts like the NFL. These guys make Mafia shakedown artists seem like public servants by comparison. At a time in which cities are struggling to keep schools open, build homeless shelters, fix bridges, fill potholes, and provide basic social services, the NFL seeks to bilk them for the one-time frivolous experience of hosting a Super Bowl. The rock bottom fee just to apply is a new stadium.

This would be risible, were it not for the sad truth that cities are biting like hungry trout approaching a fat worm on a baited hook. Atlanta has the perfectly functional Georgia Dome, but is about to shell out $1.4 billion to replace it. The Dome was built in 1992 and a 25-year-old facility won’t satisfy King Roger. For the record, my home was built in 1993, is still in great shape, and has nearly tripled in value rather than depreciating by $56 million per year. Maybe Atlanta needs to hire better builders.

NFL Owners: America's Only Socialists!
Atlanta’s new stadium will be named Mercedes Benz Stadium. Like the car, the new venue will cater more to the 1% than to the 99%, who get pick up the bulk of the tab. The minions of the rich known as the Chamber of Commerce shamelessly support the project. The C of C claims a Super Bowl generates $400 million in income. Leaving aside the basic stupidity of gambling a billion more than one can win, there are numerous studies that show that the Super Bowl (and the NFL in general) generates far less than boosters claim. There’s also the matter that the stadium cost is the tip of the pigskin; infrastructure upgrades, tax abatements, and construction delays inflate costs like Tom Brady’s worst nightmare.

The NFL excels at graft. According to the Associated Press, six of the past nine Super Bowls have been awarded to cities with spanking new facilities. In all cases, local taxpayers subsidized most of the associated costs and, almost always without the consent of voters. The AP also reports there is seldom solid math behind the claims of NFL boosters. Why, it’s as if they just made up numbers—which precisely what they did. The NFL won’t tell you about the studies that show zero percent difference in tourist dollars between cities that host a Super Bowl and those that don’t. As in the case of the Olympics, normal tourism is disrupted by the event—often for much longer than just the day of the Super Bowl, and there is no long-term “bounce” from being a host.

Why do cities continue to fall for this? Beats me, but if you think Las Vegas is the city of gamblers, it’s a piker compared to Los Angeles, whose leaders want to spin the roulette wheel on both the NFL and the Olympics. The Rams and Raiders left LA in 1994 and, you probably noticed that tourism ceased, the city was vacated, and most Americans came to believe that Los Angeles was a suburb of Terre Haute. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What does LA think it’s going to gain from the Rams returning in 2016? It had better be plenty, because the current estimate for a facility to open in 2019 is $2.6 billion. Good grief! Remember: As Atlanta teaches us, this baby will be an antique in 25 years—at an annual loss in value of $100 million. In case you care, the average homeless shelter costs about $17,500 per person per year. Do we want to contemplate what the Olympics will cost if LA wins its bid for 2024? But at least Los Angeles will get a Super Bowl, right? Not necessarily! A new park only puts one in the running for consideration.

Let’s return to CTE, shall we? Today’s NFL is a shell game run by billionaires to dupe the masses. Several economic prognosticators claim that though the NFL is presently at the height of its popularity, it has maxed out its potential and is a poor long-term investment. Some have ventured to compare football to boxing circa 1968—about to take a cross to the chin and go splat on the mat. It won’t disappear, but football might become another niche sport. Unless some dramatic (read: miracle) leap in technology occurs, CTE will play a big part in that. Would you really take a bat to your kids’ skulls? If parents simply take away the pigskin and toss their kids a soccer ball, it will rob the NFL of what it needs most: a new generation of sanguinary warriors. If you think I overstate, visit your local playground and count the number of kids kicking the round ball compared to those tossing the prolate spheroid. If production value collpases, it won’t be easy for elected officials to write welfare checks for billionaires, and kudzu will grow in the cracks of the rotting edifices of greed.  

