days before mass media, vaudeville was one of the closest things the United
States had to popular culture.From the 1870s through the 1920s every town and overgrown village had
some venue that at least doubled as a vaudeville house, and quite a few had
elaborate “opera” houses devoted to vaudeville. (The term Opera was loosely
used in the 19th century.) In The
Tumbling Turner Sisters, novelist Juliette Fay captures vaudeville at its
lowest level: those backwoods venues, third-tier cities, and small towns where
those harboring dreams of someday playing the Palace in New York or catching on
with the Keith-Albee circuit cut their teeth.
those who might not know, think of vaudeville as a PG-13 variety act.It was a veritable potpourri: singers,
dancers, sword swallowers, ventriloquists, comedians, mimes, plate twirlers,
animal handlers, acrobats, and tumblers. One could show a little bit of skin and
make mildly suggestive jokes, but acts had to be suitable for “ladies” and
children, or the performers were welcome to ply their trade lower down the
entertainment totem pole (strip shows, fairgrounds, or R-rated burlesque). Fay
sets her tale in 1919–the year before Prohibition took effect–and follows the
Turner family of Johnson City, New York. When the paterfamilias injures his
hand and can no longer stitch shoes, his wife, Ethel, decides to whip her four
daughters into a vaudeville tumbling act in order to make rent money and put
mashed turnips on the table.
the classic stage mother willing to bend her daughters to her will, their
aspirations be damned. Ethel is one part flirty coquette, one part Mother Hen, and
one part Minnie Marx. She certainly faces long odds, starting with the fact
that her offspring’s “tumbling” had previously been confined to the occasional
handstand or cartwheel. Plus, each daughter has her own burdens and dreams.
Kit, the youngest, is just thirteen and must pass for sixteen, or she can’t
perform; 18-year-old Gert is prone to being pigheaded and salty; 19-year-old
Winnie is cerebral and hopes to go to college; and older daughter Nell is a
still-lactating mother and recent widow.
takes us to small-town New York and beyond–vaudeville in places where a date in
Elmira would be like a trip to Paris. Hers is a circuit of four-a-day
performances, cheap (and unsecure) hotels, and drug store sandwiches for
sustenance. You’ll meet quite a cast of characters along the way: two kindly
Jewish comics who help the Turners learn how things work, a cigar-chewing agent
more cutout for being a bail bondsman, a brother/sister Italian-American act, a
helpful but odd English acrobat (who was later Cary Grant!), and a brilliant
African-American tap dancer for whom Gert has a dangerous attraction. And
that’s not the only lurking danger; the circuit is filled with con men, smooth
talkers, thieves, egotists, and fellow vaudevillians more cutthroat than
helpful. If only most of the acts were as good on stage as they were at
off-stage petty bickering and catty behavior. Fay chose 1919 for a reason other
than the alcohol angle; vaudeville’s doom is about to take-off: movies. Can the
Turners overcome the stacked deck against them? Forget rags-to-riches, can they
even pay the bloody rent? Read and find out.
Fay is a much better storyteller than prose stylist. Some of the latter is
downright leaden, so read this novel for what you will find out about
vaudeville. Take some of the book’s ethnic convergences with a grain of salt–there
is also a bit of ahistorical PC acceptance oozing from the literary pores.
Vaudeville memoirs are filled with tales of camaraderie and barrier pushing,
but these seldom spilled out of the hall into the hotels or homes.The
Tumbling Turners is a fast read and there’s plenty to entertain, so think
of the book’s unevenness as analogous to a night of vaudeville, which was
deliberately structured to hide the weakest acts.
If you twisted my arm, I’d admit that Echoes is an unusual choice for my album of the month, but it’s
hard to resist a voice as gorgeous as that of Seattle-based Kate Lynne Logan. Echoes is an album of quiet power from a singer who instantly puts
one in mind of both Patty Griffin and Ruth Moody (Wailin’ Jennys). The opening
track*, “Whiskey Sea,” sets the tone. It’s a song about the calm after the
storm within a tempestuous relationship: Silent
in the upstairs/dark in the rooms/long neck bottles on the floor/rain on the
roof/I know I shouldn’t stay inside another night/but I’ve got you on my mind.
Ms. Logan sings it with piano
accompaniment and a complete lack of pretense, and when you’ve got a voice like
hers, why drown it in studio production or diva diversions? “River and theRain” is equally vulnerable” and it too is deliberately paced. Ditto the
remaining eight tracks. So if you told me that every track on the album is down
tempo and that Echoes could use some
changes of pace, I’d agree. Sort of.
