The Signature of All Things aQuirky Delight

The Signature of All Things (2014)
Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead Trade, 512 pp. ISBN: 9780143125846
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Elizabeth Gilbert is also the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir of the author's full circle flight from marriage back to romance. It struck a resonant chord, I suppose, because there are so many women who feel as if they've been dealt raw deals in their relationships. Nonetheless, Eat, Pray, Love was chick-lit–a term I do not use lightly–at its worst: fantasy and exaggeration masquerading as power gift-wrapped in a mawkish box. (It was, though, way better than the 2011 Julia Roberts movie of the same name.)

I needed to say that because Gilbert's latest, The Signature of All Things, has been called a 19th century version of Eat, Pray, Love. It's not. First of all, it's a novel, not a memoir. Second, it's a very good book–good enough to make us thing of Ms. Gilbert as a serious writer, not more fodder for the Oxygen channel. It is also inventive, quirky, and unique. Name me another novel whose themes include the following: botany, the birth of science, female masturbation, spirituality, spiritualism, fellatio, altruism, rivalry, the struggle for existence, and moss. Yes, moss. And masturbation. And fellatio.  

Gilbert's sprawling novel opens in the late 18th century when Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) directed London's Kew Gardens. The imperious Banks built Kew into the world's premier botanic showcase, largely by collecting faster than he could inventory–perfect opportunity for a working-class lad, Henry Whittaker, to divert seeds to collectors and make some money. When his scheme comes apart, Whittaker boldly convinces Banks to employ him as a collector instead of sending him to the gallows. Henry didn't bargain on being sent to sea on Captain James Cook's third voyage (1776-79) or on being insulted when he returned to England with rare specimens.

Move the calendar and we find Henry has transplanted himself to Philadelphia in the new American republic, where his White Acres estate rivals Kew Gardens. Henry also has a bulging bank account; a sturdy and opinionated Dutch wife, Beatrix; a stern Dutch housekeeper, Hanneke du Groot; and a homely but brilliant daughter, Alma. The Whittaker household is a veritable salon in which visitors and family members debate the principles of science, a term that won't even be invented until 1830. Henry is hell-bent on collecting orchids that will enrich him beyond Banks' level, but Alma–who quickly outshines her tutors–gravitates to bryology, the study of mosses, a plant species whose presumed plainness matches her own. Barbara Kingsolver labeled the book "the botany of desire," but in many ways it's really about orchids (beautiful but fragile) and mosses (hardy survivors). Among the orchids are Alma's adopted sister, Prudence, a gadabout attractive neighbor, Rette Snow, and the pure Ambrose Pike, a clipped wings angel in temperament. Suffice it to say that anyone Dutch and/or born Whittaker is a species of moss.

The Whittaker world is rocked when Ambrose arrives at White Acres as Alma is about to turn 50 and marries her, though she is a decade older and is as blockish in body as he is perfect. What could he see in her? What indeed? It's not what Alma expected, nor what you will see coming. His presence sets loose a chain of events that will take Alma to Tahiti, where she will live among natives and missionaries, including the saintly Rev. Welles and his adopted Tahitian son, Tomorrow Morning, who is equal parts charismatic genius and rogue. Several pivotal things occur on Tahiti, one of which takes place in a mossy cave and is shocking. 

The action will eventually shift to Amsterdam, where lots of loose threads come together, including Alma's "theory of competitive alternation," her musing on evolution that is roughly coetaneous with Darwin's theory of natural selection and Alfred Russel [sic] Wallace's musings on biological adaptation. Alma deflects Wallace's urging to publish her work because she cannot solve the "problem" of altruism. (Wallace has his own ideas on that subject, which Alma rejects as non-empirical.)

The Signature of All Things is indeed an odd book. Gilbert's story has more twists than a rope factory and she's a marvelous storyteller. It is a smart book, though not always a literary one. At times it can read like a botany lecture and readers should steel themselves for rather dramatic tone shifts. There are long sections that can be skimmed without losing the thread of the tale, and one feels that a stern editor could have pared the text by 15-20% to good effect. Still, the story is so original and (that word again!) odd, that you will feel richly rewarded when you've finished. And you'll never think about moss the same way again. As for the salacious bits, I'm not saying!

Rob Weir 


Did Oscar get it Right to Snub Selma Director?

Selma (2014)
Directed by Ana DuVernay
Paramount, PG-13, 123 mins.
* * * *

But it wasn't one dream!
By now you know that many people are angry that the Oscars snubbed Selma. The film is up for Best Picture, but odds are long given that director Ana DuVernay wasn't nominated. Nor were any of the actors–Selma's only other nomination is for Best Original Song (John Legend and Common, "Glory"). Oscar's timing looks so insensitive in the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner slayings that cynics have questioned whether the white folks who control Hollywood have turned their backs on Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy. But what if Oscar got it right?

Selma-the story of the historic 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama–is simply one of the most important chapters in the battle for racial justice in American history. Three attempts at the simple act of crossing the Pettus Bridge into Selma ultimately cost three lives, sent dozens to the hospital, and resulted in hundreds of arrests. You can be forgiven for inferring from the film that the toll was even higher–the reality was bad enough and shocked the collective conscience of a nation. Selma was the reason that President Johnson reluctantly advanced the 1965 Voting Rights Act. My take on Selma is that it's an important and inspiring cinematic experience wrapped in a good movie, though not a great one. Pay attention to the opening and closing sequences of the film, as they are, by far, the most innovative pieces of filmmaking on display. Everything else is perfectly competent, but hardly path breaking.