 

8/19/16

Florence Foster Jenkins Hits All the Wrong Notes

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FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)
Directed by Stephen Frears
20th Century Fox, 110 minutes, PG-13
* *

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1947) has been called the worst singer in history and whether or not she was is probably not worth the argument. How did a woman with no tone discrimination, pitch, sense of timing, range, or much of anything that passed for basic ability have a stage career that lasted for decades and end up singing at Carnegie Hall? What made her think she could tackle Mozart, Verdi, Straus, Brahms, light opera, and popular song? How did she get to count among her friends—or were they just patronage-seekers?—such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Kitty Carlisle, and Cole Porter? How did she buffalo tough critics such as Earl Wilson, or get to hang out with Vanderbilts?

Good questions. I wish the film Florence Foster Jenkins had given us more than crumbs upon which to chew while cogitating them. Alas, this Meryl Streep vehicle—she plays Jenkins—is as flat as Jenkins' voice. Part of the problem lies with Streep, who has fallen into the habit of resting upon her laurels and simply sashaying around the screen flashing her dimples, but mostly the problems are with a very weak script (Nicholas Martin), and director Stephen Frears' decision to dress his film in intriguing external detail whilst leaving central questions unexamined.

Was Jenkins deluded in thinking she could sing? Here are a few details the film only touches upon and ought to be spotlighted. Jenkins was raised in wealth in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and was a child prodigy on piano. She probably would have made a name for herself as a pianist had not that career been cut short by an unspecified arm injury. She eloped with Dr. Frank Johnson in 1885, who infected her with syphilis on their wedding night, and they split soon thereafter. It is unclear if they ever formally divorced but, in 1909, she met talented British actor/singer/orator/ producer Bayfield St. Clair, with whom she had a common-law relationship. Their relationship was probably chaste as there was no effective cure for the clap in those days. A 17-year-old such as Jenkins might be reasonably be expected to live another 20 years before being laid waste by the disease, but Jenkins made it to 76 through the prescribed treatments of the day: compounds of lead, arsenic, and mercury—all of which, of course, are toxic in their own right. Penicillin saved/saves millions, but it wasn't discovered until 1943, by which time Jenkins was in the tertiary phase of the disease and could not be helped.

Know this, as the film won't tell you. The effects of advanced syphilis in conjunction with its pre-penicillin "treatment" included chancre sores, hair loss, and fatigue. More importantly for this film, syphilis also brought dementia, heart problems, hallucinations, and hearing problems. There is a scene late in the film where we see Jenkins imagining how she sounded to others. That was a nice touch, but it was played as if Jenkins was fantasizing; it's possible it's how she actually "heard" herself. Therein lies a tale, but not one Frears told.

Instead, the film emphasizes the triad relationship between Jenkins, St. Clair (Hugh Grant), and Ms. Jenkins' accompanists, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). We get early clips of Jenkins performing non-singing roles in St. Clair tableaux vivants (an early 20th century entertainment with a narrator paving the way for a staged historical scene), and we learn she was the founder (and, via inheritance, Sugar Mama) of New York City's Verdi Club. It is important to know that the Verdi Club was a social and supper club, not a public concert hall. Jenkins performed regularly and badly there. Did St. Clair and the club clientele patronize her, or simply indulge her the way my friends indulge me when I sing? Unclear.

Frears suggests that St. Clair might have been a gold digger and McMoon just a Depression-era ivory tickler who needed the money, but he also suggests St. Clair and Jenkins had an out-of-sight/mind open relationship, that he was absolutely devoted to her, and that McMoon came to view Jenkins with great affection. About that affection—there is nothing in the film other than the whiff of money that explains how St. Clair or Jenkins moved in such high-highfalutin circles. (It would have been helpful to know that St. Clair acted in, directed, or produced 40 Broadway shows; or that he was considered a talented vocalist.) Jenkins had money, but it wasn't a king's ransom. In other words, where's the charm? If everyone knew she was so awful, why did they encourage and protect her? We need to know this, or she's everyone's personal freak show—an unspeakable level of cruelty.

