August 22, 2011

BOOKS: Darkside, Belinda Bauer (2011)

There's a serial killer at work in the small English village of Shipcott. His victims are elderly, people whose frailty and disabilities have made them burdens to their families. Village constable Jonas Holly is nervous about what would be his first murder investigation, but he's rapidly pushed to the side by John Marvel, the inspector from the nearest large regional police department.

Feeling guilty and inadequate, Jonas is goaded into investigating on his own by a series of anonymous, taunting notes ("Call yourself a policeman?") that accuse him of failing to protect Shipcott as he ought to have done. Failing to protect people is something of a sore spot for Jonas, whose wife is entering the final stages of multiple sclerosis and is the survivor of a recent suicide attempt.

I was a big fan of Bauer's first novel, Blacklands; this one isn't quite as good, but it's still an entertaining story. The characters are memorable -- DCI Marvel is a particularly good rendering of an officious asshole -- and you understand their motivations, even in their most blundering moments.

On a side note, though this isn't a direct sequel to Blacklands, it's set in the same village, and the principal character of that novel plays a small but important supporting role here. That necessarily involves a lot of spoilers for Blacklands, so if you're at all interested in the books, you should read that one first. If you should happen to pick up Darkside first, though, Bauer does an excellent job of working those Blacklands details into the narrative without getting too info-dumpy, so you won't have any trouble following those parts of the story at all.

August 18, 2011

MUSIC: My 2011-12 LA Philharmonic season

So, after the annual trip to Disney Hall to exchange a few subscription tickets and buy a few extras, I have tickets for 11 concerts this season. I will no doubt miss at least one or two to the other demands of life, but it's a good mix. Very little Dudamel, though, for two reasons -- nearly half of his subscription concerts this season are spent in his month-long slog through the Mahler symphonies, and I would rather have half-a-dozen root canals; and though Dudamel as music director programs a lot of the new and contemporary music that I enjoy, Dudamel as conductor isn't conducting much of it, at least not this season.

My season includes:
  • Dudamel; Johannes Moser, electric cello / Adams: Tromba lontana; Chapela: Magnetar (concerto for electric cello - world premiere); Prokofiev: Symphony #5
  • James Conlon; Yuja Wang, piano / Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto #2; Dvorak: Symphony #7
  • Semyon Bychkov; Katia & Marielle Labeque, pianos / Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole; Dubugnon: Concerto for Two Pianos and Double Orchestra (world premiere); Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen; Emanuel Ax, piano; Anne Sofiie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Los Angeles Master Chorale / Beethoven: Leonore Overture #2; Beethoven: Piano Concerto #2; Hillborg: new work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra (world premiere)
  • Thomas Wilkins / "Pacific Standard Time: The Hollywood Sound" (program of film music)
  • Miguel Harth-Bedoya; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano / Dvorak: Hussite Overture; Liszt: Piano Concerto #2; Saint-Saens: Symphony #3 ("Organ")
  • Pablo Heas-Casado; Martin Chalifour, violin / Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Matheson: Violin Concerto (west coast premiere); Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
  • Neeme Jarvi; Alisa Weilerstein, cello / Dvorak: Carnival Overture; Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme; Respighi: Adagio con Variazioni; Shostakovich: Symphony #5
  • Osmo Vanska; Martin Frost, clarinet / Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite; Aho: Clarinet Concerto; Sibelius: Symphony #6
  • James Gaffigan; Andre Watts, piano / Respighi: Trittico botticelliano; Bartok: Miraculous Mandarin Suite; Grieg: Piano Concerto
  • Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos; Pepe Romero, guitar / Turina: Danzas fantasticas; Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez; Brahms: Symphony #2
"Pacific Standard Time" is a six-month long arts festival devoted to Los Angeles art from 1945-1980. Weilerstein's appearance is part of the Piatigorsky Cello Festival; the Dvorak/Shostakovich part of the concert will be given three times, each time with a different solo cellist performing a different work (or in Weilerstein's case, works).

So I get lots of new music, some not-quite warhorses from composers I like (Britten, Rachmaninovv, Respighi), and a few pieces that I have particular weakness for (Egmont, the Rodrigo concerto). Should be a fun season.

August 13, 2011

MOVIES: The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

And so: The Help, which has suddenly become the most controversial movie in America, with (among other things) the Association of Black Women Historians issuing a statement of protest.

And yes, there are huge problems with the story and the way it's told. It's a movie that tells the story of black women through the eyes of a spunky white girl, and (yet again) defines the civil rights movement as the effort of heroic white people. It forces the black characters to speak in embarrassing, stereotypical dialect (one of the maids actually has to say, "Mmm, I loves me some fried chicken!") And it makes its principal villain so hideously ghastly that we don't really see racism, we just see her as generally nasty to everyone. (Her comeuppance at the hands of her former maid is the story's biggest miscalculation, a gratuitously nasty and vulgar joke that drags on forever as it's turned into a major plot point.)

Beyond the trivialization of the civil rights movement, the basic premise of the story -- would-be author Skeeter (Emma Stone) convinces the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi to tell her their stories so that she can publish them in a book -- is beyond implausible. It's 1963 Mississippi, for god's sake (the murder of Medger Evers is reduced to a bit of mere background detail); there is no way any of these women would tell any white woman what they really think of the white families they've worked for.

And yet, there is much to be admired here. Taken on its own terms, the story is effective; the laughs and tears flow as called for, and there are some genuinely moving moments.

