Britt-Marie Was Here Covers Both Old and New Turf

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


The Swans of Fifth Avenue a Delicious Read

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.         


Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Don't Miss It

Directed by Taika Waititi
Defender Films, 101 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

The late Roger Ebert once faced the questions every critic is asked at some point: Do you really think people listen to you? Do critics matter at all? In a moment of candor and insight Ebert admitted that in most cases his impact was minimal. How, after all, can a single voice stand against the Hollywood Hype Machine? In the case of blockbusters, people will go see the latest installment of Dumb and Dumber even if a critic declares it idiotic. Where critics matter is when they expose the public to wonders that fly under the radar screen and would otherwise be overlooked.

In that spirit, let me give four Eberts to the New Zealand film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s not pathbreaking, there are no Oscar-worthy performances, and, truth be told, it’s pretty silly in a lot of places. In the hands of a hack director, in fact, it would be lightweight fluff. Luckily, Taika Waititi is no hack; Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an absolute delight that will make you smile from start to finish. If you’re a fan of the Kiwi band Flight of the Conchords you already know that few people on the planet do kooky as well as New Zealanders, and Waititi’s film hums to that groove. He sets the tone with a self-deprecating introduction to the movie that strays into absurdity, likes what it sees, and stays there. (Later he does an amusing cameo turn as a minister.)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople centers on a pudgy Maori foster child, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). Ricky is childcare caseworker Paula’s (Rachel House) worst nightmare. He's the incorrigible kid who washes out of every placement she makes. Paula has come to see him as the spawn of Satan, though Ricky’s really very smart, has a low tolerance for faux sweetness, and knows exactly which buttons to push. The action begins when Paula places Ricky with an older couple, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), who have a hardscrabble farm in the Coromandel boondocks. Bella is sweet as well, but also tough as nails, while menacing, scowling “Hec” wants nothing to do with Ricky—and he’s certainly not buying any of Ricky’s Auckland street thug swagger. This triangle is played out with a combination of poignancy and hilarity.

The film’s namesake hunt for the wilderpeople (pronounced will-der-people) begins when tragedy throws Ricky and Hec together for a six-month flight from Paula, who seeks to place Ricky in “juvie” (juvenile detention center). The film is, in essence, a combination manhunt/ caper film with Paula cast as a wackier version of The Fugitive’s Detective Gerard (fused with Nurse Ratched), except she’s seen so many bad American cop movies she's slightly unhinged. Good luck finding Hec in the “bush;” he doesn’t play survivalist, he is one. Enjoy hearty surrealistic laughs as our unlikely comrades negotiate the bush and encounter three of the most inept bounty hunters in history, not to mention the stark raving mad Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby).   

New Zealanders generally have low tolerance for pretense, egotism, or officiousness. Waititi has a field day satirizing formulaic religion, by-the-numbers bureaucracy, blow-dry TV blowhards, New Zealand “bloke” culture, and American-style machismo. The structure and vibe of Waititi’s film resembles Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s far wittier and it avoids the slapdash sloppiness that made Anderson’s film feel incomplete. The roly-poly Julian Dennison is exceedingly winning—perhaps the most affecting young actor out of New Zealand since Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider (2002). Sam Neill is, as he always has been, solid and malleable. Neill always makes us believe in his character, as he does with Jeremiah Johnson-like Hec. (Contrary to popular misconception, Sam Neill is a New Zealander, not an Australian.) As noted, House is suitably intense and demented, which makes her character fodder for lampoon. And let’s also give a shout-out for the New Zealand landscape, a character in its own right.

See this film—it’s too marvelous to miss. Then thank your faithful critic.

Rob Weir

Click here to hear Waititi explain some New Zealand slang. You’ll instantly see his wackiness. 

Want more NZ slang? Click here.


Nudes of the Prado Unveiled at the Clark

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA
Through October 20

If you've been to the Prado, perhaps you've considered skipping the current show at the Clark Art Institute: Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado. After all, it's just 28 paintings, plus it's in Williamstown, a place no one confuses with Madrid. (In fact, I can't recall that anyone has ever uttered the words "exciting" and "Williamstown" in the same non-ironic sentence.) It would be a mistake to take this point of view.