Yet this is how Frears plays it. I found this film to be a major disappointment. What could have been a fascinating musing on the character and career of an unorthodox character is instead long segments of Streep—who is a trained and skilled vocalist in real life—assaulting our ears, punctuated by Grant comforting her, and Helberg sacrificing his dignity in the name of money, then friendship. In its own way, the movie is as off-key as a Florence Jenkins aria.

Rob Weir   

8/17/16

Thoughts on the Election: Why I'm Not Excited



Note: Since this piece was originally posted, a few friends made me aware of the anti-Israel sentiments of Ms. Stein's running mate. That's a deal-breaker for me. I will now cast my (write-in) vote for Bernie Sanders.

Several readers have expressed surprise by my relative silence on the upcoming presidential election. In all honesty, there’s not much to say except that I’m depressed by a race between two grifters. Republicans surrendered to the Tea Party in 2010, and the Democrats stacked the deck to make sure Hillary Clinton got the nomination instead of Bernie Sanders, who represented a possibility of substantive change that no living American is likely to see again.

What do you want me to say? That Donald Trump is a pompous fool, an arrogant pig, a joke in a hairweave, a national embarrassment? Isn’t that self-evident? Trump is the candidate of white trash, gun-rights Nazis, scared suburbanites, radical Christianists, gay-bashers, chauvinists, and assorted deluded people who haven’t noticed that America is a multicultural society. Trump’s only path to victory is to so disgust the electorate that only white people vote, but it could happen.

Hillary Clinton should waltz to victory, except she won’t. Democrats couldn’t have picked a weaker candidate if they’d randomly chosen from an unemployment line. You know she’s bad when supporters have to cry “double-standard” at every step of a scandal-littered path. Then they tell people they “must” vote for her to “stop” Donald Trump. Here’s my answer: STFU! She’s better than Trump, but who wouldn’t be? That’s not the same as being worthy. Scandal follows Clinton for reasons that go beyond GOP fear-mongering: there’s so much garbage in her past that it’s child’s play to open a new trash pit. Not all it is fair, but there’s more truth to it than wide-eyed Hillaryites believe. Moreover, it doesn’t matter. You have to live in la-la land to believe that issues are the default position for voters—perception matters more. Don’t you love the way Clinton dropped the ball the very morning after Trump got caught suggesting Second Amendment advocates could assassinate her? Bingo! New allegations arose of misuse of email accounts to solicit inappropriate donations to the very Clinton Foundation from which wiser people told her years ago she needed to resign. She probably broke no laws, but do you see any sound judgment in this? Do her supporters even get the hypocrisy of telling people they “must” vote for her? Such assertions are anti-democratic authoritarian acts on par with the ideology they accuse Trump of having.

A Trump victory would confirm what I have suspected for a decade: America didn’t “win” the Cold War—it merely outlived communism before beginning its own decline. So my decision will be to vote for Jill Stein*. Hillary Clinton doesn’t hold my values. In fact, Trump is better than Clinton on the ones I hold dearest: war and peace, social class, and protectionism. (Stein is better still, but* I might choose to write in Sanders' name.)

Let’s start by discarding campaign rubbish that’s going nowhere regardless of who wins. Republicans can rant all they want about gay marriage, but the Supreme Court has ruled it legal and that’s the final word. In like fashion, liberals can raise the specter of disappearing reproductive rights, but, in truth, radical Christianists have already gutted Roe to the point where poor women can’t get abortions. I refuse to get excited if some white chick from Atlanta has to have daddy fly her to Boston to erase her little “mistake.” (Oddly, it might help the case for protecting abortion access.) I’m no fan of the Affordable Care Act, but it’s not going anywhere either—even Republican governors have discovered it’s way cheaper than their states picking up the tab. Trump would make cosmetic changes, but that’s it. Accept Syrian refugees? We don’t; we won’t—just 10,000 have come since the start of the conflict. Gun control? Not happening on either watch, and won’t until someone in the future with courage turns the IRS loose on the NRA. Environmental issues? They’re both so pro-development they make it easy to vote for Stein.

