Edward Gorey House a Must-See for Cape Cod Travelers




Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts


I’d like to introduce some new material for the Art Smarts section of the blog. If you will, call it small museums. Maybe you’re one of those who gets overwhelmed by places like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s MFA, or the Chicago Institute of Art. Often, you’re in one of those places, have a limited amount of time, try to cram in as much as you can, and end up viewing art the way you might observe a roadside fender-bender. Or, perhaps, you’ve simply grown weary of the “great artists” approach of such places. Small museums are antidotes. Many are more creative and few of them will exhaust you.



If you are headed for Cape Cod this summer or fall, be sure to stop at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port. It will be an hour or so well spent. Does the name Edward Gorey (1925-2000) ring a bell? If you’ve ever seen an episode of Mystery on PBS, Gorey’s illustrations introduce the episodes, complete with damsels in distress, falling cornices, cracking lightning, and lurking shady characters. 



Gorey is often labeled an illustrator, but that doesn’t quite get it. He specialized in etchings and drawings, but he also loved theatre and bagged two Tony Awards, one for costume design and the other for set design. In addition, he wrote or illustrated an untold number of books for children of non-snowflake parents. You know, the kind of kids who love a bit of, well, gore and a good scare now and then. Not that there was anything explicit about his work. I like to think of his verse, stories, and illustrations for the younger set as Edwardian surrealism. It’s analogous to his lead-ins for Mystery in that it’s vaguely creepy and endlessly amusing. The latter quality makes it irresistible for adults as well. 





Gorey was embraced by the Goth movement, but that doesn’t quite fit either. It’s more like tongue-in-cheek Gothic. Gorey simply couldn’t resist figures with capes pulled across their faces, architecturally challenging hats, and faces as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. Toss in some broken crockery, animals plucked from some madcap Bestiary, falling objects, Seuss-like odd words, and vile-weather settings and it’s welcome to the vision of Edward Gorey. He also delighted in offbeat humor–many of his books were credited to those with anagrams of his own name, such as Dodgear Wryde–and in finding offbeat ways of depicting prosaic things such as hedges, rocks, articles of clothing, or simply people doing nothing. 


Gorey was born in Chicago and studied at its Art Institute. He served in the Army during World War II, then attended Harvard. At the latter he got involved with the Poets Theatre and rubbed elbows with luminaries such as Alison Lurie and Frank O’Hara. He was a great admirer of Broadway choreographer George Balachine and worked on several of his shows, including Dracula. (What could be more appropriate?) His personal life was open to great speculation, the consensus being he was probably an asexual gay man. Meh. Who cares? 




Each season the Gorey House features one aspect of Gorey’s work and for 2022 the theme is dance. Think you don’t care about theatrical dance and ballet? Forget tulle and tutus; Gorey brought his skewed views to illustrations of dance as snobs would never recognize it!


The Gorey House also maintains shelves, niches, and cabinets of curiosities as he left them. Like a lot of artists, he was fascinated by shapes, picked up found objects whose designs he liked, and purchased items that simply caught his fancy. He adored cats, owned lots of them, and was a serial fascinationist who thought nothing of procuring bronze bugs, masks, and all manner of bric-a-brac. Treat yourself to a visit. You’ll leave smiling, which is the right attitude to have as you battle Route 6 traffic to wherever you’re headed.


Rob Weir


Little Fires Everywhere Deserves Its Kudos





By Celeste Ng

Random House, 308 pages.





Little Fires Everywhere was so much in demand that the waiting list was too long at my local library, I gave up, and moved on. I came across it on an old list and finally got my hands on it. By then I had forgotten why I wanted it in the first place. Now I know; what a book! I can see why author Celeste Ng was praised to the skies.


On the surface it’s about the collision of two unlikely families. Haute bourgeois Elena and Bill Richardson live in the tony Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights with their four children: high school senior “Lexie” (Alexandra); her jock brother Trip; Moody, the aptly named younger brother; and “Izzy” (Isabella). Lexie is 18 and siblings were popped out in highly regimented fashion, just like Shaker Heights. Two passages from the book establish the barriers for a novel set in 1995-96. The first is a prologue from a 1963 Cosmopolitan that dubbed Shaker Heights a Utopia; the second a thought from Elena: “Rules exist for a reason: if you followed them you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.” When you see material like this you immediately think, “uh-oh.”


The second family is that of peripatetic artist and single mother Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl. Mia is a rolling stone and has been since she was an art school dropout, though she remains a person who simply must create. Every six months or so, Mia and Pearl pack their few possessions into a VW Rabbit and move on–sometimes because they are low on money and sometimes because Mia needs to recharge her artistic batteries. That VW is occasionally their home, but they scrape by and, against all odds, Pearl is a brilliant kid who burns through AP classes. When they finally arrive in Ohio, Mia promises they’ll settle down there–another “uh-oh,” if I’ve heard one. It helps figure that out when the novel opens and closes with a conflagration.


Remember the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” In this book, everyone seems to start fires of some sort. Ng once lived in Shaker Heights, but the morally ambiguity of Little Fires Everywhere gives it verisimilitude. It is at once a love letter to Ng’s former home, a withering social critique of it, and a series of cross-cultural clashes. It's Lexus, Explorer, and Jeep versus one battered VW; invention versus reinvention; falling in line versus making your own rules; shopping at thrift shops because they are retro cool versus those who can’t afford to go to the mall; McMansions and rental units; and ethnic identity versus liberal make-believe. On the last score, Lexie has a Black boyfriend, but if his family is as Shaker Heights as Lexie’s, does that make her enlightened? Don’t expect simplistic answers in a book that also delves into who should have the right to an abandoned Chinese baby, who is taking advantage of whom, who is sincere and who isn’t, who is following their dreams and who is simply following, good lies and bad ones....  