The cast is superb, particularly Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Aibileen and Minny, the two maids at the center of the story. Bryce Dallas Howard brings more depth to Hilly, the principal villain, than is to be found on the page; and Jessica Chastain is delightful as Celia, the "white trash" girl (the movie's term, not my mine) who can't break into Jackson's social circles. There are fine turns in smaller roles from Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson; and while Emma Stone's character isn't particularly interesting, Stone continues to impress me with her sheer charisma and screen presence.

So, seriously mixed feelings. If you can accept the movie as the feel-good fairytale it wants to be, you may enjoy it very much. But I don't think I can accept it on those terms, and I'm not entirely sure that it's even appropriate to try.

August 11, 2011

BOOKS: What You See in the Dark, Manuel Muñoz (2011)

Muñoz tells the interwoven stories of three women in 1959 Bakersfield, against a backdrop of murder, both real and imagined. Each of the women is, in some way, dealing with what happens when desperation leads to violence.

Arlene is a middle-aged waitress and motel owner. Her husband has abandoned her, leaving her on the outside of the social circles she once traveled in; her greatest pride is that she's raised her son to adulthood with no serious problems.

Teresa is a poor Hispanic girl, dating a popular white boy, which raises eyebrows. He nurtures her gift for singing, and she begins to think that her voice might be a way to a better life.

And The Actress is in town with The Director to shoot exterior scenes for their new movie. (Though they are never named, it quickly becomes obvious that they are Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock, working on Psycho.) She fears that the role, more of a bad girl than she's ever played before, will alienate her fans.

Muñoz's style is a bit cool and detached; the characters may be passionately emotional, but his narration rarely is. The writing is never difficult, but it's got a richness to it, a density that required me to set it aside at the end of each chapter to digest what I'd read. (It is to prose what cheesecake is to dessert.) A sample:

How people change when they get a taste of the good life! When suddenly the dollar bills in your hand can go for things you want instead of need. A fork-and-knife meal at the cafe; scarves and pearl chokers; pendants and brooches; jewelry boxes with ballerinas springing to attention; that lovely sound of pushing rings and earrings and bracelets against each other while you're searching. Flowers from Holliday's like the good husbands do: tulips and Easter lilies from Los Angeles in the springtime, a wrist corsage for attending a wedding. A car trip over to the coast, to Morro Bay and the enormous, beautiful rock basking just off the shoreline. A day in Hollywood, the exhiliration of knowing movie stars breathe in the very same sunshine. Silk blouses brought home in delicate paper; dresses that require dry cleaning; lingerie so elegant it refuses to be scandalous.

The period details are impeccably re-created, and Muñoz is particularly fine at capturing the emotional impact that music has when you hear the right song at the right moment. What You See in the Dark is a lovely book, a muted tragedy of potential unfulfilled.

August 09, 2011

BOOKS: Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer (2011)

Another "I spent a year in a quirky subculture" book, and a fairly entertaining one.

Foer's subject is the world of competitive memory, and he decides that the best way to understand it is to take part. He begins studying the memory devices that the world's best competitors use, and ultimately takes part in the US Memory Championship.

Along the way, he delivers an entertaining look at the quirks and the history of human memory. Most of the techniques the top memory pros use derive from those described by Cicero, and were once commonly taught; as memorization has fallen out of favor in modern education, those techniques have become the province of specialists. The decline has only accelerated with the advent of modern technology, which has made it unnecessary for most people to remember much of anything. How many phone numbers, for instance, did you know by heart 20 years ago? How many do you know today, now that they're all stored on your cell phone?

For most of the competitors on the competitive memory circuit, it's not about brute force memorization, but about creativity -- finding ways to turn numbers and faces into a series of striking images that can be remembered more easily than the raw data. There are, of course, a handful of people in the world whose prodigious memories appear to derive from unusual medical conditions, and Foer visits some of them; he also spends some time with a man at the opposite end of the spectrum, who has lost the ability to remember anything for more than a few moments.

This is far from essentially reading; even by the standards of the "quirky subculture" book, the skills of the dedicated memory competitors are arcane and relatively useless in the real world. But Foer's a charming companion, and he's found enough interesting characters and anecdotes to keep me reading happily.

August 01, 2011

BOOKS: The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt (2011)

I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie's new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.
Now that's a voice that makes me want to keep reading.
That's Eli Sisters speaking at the beginning of The Sisters Brothers, a marvelous dark comic Western. Eli and his brother Charlie have been hired to kill a man, and the novel tells the story of their journey through Gold Rush-era California to find him. They don't meet their victim until late in the book, and most of the story is simply a series of strange encounters with hoodlums, thugs, whores, and a wide array of life's downtrodden.
Through the journey, Eli finds himself beginning to question the life that he and his brother have chosen, and wondering if it might not be preferable to settle down in a quiet life of less danger and more lawfulness. Charlie isn't convinced; he likes the life he lives, and can't understand why Eli would want to give in to the burdens of civilization. (Eli's discovery of the toothbrush, and Charlie's lack of interest in the device, is a nice running joke in the early going.)
True Grit is an obvious touchstone here -- the story's structured around a manhunt; it's filled with quirky characters; the comic tone and even the prose are somewhat evocative of Portis. This is hardly an imitation, though, and I think I like deWitt's characters even more than the sometimes two-dimensional Rooster and Mattie.
I could have done without the mild detour into fantasy that the story takes in its final act. Surely the brothers' meeting with their intended victim could have been driven by a more realistic plot device. But that's a relatively mild quibble; this is a delightful novel that deepens as it goes along, and by the end turns into something quite moving.