On war and peace, I agree Trump is more likely to do something rash in the case of war but here’s the thing: Clinton is much more likely to get us into one in the first place. She is a hawk on overthrowing Assad, a hawk on reintroducing troops to Iraq, a hawk on boosting deployments to Afghanistan, a hawk on taking unilateral action against Iran, a hawk on introducing women to combat, and a staunch interventionist. Trump, on the other hand, has isolationist tendencies and thinks it’s not America’s job to clean up other people’s messes. I agree.

Speaking of isolationism, Trump is a free trade skeptic. So am I. Hillary now opposes the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, but in her heart, she’s always supported NAFTA-type agreements. (Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law.) I see free trade as the biggest fraud ever perpetuated on workers. If Trump introduced a modicum of protectionism and it stimulated an uptick in American jobs, it would be better than what Mrs. Clinton would bring. Clinton is part of the pernicious crew spreading the myth that America is a middle-class society. It’s not, and until someone speaks to the majority—wage, not salary, earners—a lot of those wage earners will continue to act like white trash by opposing progressive social legislation. (When was the last time they acted progressively? Try LBJ’s Great Society. Johnson knew poor workers when he saw them.)

Here’s the dirty secret neither Clinton nor Trump want you to know: on most issues they’re on the same page. Their differences are in the fine print, not in substance. Don’t take my word for it—go to Inside Gov and see for yourself.  I see November as a choice between the sociopathic and the ethically challenged. I won’t stay home, but I will vote my values. *Stein won’t win, but does it matter which hollow coronation we display—that of the first female president, or that of the first TV psycho president? America already jumped the shark on the chance for real change.

* I reserve the right to write-in Bernie Sanders' name. I'm watching the political winds and will vote for whichever of them seems most disruptive of the two-party system. 

8/15/16

Shannon LaBrie, Markowski's, The Accidentals, Lizzie Stanley

August Music Round-up # 1

There's an amazing array of underappreciated talent in the music world—some of it ready for prime time, and some just on the cusp. Here's a sampling.

Shannon LaBrie is ready to rock. She scored a small hit with her 2013 record "I Remember a Boy," but her War & Peace: Songs from the Smokestack (LaBrie Records) is darker and superior. Its theme is one grown-ups recognize: things don't always go right. Sometimes that's by design. "It's Political" takes pols and promise-makers to task in a forceful song laden with pop hooks, contumacious electric guitar, and just a hint of punk. Then she brings it down to the personal level on "Alcohol," a tough song about trying to save a drunk but losing the lover/savior in the process. I loved the use of cello in the mix to deepen the pathos. Not had enough hard knocks? Check out her take on loss from a 13-year-old's perspective in "Heaven Crashed Down." This live recording of love, loss, and struggle takes no prisoners. In "Generation," she uses the image of a down-on-his-luck street person as a vehicle to probe the narcissism of her peers and suggest the lurking apocalypse. The title track deals with the loss of her unborn son. Yeah—that kind of tough. Oddly, though, the album doesn't feel depressing. How could it with such bold instrumentation and Labrie's even bolder voice? Call this one gutsy, not gloomy.

Markowski's is a Milwaukee-based band fronted by David Engen. It is Milwaukee-based, but the music reflects the vagabond phase of Engen's life when he moved his family from Wisconsin to Mexico, Florida, and California before returning to the Badger State. His approach has been compared to that of Randy Newman–an apt, yet limited description. I was amazed by the diversity on Añejo on Dogwood (Markowski's). The opening track, "Margarete" has the rough spontaneous feel (with supporting brass)of a one-man band like Suitcase Junket, but Engen adds sophisticated polish.As we hear to great effect,in his travels he ran into a San Francisco horn trio called Beans & Rice, and they join in as muscular rhythm section on numerous selections, including "Know," and "Saturday Night," the latter sporting badass bass runs and the feel of party-like-you-don't care rockabilly. Once you know that Añejo is a type of tequila and Engen's go-to substance when he was on the road and trying to make sense of things, the album's sometimes R-rated vibe makes instant sense. On "Blacktop Sally B," the electric blues slide guitar and ominous organ notes give the song a groove like Booker T. at Halloween; on "Bolos," Engen slips into a vulnerable, pained falsetto voice, but the instrumentation is faintly West African.  Engen changes his skin early and often. "Tell Me Rita" has the skiffle sensibilities of early Beatles tunes, but he follows it with "Canvasses," with its Eastern European/gypsy feel, then "Complicated," with dancey grooves and white boy's soul trappings. And if you're ready to judge this, check out "Piedmont," a sort-of love song, but one with defiant identity markers. He sings, "I was one of the smartest kids who ever came out of the Piedmont school" and proceeds to warn, "Don't you lecture me, don't you lecture me." Okay, Dave, I wont. I'll just say that listeners need to go to Noisetrade and listen to Markowski's—and don't forget to make a donation when you download. 

