Still Life a Beautiful Novel



By Sarah Widman

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 450 pages.





The Odyssey tells of the struggles of Ulysses to return home after the Trojan War. Sarah Widman puts a different spin on this in her moving, brilliant Still Life. Pay attention; hers is a novel in which very little is wasted. Observe also that “home” is a moving target.


We meet protagonist Ulysses (“Uly”) Temper in Florence in 1944 during the waning but still dangerous days of Italian liberation during World War II. Uly and his commander Captain Darnley, whom Uly admires above all other men, meet Evelyn Skinner, an art historian with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program charged with recovering treasures looted by the Nazis. She is one of numerous memorable characters Uly encounters, including cafe owner Michele, an elderly Contessa, and Arturo Bernadini, a globe maker and pensione (guest house) owner, whom he saves from a suicide attempt.


The war's end finds Uly back home in London, where he reunites with other unorthodox types, including his decades-older friend Alfred Creswell (“Cressy”); pianist/actor Pete Fine; Des, a surface-deep Cockney hooligan; Col, the tough-talking owner of the Stoat and Parrot pub; Claude, the pub's wise and wise-cracking namesake parrot; Peggy Temper, a superb singer and Uly's ex-wife; and Peg's young daughter Alys (“the Kid”), who isn't Uly's offspring. Uly and Cressy begin taking the Kid to see Fellini and other art films when she's just eight. Uly and Peg remain nuts about each other and often go at it like rabbits, but Peg has trouble being a one-man woman.


Uly is adrift, but his life takes a turn in 1953, when Arturo dies and wills his home and pensione to Uly. Can a guy from London's East End with almost no Italian make a new life in Florence? What's he got to lose? With the help of Massimo, a sometime real estate agent with superb English skills, Uly becomes an innkeeper/globe maker. Soon, his small hotel and large house are the center of Uly's life and the repository for visiting London pals, especially Cressy who becomes a semi-permanent resident, and Alys, who Peg gave over to Uly's care since she's not cut out for parenthood either.


Still Life follows the lives, loves, triumphs, and tragedies of all these characters. Not surprisingly, as Alys grows up, she's bohemian and smart as a whip. Uly's pensione is the setting for the tears and joys of its principals, but it also parallels the evolution of Florence from its backwater postwar status to the artistic centerpiece with which we now associate it. Not all the city’s changes are positive, nor is the transition smooth. Winman overlays real-life events, chief among them the 1966 flood of the Arno that killed 101 Florentines, made 5,000 homeless, wrecked 6,000 shops, left the city without electricity, strained food and water supplies, damaged millions of artworks and books, and destroyed scores of masterpieces. Were it not for international relief efforts and the tireless efforts of hundreds of art-rescuing “mud angels,” the loss of life and cultural riches would have been even more devastating.


I mentioned that Winman doesn't put much filler in her book. One of the mud angels is volunteer Jem Gunnerslake, the connection that (eventually) brings Evelyn back into the novel. What a role she will play, even as she totters into her late 80s and 90s. As Winman drops in more world events, including the wave of U. S. assassinations in 1968, we realize that the title Still Life has several meanings, the usual one associated with art, a reminder that old people still breathe, and the search of each of the characters for tranquility, a “still” life.


I adored this book. The phrase “it will make you laugh; it will make you cry” applies like a solid gold frame to Still Life. It is ultimately about finding “home” and love in guises unbound by birth origins, geography, or traditional morality. It's so affecting that it's easy to overlook some of the book's shortcomings, such as openly gay and lesbian relationships at a time in which such things were generally closeted. Winman might also be prematurely modern in presenting an interracial affair between a Cockney and an Indian widow. Some might also view the novel’s final section as overly pat and forced, though one could also argue that it completes Uly's search for stillness. In a book this good, I cast my vote in favor of any and all liberties taken.


Rob Weir



Woman of the Year: A Hepburn/Tracy Friendly Dinosaur




Directed by George Stevens

MGM/Loew's, 114 minutes, Not-rated



Woman of the Year was the first of nine Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films. They met on the set and became lovers. Rumors hold that both were bisexual or perhaps gay beards for each another but as much as many wish that to be true, it probably isn't. Nearly all of the “evidence” came from either dead sources or gossip columnists. Please note the modifier “gossip.” It's conceivable they might have had same-sex relationships, but you simply cannot watch Woman of the Year without seeing sexual frisson between Hepburn and Tracy that would nearly impossible to fake.


Woman of the Year only captured one Oscar in its day, a Best Original Screenplay nod for Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, though Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress. It was declared a culturally significant film by the Library of Congress; as such there is much to admire and some that’s as dated as The Mayflower Compact. I doubt post-Second Wave feminists will sing its praises, but parts of the film are poignant and others that are screamingly funny.


Call the film a mix of the battle of the sexes, a romance, a class comedy, and an example of wartime movie making. It involves the unlikely attraction between well-educated upper-class international news reporter Tess Harding (Hepburn), and rumpled sportswriter Sam Craig (Tracy). In other words, it's embassies, black-tie parties, personal calls from world leaders, and international intrigue versus Yankee Stadium, racetracks, barrooms, and locker room tall tales. The two first meet in their newspaper's publisher's office after Tess lampooned sports in her world affairs column and Sam countered with a left hook on the sports page. Sam takes one look at Tess pulling up her stockings before agreeing to a truce and inviting her to go to a ballgame. She loves it!


