Still Life with Bread Crumbs: Snapshots of Life in the Boonies

Anna Quindlen
Random House, 272 pp. ISBN: 978-1400065752

* * * ½

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs has been called a “feminist post-feminist” novel, and that’s not a bad descriptor, though one should also add that her book is also a take-down of bourgeois life, hipster pretense, urban snobbery, and crass materialism.

Its befuddled heroine is Rebecca Winter, a photographer who made her mark in the 1960s with her “Kitchen Counter” series­–think a mash-up of Annie Liebowitz and Judy Chicago. The photographic centerpiece is the shot whose title this novel shares–a black-and-white composition consisting of a decimated loaf of artisan bread in a sea of dirty plates and wine glasses presented as if it were the aftermath of a Willem Claeszoom Heda banquet (see below). “Still Life” became an icon of Second Wave feminism–endlessly reproduced in textbooks, as a poster, and on mugs, tea towels, and other objects. Theorists, critics, and graduate students rushed to ‘interpret’ Winter’s work and she became the darling of feminists and hipsters everywhere. 

Little did any of them know that Winter’s photos were inspired by fatigue, not deeply held reflections upon the social expectations of women. She was simply too tired to clean up after one of her husband’s many parties–he an outwardly charming Englishman and professor, and inwardly a cad and sexist pig. So sexist, in fact, that he grew enormously jealous of Rebecca’s art world fame. In retrospect, Rebecca realized she was filming a very personal story: the disintegration of her marriage.

Flash from the late Sixties to the 21st century. Rebecca is 60 and has been divorced for more than a decade; her mother is in a nursing home, where she imagines herself a concert pianist; her father’s health is failing; she’s saddled with an abusive agent who belittles her work; and her son, Ben, is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Ben’s independence is a major problem–nursing home fees plus tepid sales minus support checks equal big-time financial woes. When Rebecca sees a rental advertisement for a rustic Maine cottage, she does some quick calculations and realizes she could improve her cash flow by renting her West Side Manhattan apartment and heading to the boonies. Maybe she’ll even have an Ansel Adams epiphany and rekindle the life of what she half-jokingly calls “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.”

As Rebecca soon learns, those who live in rural places seldom use the word “rustic.” Living in the woods means raccoons in the attic, hunters in the backyard, gravel driveways that are hard to plow, and unreliable utilities. It also means exchanging urban problems for small-town woes that would make residents of Peyton Place blush. Rebecca encounters a new group of folks, some of whom are more impressed by who she used to be than she is, including Sarah, an overweight café-owner, and Tad, who dreams of being a singer. Most couldn’t care less, especially Tad’s mother; Kevin, Sarah’s shifty no-account husband; and Jim Bates, the roofer, handyman, and naturalist who Rebecca depends upon to repair her rural dreams-gone-wrong. And then there are mysterious crosses that she encounters throughout the woods-not graves, but shrines. To what?

Quindlen is a good stylist and is able to tell a story through spare, but evocative prose. She’s also superb at character development. The central hook of an urbanite seeking regeneration in small-town America won’t win any originality awards, though, and some may find that Rebecca’s May-September relationship (more like late June-September, actually) a bit far-fetched. I was more troubled by the too-easy problem resolutions of the last fifth of the book. That said, this is a breezy summer read that delivers many delights. I also give Quindlen kudos for daring to put a 60-year-old single woman at the center of her book, and I applaud her take on feminism as praxis. Rebecca Winter might have been hailed as a feminist poster child in her youth, but we come to learn that it’s only in her 7th decade that she chooses her associates and breaks all the expectation molds. To my mind, feminism-as-a-life journey is the best kind of all.

Rob Weir

Claeszoom was a 16th century Dutch painter who loved painting food the way today's foodies like photographing it.


Life in Postmodern Times II: Sleazy Men

Ladies: Think beofre you sign up for this crap!
This week’s version of "Life in These Postmodern Times" features five men who deserve dishonorable mention. They range from those making unwise choices to actively vile curs, so let’s take a look at them in that order so you can prepare your stomach for the final lurch.

Ralph Fiennes is a very good actor, but he should stay on the set side of the camera. Not many people saw his 2013 actor/director turn in The Invisible Woman–an accounting of the highly inappropriate 13-year affair between Charles Dickens and ingénue Nelly Ternan. In this case, a tepid box–just $3 million worldwide–is a good thing. Let’s just say that Fiennes makes a much better Lord Voldermort than a Dickens, whom he plays as if he’s an amusing fishmonger. Bad choice, bad direction, bad film.

It’s sad to see David Ortiz morph from Big Papi into Big Prima Donna. First there was the financially lucrative, but artless and crass  ‘selfie’ he took on his Samsung phone with President Obama. Then there are the Ortiz homerun antics, where he poses, watches, and gestures in ways that would get a rookie knocked on his butt his next at-bat, followed by his ravings when he someone throws inside at him. (I’d love to see an umpire with the cojones to call a strike on Dive-in-David when gets plunked on an elbow that’s over the plate.)  Worst of all are the boorish hissy fits he throws each time one of his batted balls is scored an error instead of a hit. (Imagine–a major leaguer expected to field a tough ball! In the old days, if you touched it and didn’t make the play, it was an error.) Recently Ortiz blasted his own park’s official scorer with such vehemence that Joe Torre, baseball’s chief disciplinarian, told him to STFU. Ortiz apologized, but the Boston Globe piously intoned that Ortiz “had earned the right” to be more outspoken. Really? So the rules of sportsmanship don’t apply to Ortiz? Torre got it right. Big Papi should either STFU or change his handle to Big Asshole.