The Accidentals take their name from the musical term that refers to a note or pitch not associated with a particular scale or key that somehow fits into a melody. That's a pretty good handle for this Michigan-based trio (Savannah Buist, Katie Lawson, and Michael Dause), as their music has elements of folk, rockabilly, bluegrass, swing, indie music, and retro pop but isn't really any of these. This young band was dubbed two years ago as a "breakout" act. That hasn't happened yet, possibly because they're still experimenting. Their latest project, the EP Parking Lot (Savage Kitten) is seven tracks that sometimes dazzle and sometimes fall short of the mark. At their best, they do very intriguing things. On "Sixth Street," Buist lures us into the melody with some plinky ukulele and Lawson sneaks in at the bottom with sonorous cello. "The End" has the retro feel of 30s-style string band jazz merged with old-time music, and "Turn the Wheel" is an insouciant pop/country mash that's almost punkabilly. Is all of this a reflection of creativity or of striving for identity? Probably a bit of both. The title track suggests this. It's included twice on the EP, first as a slower, more soulful version, and again rocked out with a segue from rapper Rick Chyme that, in my estimation, adds nothing to the song and is there simply to make everything seem hipper. Buist and Lawson handle most of the vocals, so be prepared for two young voices that are not always up to the task of blasting through big arrangements, a problem that plagues "Epitaphs" and "Michigan & Again." I like these folks, but I think I'll like them more a few years down the road.  

Lizzie Stanley is another performer with enormous promise, but could more seasoning. Her Kickstarter-funded eight-track debut The Singer's Refrain (Noisetrade). It takes its title from the lead track, which encapsulates Ms. Stanley's promise, yet points the way for future development. The London-based Stanley has a classically pretty voice capable of soaring glissando, attention-grabbing elides, and quick catches, but we can also hear her youth. At present she's strongest on the folk/pop end of the spectrum as in the title track, the memorable chorus on "Letting Go," or working through the rapid phrasing of "Alive." Her inexperience shows when she drifts to the slower side of things, as on "Blanket Jazz." The latter is perfectly competent, but we want jazz singers to sound sultry, not fragile. Stanley tends to over-rely on the high end of her voice, often allowing refrains to drift to a near-whisper, even when the song would be more dramatic if she dropped down instead of floating up. The album has high production values and sheen, but orderliness can be the handmaiden of ordinariness. More grit would add a new dimension to Stanley's repertoire. I don't have a lot of bio information on her, but I gather she's still in her early 20s. (It's hard to imagine someone in her mid-30s singing a song such as "Prince Charming.") Lizzie Stanley is probably about where she should be at the debut album stage, but I can't wait until her beautiful voice acquires deeper burnish. 

Rob Weir

8/12/16

Britt-Marie Was Here Covers Both Old and New Turf

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BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE  (2015)
By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 324 pp.
* * * ½

Let's see, a sometimes-cranky central character with OCD who is often unintentionally funny. Swedish author Fredrik Backman is on dangerous turf here; His titular figure in Britt-Marie Was Here is, in many ways, Ove in drag, the latter being the protagonist of his sensational debut A Man Called Ove. I almost set aside Britt-Marie, but luckily I persevered, as Backman imagines enough side journeys to avoid self-plagiarism.