Pearl is a jewel, but I also really liked Izzy, a Doc Marten-wearing surly teen who knows she doesn’t fit but finds an unexpected bond. I also appreciated how Ng situated her tale amidst Jerry Springer scream fests and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky debacle via subtle references that neither dwell upon details nor moralize. (I admire writers who, in turn, respect readers enough to let them draw their own conclusions.) Ng ultimately challenges us to evaluate whether deceptions lie along a spectrum or are always indefensible. That’s not easy to answer given that a lot of people end up playing the parsing game. You will probably come away hating busybody Elena and worring about Lexie, but we can’t be sure who will turn out okay and who will be shattered.


I really admired how Ng negotiated the question of what makes a person free: their possessions, their essential nature, who they pretend to be, or who they want to be. A lot hinges on a challenge hurled by Mia in a different context, “What do you want to do about it?” Bill Clinton infamously dodged an uncomfortable query with the oily retort, “It depends on what the definition of is, is.” I think that Little Fires Everywhere wants us to answer Mia’s question with a more substantive comeback: it depends on what “it” means.


Rob Weir




The It Girl Ruth Ware's Lastest Mystery



THE IT GIRL (2021)

By Ruth Ware

Scout Press (Simon & Schuster) 389 pages.





Do you prefer drama or melodrama? If you don’t care, The It Girl is a murder mystery you will enjoy. Few modern authors can spin a tale as well as Ruth Ware. At her best, readers scarcely notice when Ware transgresses the drama/melodrama border; when the storyline is weak—think The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016)—we do. Luckily, The It Girl falls into the first category.


The term “It Girl” originated in the film industry. Evelyn Nesbit (1885-1967) is considered the first Hollywood It Girl, though the most famous was 1920s starlet Clara Bow. It Girl conjures an ingénue who is sexually alluring and draws a crowd. That’s April Clarke-Cliveden in a nutshell in this 21st century story set at Oxford University’s Pelham College. April seemingly has it all going on; she’s filthy rich, smart, beautiful, and a good actress. Never mind that she’s also pampered, privileged, vain, drinks too much, and is occasionally cruel. 


Against usual odds, her assigned first-year roomie at Pelham College is Hannah Jones, a rare working-class Oxfordian whose background necessitated working at a supermarket before coming to university. Against even greater odds, April becomes Hannah’s best friend and Hannah need not worry about pocket change any more; April thinks nothing of lending or giving Hannah designer frocks and shoes worth a small fortune. April becomes Hannah’s entrée into social circles she’d never crack on her own. Not surprisingly, many of them are men, especially medical student Hugh Bland, economy undergrad Ryan Coates, and hunky Will de Chastaigne, allegedly April’s boyfriend, though she’s so flirtatious that her sexual mores are hazy.


Ware applies a “Before” and “After” structure for much of the book, the “Before” largely confined to a single year at Oxford (2012) and “After” a decade later. The Oxford sections are light on serious studies and heavy on pub-crawls, pushing boundaries, and Hannah’s transformation from a mousy frump to a vivacious wit and intellect. It is also fraught with encounters with an older porter, John Neville, who is too familiar and has a creepy tendency of appearing in inappropriate places. But the only known strain in Hannah and April’s friendship is frisson between Hannah and Will. The Oxford experience collapses when April is strangled in her room and Neville is arrested for her murder, partly on Hannah’s testimony that he was the only person leaving the building after she discovered April’s body. 


In the “After” sections, Hannah and Will are married, living in Edinburgh, and expecting a baby. Will is a reluctant accountant; Hannah works in a bookstore, having left Oxford without her degree after April’s death. (She was too shattered by April’s death.) A big reason for moving to Scotland was to escape the endless hounding of journalists seeking her take on the death of the It Girl. Hannah’s been working on trauma recovery and is doing okay—though she occasionally thinks she has “seen” April­­-–until the cycle starts anew upon Neville’s death in prison. To his dying day, Neville proclaimed his innocence and Ryan, who had been a journalist before he had a stroke, thinks Neville might have been wronged. Ryan’s newshound friend Geraint discovered that none of Neville’s DNA was found on April’s body and there were other inconsistencies that cast doubt on the verdict.


A heavily pregnant Hannah travels back to Oxford to reopen a sealed can of worms, not that raging hormones, high blood pressure, and old wounds make for logical thinking. At around this juncture, Ware switches to a “Before” and “Before” format in which hours and days are in play, not a decade. Hannah discovers many things about her old friends, a mentor, and April that further muddle her perceptions. The novel concludes with a beat-the-clock chase and confrontation. If you ponder the latter too much, you might perceive that Ware careens into melodrama. Ditto the introduction of one of April’s family members who is more convenient than believable.


And yet… The It Girl is a classic page-turner that most readers will zip through in a sitting or two. Even when the plot turns obvious, Ware twists matters just enough to keep those pages turning. This novel is too new to have “Soon to be a Motion Picture” emblazoned on its cover, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.


Rob Weir