Rubens, Fortuna--a manly girl
First off, several of these canvases—especially out-sized paintings by Titian and Rubens–have never before left Spain. (This show is a partial payback for the Clark's loan of 31 Renoirs in 2010-11.) But mainly, seeing these paintings in a small show like that of the Clark allows us to really look at them and, in the process, educate ourselves in new ways. I've been fortunate enough to have been at the Prado, where I saw scads of pictures from this show's stars: Tintoretto, Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, and others that once hung in the galleries of Philip II (1556-58) and Philip IV (1621-65), rulers when Spain was Europe's richest and most powerful kingdom and paintings were among the many precious commodities found in the royal coffers.

A recent talk on this show was titled "Art, Power, and Politics," and this sums up a better way to approach the nudes on view–especially Christendom's hypocritical attitudes about sex. In theory, our good Christian monarchs were supposed to focus on heavenly matters, not the temptations of the flesh, but because Spanish kings were so politically powerful, they convinced clerical censors to allow fleshy nudes in the royal palace so long as they were displayed in salon reservados hidden from the public areas of the palace. It helped also, if the pictures purported to recount Biblical or mythological themes. These made them didactic "art," not just a bunch of naked people upon which randy kings and courtiers could gaze. Oh yes, another thing—a revelation that was new to me. Have you ever looked upon a solid Rubens or Tintoretto and wondered why female backs and buttocks were so muscular? During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was viewed as unacceptable for male artists to use naked female models, so they posed men and imagined breasts!
Titian, Rape of Europa

Rubens copy, Rape of Europa
Furini, Lot's Daughters
Tintoretto, Lady Exposing Her Breast
By today's standards, this show is barely (pun intended) salacious—except in a few instances. Two of the more famous canvases, a Titian and a Rubens copy of The Rape of Europa, seem more like studies in anatomy and drama than the sexual violence implicit in Zeus' forced seduction of the maiden Europa. If you are looking for something more alluring, look at two lesser known paintings: Francesco Furini's Lot and His Daughters and Lady Exposing Her Breast. In each case, the models were clearly female, not men in unconvincing drag, and both shine with the luminosity of real flesh rather than allegorical skin. Furini was a new painter for me, but a search of his work quickly reveals that he had an appreciation for the female form that strongly suggest that he violated nude female modeling taboos. The picture on display is soft and beautiful; one's skin crawls only if one actually knows the Biblical story of Lot's daughters. Tintoretto's model gazes into the room unashamed of her exposed breasts. She was probably a courtesan, but I also learned that baring one's breast was considered a form of sincerity. Shall I make a bad joke about how easily I would be convinced of the subject's probity? Let's not go there.

Titian, Venus with Organist and Cupid
These were my favorite paintings in the show. For me, the only truly creepy paintings are those dealing with voyeurism. Giovanni Barbieri gives us lecherous old men secretly spying on the naked Susannah, a Biblical story, but also clearly a painting intended to titillate in a pornographic sense. And then there is what might be the single most famous canvas on display: Titian's Venus with Organist and Cupid, which is both odd and unsettling. Why is there an organist in this composition at all? Why display him as if he were a Peeping Tom about to tell his friends something to the effect of, "I was hired to play music but, holy shit! There was this stark naked chick on the sofa cavorting with some damned flying baby. I couldn't keep my eyes off her crotch!" I've always wondered why this painting is so famous and I still don't know.

A critique of the show: the curation could have been much stronger. I wonder about the above painting because I was offered very little that would help me "get" it. Almost all the commentary is about technique, quite a lot of it redundant, and most of which could have been reserved for an art history lecture. You'll need a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology handy, as almost none of the classical myths are related in any detail and you're not going to get any cellphone coverage to help you in the Clark's subterranean special exhibit space. (Yes, I'm still railing over the museum's uber-expensive-butt-ugly makeover.)

So Williamstown isn't Madrid, and the Clark show is only half as informative as it should have been, but let's hear it for small shows in vest-pocket places. I didn't really "see" these paintings at the Prado because, well, it's the frickin' Prado. You find yourself in a place like that and, despite your better instincts, you try to cram it all in because you never know if you'll ever make it back. So you stare at these painters and dozens equally famous until you're so numb you're strolling past images that scarcely register. The Clark's 28 loaners tell us a lot, even if it's not what the curators want us to consider.

Rob Weir