Britt-Marie takes the biggest journey–away from her regimented suburban routine to the chaotic small town of Borg. Borg is a fictional place that we infer is an hour or so from Stockholm, but you know its type. Borg is a nowhere used-to-be town on the road to somewhere else. Backman describes it thus: "One remarkable thing about communities built along roads is that you can find just as many reasons for leaving them as excuses to stay. Some people never quite stop devoting themselves to one or the other." Think a cross between a town and a village that got kicked in the teeth by late 20th century deindustrialization and then in the gut by the 21st century financial crisis. Even if you live in Borg—a word from Old Norse that translates as stronghold, but also as credit—you know better than to bet dwindling resources on a future recovery. Credit is exactly how many locals survive in Borg. The main business is the local pizzeria, which is akin to a strip mall that also serves as a makeshift grocer, barber, car repair shop, bank, post office, black market, credit agency, and community center. Locals have names, but in such down-on-their-luck places nicknames proliferate: Pirate, Psycho, Bank, or just plain "Someone."

Britt-Marie is there because she's 63-years-old and has just left her husband, Kent, a self-styled "entrepreneur" who spends more time contemplating deals with "the Germans" than paying attention to her. Britt-Marie needs to be needed, but it's been years since Kent appreciated that, and she worries she will die without anyone every having known she existed. So it's off to an employment agency that sends her to Borg, to be the temporary caretaker of a community center slated for budget-cut closure right after the Christmas holiday. Never mind that Britt-Marie hasn't held a formal job since her youth, that her skills center mostly on cleaning, that that she believes a person's character cam be discerned from how he or she organizes their cutlery drawers, that she talks to a rat, or that she is sorely lacking in anything resembling people skills. Oddly, though, the children of Borg are drawn to her, as is a local police officer, Sven. Against all odds, Britt-Marie becomes immersed in the kids' soccer skirmishes, though she hasn't the slightest interest or knowledge of the game, and is appalled by untidy uniforms. ("Skirmish" is the best word for how these blue-collar throwaways play!)

As it transpires, Britt-Marie isn't the only one with offbeat ideas about human nature; most of the locals think you can tell all you need to know from which English football team a person supports. (Manchester United wins so much that its fans think both the team and they deserve to triumph continually. Liverpool supporters are the great middle: people who neither dazzle nor disappoint in big way. Aston Villa followers are just perverse!) That Britt-Marie should find herself the center of soccer madness is unexpected, unorthodox, and affecting. As in A Man Called Ove, Backman's soccer ball of circumstances careens over improbable turf, and when we least expect it, it poignantly rises and smacks us in the forehead. Okay—forced analogy. Guilty! But the point is that we, as readers, end up caring about characters that we'd otherwise ignore, just as we'd normally lock the car doors and made haste through towns like Borg. Above all, we care about how Britt-Marie resolves her own late-life existential crisis.

Britt-Marie Was Here is ultimately about the search for grace in its various guises. It is a deeply satisfying read that is, at turns, funny, melancholic, profound, and a bit contrived. We can forgive the small slips because Backman never stoops to pat answers and leaves us with just enough ambiguity to feel hopeful, but slightly unsure that we should.   Rob Weir

8/10/16

The Swans of Fifth Avenue a Delicious Read

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THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE: A Novel (2016)
Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press, 369 pp.
* * * *

My late mother-in-law used to tell tales of post-World War Two New York City that made it sound like the most sophisticated place on earth. It might have been. Author Melanie Benjamin—the pen name for Melanie Miller Hauser–scored big with her 2013 novel The Aviator's Wife, but the Swans of Fifth Avenue is even more compelling. She takes us into the city my mother-in-law loved, but inside circles of which she could have only dreamed: those of what today we'd call the one-percent.