I’d admonish, however, to listen for the subtle
distinctions—the lonely fiddle in “Afterlife,” the slides and elides in
“Embers,” the sweetness of “Calling on Angels,” and the contrasting desperation
embedded in a line such as: I can’t stand
here watching everything around me die from “Echoes.” “Walkin’ in theWorld” reminds me of a non-trad material from Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker,
with the added twist of the contrasting interplay between dark guitar cadences
and brighter keyboard notes. The album’s nine tracks are a combination of
reworked material from earlier Logan projects, plus new material. She has
shared stages with Shawn Colvin and Brandi Carlile, company you don’t keep
unless you have the voice worthy of the billing. She’s also fronted a pop-rock
band (Back Bar Angel), so instead of calling this a down-tempo album, let’s say
that Logan decided to strip away some glitter and keep things simple. Label
this one a small gem—a beautiful mix of folk and alt.country that’s nighttime
music for grownups.
* This is the first track on the
download edition. Oddly, it's the last track on the CD.
Savor this passage, from whence the title of Ian McEwan’s
latest novel is derived. In the midst of musing on confined spaces in art and
science, McEwan writes:
To be bound in a nutshell, see the
world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of
literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of
possible things. And when this universe may well be a speck in a multitude of
actual and possible universes.
Savor this because it’s mighty fine prose from a celebrated
British author (Atonement, Comfort of
Strangers, etc.) who has won the Man Booker Prize once, has been nominated
five other times, and has shelves full of other awards. But savor it also
because the style is the best thing about his latest novel. Although it’s a
retelling of Hamlet, somewhere along
the line, McEwan forgot to write a story worthy of his eloquence. His is a
one-trick pony laden with adornments designed to make a plow horse appear a
The novel’s device—and it’s a clunky one—is to change the
point of view of that most conventional of plots: a love triad. Hamlet works because of its sumptuous
setting of the royal court of Denmark and because the principals–Hamlet,
Claudius, and Gertrude—are characters of depth and complexity. And let’s not
forget a cast of intriguing supporting characters: Polonius, Horatio, Ophelia,
and a ghost! McEwan’s setting is suburban London, a decidedly non-regal place,
and his principals are far more shallow: John Cairncross, a crusty though
respected poet; his wife, Trudy, who is full in the tummy, but vacant in the
head; and John’s solipsistic brother, Claude, who has been successful in real
estate, but is a clod who knows the price of everything but the value of
nothing, especially family fealty. Claude and Trudy are lovers, despite the
fact that she is carrying John’s soon-to-born child.
Here’s where the nutshell comes into play—our narrator for
the coming Hamlet-like perfidy and
sanguinary treachery is Trudy’s unborn child (the future Prince Hamlet?).
That’s unique, I suppose, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s also pure
contrivance—and a thin, implausible one that leads to logical inconsistencies
that not even McEwan can write his way out of. I think he banked on the hope
that readers would suspend disbelief once they got used to the idea of a
talking fetus. This leads him to try to have things both ways. At times the
unborn child is blissfully innocent and ignorant. In other moments, our little
nutshell is displaced from his placental sac and expounds upon people’s
appearances, classical music, the coital thrust of his uncle’s penis just
inches from his head, and politics. What do we make of this musing on the
…barely the hope of the world,
guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of
powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous
population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of
governance, murdering sleep with every handgun.
This is so insightful I’d declare the speaker “Tocqueville
for Modern Times,” were those reflections from any character other than a fetus!
McEwan wants us to think that our not-yet-a-person is capable on such wisdom.
Also that he can detect the thinness of the Pouilly-Fumé his mother has just consumed,
or that he can plot his own role in the unfolding drama.
If you know Hamlet,
you can probably predict how this ends. A cliché holds that there is no such thing as a
perfect murder and literary convention thrives on the fatal overlooked detail.
Fair enough, but shouldn’t these standards apply equally to literary devices
and logic? Let’s be brutally honest. If you were teaching a writing class and a
first-year student outlined a story with an omniscient fetus, wouldn’t you urge
the student to dispense with such a sophomoric, hackneyed setup? Why should we
lower those standards for a writer as gifted as McEwan? From where I sit, my
cracking of Nutshell yielded rancid
Who needs to read about the latest pop chart tart? Who cares about another formulaic mall movie? That's what People Magazine is for, right?
Off-Center Views is for those who want to wade outside the mainstream without getting dashed upon the rocks of academic pretense, post-modernist mumbo jumbo, or high culture snobbery.
Look to this blog for reviews and opinions (including some truly cranky notions) on films, music, sports, art, and anything else that's on our minds at present. We aim to be provocative, but also entertaining and understandable.