Wisconsin Scab-in-Chief Scott Walker, who poses as governor, survived a recall vote, but the clock is ticking on the indictment meter. Walker stands accused of coordinating with outside-of-the-state conservative groups to fund his own campaign and that of other Wisconsin troglodytes. Lest you think this is simply politics-as-usual in modern America, it’s not. Wisconsin law lacks the loosey-goosey loopholes commonplace elsewhere. Prosecutors are using the phrase “criminal scheme” to describe Walker’s behavior and it’s probably just a matter of time until Walker is arrested. Count me among those who want to see Walker served papers in the State House, cuffed by a union cop, and hauled off to a union-staffed prison.

Another Scott high on the "Putz of the Year" list is Scott “Carpetbagger/Special Interests/Faux Working Man” Brown. Back in 2010 Brown surprised Martha Coakley in a special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy. He left the Senate in 2012, when Bay State voters discovered that his blue-collar pickup-truck-driving routine was a cardboard con job and Elizabeth Warren thrashed him. No worries–there’s always a place on Fox News for another sleazemeister. Then Brown decided to move across the border to New Hampshire to try to unseat Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Now things are getting hotter for Brown. Surprise! He’s not a blue-collar champion. Not unless you think blue-collar workers make $839,520 per year–his income in 2010. Many people are still trying to figure put how he made that much on a $174,000 U.S. Senate salary, or how regular guy Scott made $357,251 when he was in the Massachusetts Senate back in 2006. Maybe our blue-collar lad had some investments–like the fees he got from Wall Street firms with links to a shady “penny stocks” firm in Florida. Now word is that Brown may have over $3 million in assets that he's taking his good old (boy) time revealing. In other words, he could have bought a pick-up truck dealership if he wanted. Maybe Brown hasn’t done anything illegal and he stands an even chance of getting elected in the Granite State, but he can expect the scrutiny to get tougher. Brown is worse than a crook–he’s a fraud the likes of which wear out their welcome very quickly. Let’s hope it’s before November.

File this one in the reach-for-the-vomit-bucket category. Former Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair sexually harassed at least two women under his command, actions that included coerced sex. The Army agreed that General Sinclair was a naughty boy–so naughty they fined him $20,000 and busted him down to a Lt. Colonel. Outside the US Army we call his behavior “rape.” Sinclair ought to be doing twenty years, not paying out twenty grand. Why any woman would join the U.S. Army is a complete mystery. It’s not that Army doesn’t get it–it doesn’t care. The Sinclair case ranks among the greatest injustices of recent memory. Shame!


The Immigrant: Script Not Worthy of Cast

Directed and co-written by James Gray
Kingsgate Films, 120 minutes, R (mild nudity, language)
* * ½

The Immigrant was released to critical acclaim, including a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. Audiences, however, have been less than enthralled. Internet audience scores hover in the C-/D+ range ad, for once, the hoi polloi is right. Despite a strong cast and a compelling subject, The Immigrant is as gray and inhospitable as the February waters of New York harbor.

The year is 1921 and Polish Cybulska sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) are in line at Ellis Island, hoping to be admitted to the United States. The year is crucial–World War One is just over, a conflict in which Poland was scorched and Cossacks killed Ewa and Magda’s parents, and it's three years before the harsh National Origins Act would slam the door on most Polish immigrants. Nonetheless, the Cybulskas are bucking long odds–Ewa because she caused an in-transit disturbance and is suspected of low morals, and Magda because of a nasty cough. When their aunt fails to appear to claim them, Magda is spirited away to a TB ward and Ewa marked for deportation as “likely to become a public charge.” At the last moment, though, a benefactor appears in the person of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes an immigration official and takes Ewa across to New York, feeds her, and gives her a room in which to stay.

Bruno is more moved by Ewa’s luminous face and comely features than by Christian charity. As it happens, he’s the impresario of an elderly madam’s seedy burlesque house, a front for a brothel operating through payoffs to local cops and the pretense of being down-market legit in the waning days of vaudeville. Bruno is taken with Ewa, but it’s clear what she must do to raise the cash to bribe Ellis Island officials and secure her sister’s release. That’s the set up and rest is aimed at resolving some rather obvious dilemmas that emerge: Why did Ewa’s relatives fail to show? Which will fill faster, Bruno’s heart or purse? Will Ewa chuck Bruno in favor of his smooth-talking magician/performer cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner)? Is Magda still on Ellis Island? Is she even alive? Will the soiled Ewa regain her Catholic virtue?

Cotillard and Phoenix are both superb (even when the later falls prey to his tendency to channel Brando is his Grand Mumbler period), but they can’t rescue a limp script that meanders from predictable to absurd. In the latter category place Emil. Jeremy Renner is a fine actor, but his role in The Immigrant is more akin to a cartoon than a dramatic foil. Maybe it’s the gloomy tenements, basement clubs, dim oyster houses, and light-deprived winter skies, but the movie both looks dreary and plays that way. Buildups become aimless meanders through the gloaming, and what should be big climaxes induce all the passion of a shoulder shrug. Nor is it possible to care deeply about characters about whom we know (or ever come to know) so little.  The frisson between Cotillard and Phoenix simply isn’t enough to redeem a script that never should have gotten off the island.  Rob Weir