Yes, it's a blog about reading.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

World's Fair and other stuff

The Devil in the White City, by Eric Larson

Well, I didn’t care much for this book, either the premise or the writing. Not that he’s a bad writer, I just hated the coy way he kept alluding to evil or disasters to come, “only Poe could have thought up the rest”, stuff like that. It got tedious after awhile. And, the story of the serial killer seemed grafted onto the more interesting World’s Fair story with the back-and-forth motif wearing thin rather quickly. It was as if he felt he needed the murderer to sell the rest of the story to us. On the contrary, the murderer’s tale could have been told much more succinctly. The fact that he couldn’t resist dragging in the Titanic disaster as well gave me the impression of someone without the discipline to edit his own work. On the other hand, the many famous characters who had something to do with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was fascinating and he did a good job of capturing the personalities and difficulties and what was at stake.  Some of the people involved or touched by the Fair:  Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser (of course!), Frederick Law Olmstead, all the most famous architects of the day, even Mark Twain except that he came to Chicago, was ill, and spent the entire time in his hotel room, going home without even visiting the fair. As the author says, “of all people.” I especially loved the Ferris Wheel story – something so commonplace today, that was the centerpiece of the Fair and the invention to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris (also built for a World’s Fair type exposition).  Another minor tidbit but even more fascinating was the fact that Walt Disney’s father was a carpenter or electrician who worked on the Fair. Now, that explains a lot! It explains a certain dated, fantastical yearning at the core of the Disney creations. It explains the whole fake, glamorous, pseudo-scientific soul of those worlds, worlds that Disney dragged forth from the previous century.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Homecoming

The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter…Nobel prizewinner or the worst play ever written? We took four friends to a May 2005 production at the local theatre company, and we hated it. So, when I learned that it had won the Nobel Prize, I was taken aback. The production we saw was so pointless. I was expecting to be disturbed, but instead felt just uninterested and annoyed by the actions of the players. So, recently I picked up a copy of the play and was immediately engaged by the characters (still unsympathetic to put it mildly, but more believable), the dialogue (much wittier than in the production) and the suspense introduced by the interplay of the awful personalities and the addition of a female stranger, Ruth, into the already unstable mix.

So, the play is awful and disturbing, but it’s also very well written. The minor elements, like MacGregor and Jessie, which form a subtle undercurrent to the play’s action, are resolved in the end. The mystery of Lenny’s occupation is cleared up. The only thing that is unclear is Ruth’s behavior, but that is also the thing that makes the play more than just a dated, drawing-room type drama like “Look Back in Anger.” Maybe the play can’t be understood out of context? But, just going on my own reaction, the presence of Ruth is what gives the play suspense. It is amusing to watch the antics of these horrible, dysfunctional people on stage, but once the alien presence in the person of Ruth is introduced, I felt tense and threatened. And disturbed by her seeming to go willingly into bondage to them. It’s true that Ruth seems powerful at the end with the two remaining brothers in thrall and Max on his knees to her, but the situation seems fraught with menace. Actually, Pinter’s work has been called the ‘comedy of menace’ as seemingly simple situations turn threatening and ominous without explanation or warning.

Well, I just found out that the play was written in 1967, not that long after Osborne.  Frank Rich recalls that the play was shocking and terrifying at that time and was part of a Pinter campaign against theatrical “literal-mindedness.” Reviewing a more recent (1991) production, Rich notes that the cultural shifts that have occurred since the sixties have rendered the play much less shocking and terrifying; however, the “nastiness and (gallows) humor” still come through. The term “Pinteresque” seems to mean themes of “nameless menace, erotic fantasy, obsession and jealousy, family hatred and mental disturbance” – too right! The other Pinter trademark seems to be the famous pause, which occurs constantly (and annoyingly in our production) and seems to symbolize the gaps in our knowledge as we struggle to make sense of the onstage lives. The pauses worked in the written version. I’m not sure why nothing about this play worked for us in the production we saw; what would a good production be like? I may have to sit through it again sometime to find out.

Friday, February 10, 2006

February New Yorkers

2/6 (Greenhouse flowers on cover) - Malcolm Gladwell's article on profiling, racial or otherwise, was really interesting. It makes you think bulldogs have gotten a bad rap; it's often the aggressive owners who create the aggressive dogs. As usual, Gladwell expands his topic to relate to contemporary events and draws some excellent inferences from his research. I also loved the article entitled "Swamp Nurse" by Katherine Boo, although it was sad to think of these young mothers, named for characters in an old TV show, struggling to learn how to take care of their babies. The nurses who go out to the homes to give advice and support are truly heroic.
2/13-2/20 (Anniversary Issue) - Nora Ephron's cookbook memoir was great. Malcolm Gladwell has another thinking-out-of-the-box article, this one on homelessness.
2/27 (Cheney with a gun, "Watch your back mountain") - Another depressing article about our hidden torture policy and how we are trying to circumvent the Geneva Convention. I loved the book review by John Lanchester entitled "Two Views of Happiness."