Benjamin's latest effort is subtitled "A Novel" because it fictionalizes dialogue and situations of real people. Her namesake "swans" (so dubbed in real-life) were New York socialites Barbara "Babe" Paley, the wife of CBS founder and magnate William S. Paley; Lady Nancy "Slim" Keith, a fashion model (barely) married to British royalty; Mexican-born beauty Gloria Guinness; actress, columnist, and dilettante C. Z. Guest, who once posed nude for Diego Rivera; and Pamela Churchill Hayward, later known as the Democratic Party hostess and diplomat bearing the last name of her third husband, W. Averell Harriman. Around our five swans circle a bouquet of women with slightly lesser pedigrees: actress Lauren Bacall; Washington Post heiress Katherine Graham; Italian Princess Maella Agnelli, the wife of Fiat's largest stockholder; fashion columnist Diana Vreeland; Rose Kennedy; and scores of others. It is a world that centers on Saxs Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, the Hotel St. Regis, Vogue, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and lunches at posh venues such as 21, Le Pavillon, and Le Côte Basque. Those lunches, over which Babe Paley presided like a cross between a duchess and a saint, were the distaff equivalent of the Algonquin Table, a place where regal, beautiful women exchanged gossip, quips, and mutual support. Benjamin lets us know early on that we will be voyeurs of their lives. These women only "lunch," because they have private chefs to prepare dinners back in their private hotel suites. Almost none of the meticulously prepared petite fours and sandwiches are actually consumed. The cigarettes each chain-smoked were more than the custom of the time–elegance was handmaiden to a perpetual starvation diet.

It's our first clue that there is trouble in what outsiders saw as Paradise. These women graced the covers of style magazines, but their cultural capital was literally skin-deep, and their social power was a veritable fiction. They collected husbands like they shopped for jewels, but powerful men were happy to display such eye candy as confirmations of their importance–as long as sexual fidelity wasn't part of the bargain. Babe was practically a nun for having had just one previous husband, though Bill Paley had the promiscuous habits of an alley cat. For the women, though, shopping for diamonds and husbands was emblematic of stultifying boredom. Like swans, their primary role was to adorn the pond—in this case, their husbands' public world. They also collected fascinating people, a polite society version of court jesters. And into their early 1960s social scene pranced writer Truman Capote—a pet monkey for the swans.

Capote was everything the swans couldn't be: flamboyant, catty, naughty, openly arrogant, and unafraid to proclaim his own genius. His openly homosexual lifestyle was less prelude to the yet-to-emerge gay rights movement than an affirmation of the old adage that, if you're going to be swim outside of the mainstream, call a press conference before you jump, do so with both feet, and thrash about so outrageously that those tempted to condemn or fear you are instead amused. Benjamin leaves us with questions of who was playing whom. Was Capote a mere plaything for bored socialites, or did he use them to open doors that would have never opened on their own.? Except Babe didn't see it either way. She called Truman "True Heart," the only person who ever saw her without her face made up or her reserve set to high alert. Was theirs a strange kind of love, or was Capote incapable of loving anyone other than himself?

Once In Cold Blood was published in 1965, the press clippings confirmed Capote's high opinion of himself, though Benjamin leaves it to us to determine whether we are reading a tragedy or a study of megalomania. Capote (1924-84) never finished another book. In fact, he wrote very little of consequence in his time left on earth, except a vicious 1975 magazine article titled "Côte Basque, 1965" that told tales out of school and earned the ever-lasting enmity of the swans. Did it also break Babe's heart? Was Capote, in the end, exactly what he appeared to be: a mincing windbag fraud surviving on celebrity blood?*

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a delicious, moving, and guilt-inducing read that is a 20th century analog to Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. Should we feel ashamed for eavesdropping? Smug and superior to those who thought they had it all? Is this a tale of hubris, or just a very sad story? Benjamin's final chapters, set amidst New York's descent into cheap glitz and tawdriness in the 1970s, rip the sheen off of the city's grandeur. When, she asks, did rich people stop living in hotels? That simple question makes us wonder if New York's graciousness was always just a gilded front, or if something magical and hopeful faded like the swans' beauty. A good book takes us to unfamiliar worlds and makes us ponder. This is a very good book indeed.

Rob Weir

*For the record, I am among those prone to seeing Capote as a charlatan. In Cold Blood was crisply written and was certainly unique at the time, but other works–especially Breakfast at Tiffany's–feel antiquated. Like his Southern friend Harper Lee, Capote may have only had one good book in him.