It's very hard to make a movie about events in living memory. Audience members come into the theater armed with images of events and principals that have been chiseled into their brains by personal experience, teachers, or by endless viewings of archival footage available on YouTube. (Is there a student over the age of 12 who has not viewed a Martin Luther King speech? If so, that child's social studies teachers should be fired!) Try as one will, it's difficult to avoid comparing actors on the screen to what we think their real-life counterparts looked and acted like. The first third of Selma is rather slow-paced, as if DuVernay wanted to give us time to imagine David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, Dylan Baker as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Oprah Winfrey as frustrated black voter registrant Annie Lee Cooper. If that was DuVernay's goal, two problems emerge. First, it doesn't negate the pacing problem and, second, the actors don't succeed in making the audience suspend disbelief. Oyelowo delivers a mixed performance, but at least we think of him as Dr. King. That's simply not true of Wilkinson, Roth, Baker, or Winfrey; Wilkinson is too controlled for LBJ, Roth not intransigent enough for Wallace, Baker not evil enough for Hoover, and Winfrey not determined enough for Cooper.  

If I had to pick one performance that was snubbed, it would be that of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. She not only looks like young Coretta, but also plays her with the articulation, steely resolve, and simmering sense of personal and social injustice that anyone who ever heard her speak will recognize. Also noteworthy is the acting of Stephan James as John Lewis–the SNCC leader who came to see tactics as more important than turf wars. DuVernay also did well in choosing secondary actors that looked similar to the people they portrayed: Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Father James Reeb (Jeremy Strong)…. It makes one wonder if she might have been better off staying away from actors with recognizable faces.

But let's cut to the chase: The reason why DuVernay and Oyelowo aren't in the Oscar chase is there isn't anything particularly distinguished in their craft. The story is told straightforwardly and sequentially. But here's also a problem–by focusing so tightly on Dr. King, DuVernay gives us more hagiography than history. Oyelowo plays King as a saint–a man always able to divert his personal outrage into moral outrage. Such a view confuses the private man with the public rhetorician, just as the ambiguity over whether he had cheated on Coretta is out of accord with the objective reality that he did. Maybe some people need heroes as pure as the driven snow, but I don't believe in saints. If I can be so bold, DuVernay gives us a Hollywood Martin Luther King, an unsettling mix of blandness, fieriness, and Buddha-like serenity. Mostly Oyelowo's is a version of Chekov's gun–the pivot around which all action must center. It does nothing to diminish King's honor to say that King was the public symbol of the Selma, but that locals (Annie Cooper, Amelia Boynton), SNCC (James Foreman, Stokely Carmichael), and SCLC operatives such as Diane Nash and Hosea Williams did most of the nuts-and-bolts work.

Go see Selma. It will make you angry, make you weep, and make you yearn for social justice. It is a very good thing to revisit this courageous struggle at this particular moment in history. Let the experience wash over you and let your voice cry out for social justice. In moments of reflection you can admit that this movie is no 12 Years a Slave. It doesn't need to be. —Rob Weir


Pat & Tex LaMountain: Hills and Hollows Music

Rivers Roads & Bridges
Garden Gate Records 1008
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As noted in an earlier post, country music long ago jettisoned its “western” swing half and, in recent decades, it’s pretty much left its rural roots as well. What we now call country music is really just middle-of-the-road rock and roll fronted by dudes wearing cowboy hats and dudettes dressed in fringe and boats. Their material doesn’t come from the heartbeat of America, it’s processed and canned in Nashville. Maybe it’s time to invent a new genre for rural-based acoustic singer/songwriters and call it “hills and hollows.” What else fits artists such as Linda and Robin Williams or the Western Massachusetts duo Pat and Tex LaMountain? 

If you’re looking for recycled hooks, clich├ęs masquerading as profundity, or existential angst, don’t listen to Pat and Tex. If, on the other hand, you enjoy music from folks that actually live in the country, walk in the woods, ride horses, and paddle down rivers, Pat and Tex are your ticket. Forget flash, polish, and spit shine—Pat and Tex make homespun music because they are homespun. A song like “I Will Comfort You” would sound unbelievably hokey from some CMTV duet, but it’s touchingly sweet from life partners such as the LaMountains. Several songs—especially “Down the River” and “Fly like a Bird”—evoke nature as the antidote to urban and workday woes. Overall, the best way to describe their music is that it’s gentle, straight-forward, affirming, and honest. It doesn’t make you want to jump up and sweat—it makes you slow down and do the “Sunderland Bridge Softshoe.” In keeping with its down home flavor, guest artists include local talents such as John White (bass), Pick Mauran (percussion), Jerry Noble (piano), and fiddlers Chris Bashear and Zoe Darrow. No one's there to show off, just add a bit of texture to the LaMountains’ smooth canvass. Hills and hollows music from hills and hollows folks…. Rob Weir