Will an independent woman involved in refugee rescue who grew up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, and speaks multiple languages have the vocabulary to fall for a guy like Sam? Hello! Hepburn and Tracy! His crusty bachelor ways notwithstanding, Sam charms both Tess's widowed father, Senator William Harding (Minor Watson), and her aunt, Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), a feminist icon. It’s a match, if Sam can ever get past Harding's prissy and protective personal secretary Gerald (Dan Tobin), the gayest character in the film. There's also the matter of the world in serious crisis to which Tess needs to turn her attention; in 1942, when thus film debuted, U.S. involvement in World War II was less than a year old. The war appears around the edges of the film, not because director George Stevens, Lardner, or Kanin wished to ignore it, but because a good romance was part of Hollywood's charge to boost morale.


This brings me to the part of Woman of the Year that will most trouble women today. The title comes from an award Tess wins for advancing women’s rights, one given by no less a personage than Aunt Ellen. There are so many intruders upon their relationship that Sam is fed up. I remind viewers that, in 1942, the assumption remained that marriage was the highest status to which women aspired. When Ellen makes a decision that isn't exactly out of Betty Friedan, can Tess be far behind?

The good news is that Tess's initial attempt at domestic goddess behavior is side-splitting hysterical. How does a gal who grew up with servants, has a live-in housekeeper, and the obsequious errand-running Gerald learn to make coffee or cook waffles? You simply must see this nearly silent slice of film. The only comparable food disaster that pops to mind is Lucille Ball's chocolate assembly line debacle and in my mind Hepburn's comic turn is funnier as it rings more plausible despite its absurdity. Let's just say that an ill-mannered goat has more cooking ability than Tess.


The film's final scene offers small compensation for its non-feminist turn, but the real juice of the film is the aforementioned chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy. To be sure, both were accomplished actors, but the sparks in their eyes are genuine. It always helps to remind yourself that a film such as Woman of the Year is an 80-year-old artifact, not sociological commentary. In many ways, this film is a dinosaur, but it's friendly like Barney, not a Velociraptor.


Rob Weir


Note: A compromise over the gay rumors is to take Hepburn’s approach that personal matters are nobody's business. Plus, Hollywood has never been a center of conventional morality.   



Blood Grove Another Exciting Mosely Mystery




By Walter Mosley

Mulholland Books, 308 pages.

★★★ ½


Those who saw the 1995 movie Devil in a Blue Dress might remember that Denzel Washington played World War II veteran-turned-private detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Easy has been an ongoing character in 14 previous Walter Mosely novels and is the protagonist of his latest, Blood Grove. Rawlins has been called the black analog to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and that’s completely by design; he was one of Mosely’s inspirations. Easy is a no-nonsense, tough-talking, don’t-cross-me kind of guy. He is slow to anger, but not one who walks away from a fight that comes to his doorstep.


In previous novels Easy lived in Watts, but in this one he has more posh digs–courtesy of a 99-year lease–to house his son and two adopted children. It’s in Brighthope Canyon, high above parts of Los Angeles that make him uncomfortable. It’s 1969, and Easy has issues with both the black and white counterculture. Mostly he just wants white cops to stop hassling him; he hates calling upon his white LAPD connections to get the racists off his back so he can run his detective agency in peace. Alas, Easy picks a bad case that brings him more grief than peace and quiet.


He is approached by Craig Kilian for help and everything about the guy tells Easy to walk away. He says Easy was recommended by Kirkland Larker, but that name rings no bells. Craig is a white Vietnam vet who is clearly suffering from PTSD and has a cockamamie story he’d like Easy to investigate. Craig claims he was in Blood Grove, so-named because of its orange trees, when he heard a woman with a dog screaming and witnessed a black man holding a knife. He thinks he saved her but that he might have killed the knife-wielder before someone else knocked him unconscious. Craig would like Easy to find out if he was an accidental murderer. It sounds fishier than an aquarium, but because Craig reminded Easy of a traumatized German he chose not to kill during his war, he agrees to poke around.


How many good detective novels begin with a variant of opening Pandora’s box? There’s no body, no woman, and no dog to be found–just lots of LAPD’s non-finest who, in turns, harass Easy, bust him, and threaten his life. Before you can say “WTF,” Easy is thrown in a helter-skelter vortex of sleazy real estate developers, contractor financial hanky-panky, a heist, competing mobs, and Lola, Craig’s mother. You probably know that the flesh of a blood orange is red in color; it’s a metaphor for the blood that flows in this tale. It is leavened with a bevy of femme fatales, strippers, hookers, and a French woman with the hots for Easy. Moreover, every time Rawlins turns around there’s another body to which he could be connected, especially when one of those femme fatales with whom he’s been in contact ends up just being a femme fatal. As if he doesn’t have enough grief from the LAPD, the FBI is also suspicious of him. 


How is a guy who is trying to be a good dad to his kids keep them safe when he’s in hot water more often than the main course at a lobster pond? Try being a black man in 1969 and explaining that the bright yellow Rolls Royce you’re driving is collateral for the $80,000 he's owed from a client. The white characters are pretty shady, but the same is true for some of the black ones, including those on Easy’s side, like Mouse, a guy you definitely don’t want to anger. As in most such novels, Easy has to wiggle out of bad situations and near-certain death with great regularity until the case is cracked.


Formulaic? Of course. That’s pretty much the structure of every crime writer since Dashiell Hammett and, well, Raymond Chandler. Easy Rawlins is 50 years old in this, the 15th novel in the series. Logic says he should be thinking more about kicking back and relaxing in his new digs but somehow, I doubt that he will. For a guy nicknamed Easy, trouble seems to find him no matter how high above it he dwells. Plus, why would a writer like Mosely retire a character who thrills us time and again?


Rob Weir