Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE WAR AT HOME

Political made personal in lush, heartfelt 'Testament of Youth'

It was called the war to end all wars. Its effects were so cataclysmic, no one who lived through what we now know as the First Worlds War, either in the trenches or on the homefront, could ever conceive that there might be another one.

Vera Brittain was a young Englishwoman whose studies at Oxford were derailed by the war. She wrote of her wartime experiences in the memoir, Testament of Youth, published in 1933, when, incredibly, the international drumbeat had already begun for the march toward the Second World War.

Brittain's book is a very personal view of the effects of the war on an entire generation, particularly the women—mothers, fiancées, sisters, friends—left behind.

It was adapted as a TV miniseries back in the 1970s. And now comes a powerful new feature film, Testament Of Youth, directed by TV movie veteran James Kent.

Adapted by Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), the film is both searing and heartfelt. By maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the gradual, inevitable encroachment of the war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a very broad canvas in very delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.
Egerton, Vikander, Harrington, Morgan: no idea what lies ahead.
 The film begins in the clamor of Armistice Day, 1918, with people thronging the streets in hysterical celebration. Flashback to the summer of 1914, in the idyllic English countryside of Buxton, where 19-year-old Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, last seen as the oh-so-sentient robot in Ex Machina), and her 17-year-old brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), are entertaining Edward's school chum, Victor (Colin Morgan) with a swim in the lake.

The talk of the Brittain household is Edward's impending graduation from preparatory school and acceptance at Oxford. Vera also dreams of attending Oxford to study English literature, but their father (Dominic West) considers it a useless expense for a girl—he wants her to find a husband instead.
Vikander as Vera: Oxford bound.

Just when volatile Vera is denouncing marriage as a barrier to women's self-expression and freedom, another of Edward's school friends arrives, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). An amateur poet himself, smitten with prickly Vera, he makes all the wrong moves trying to befriend her—until he encourages her to write.

During the next year, they become pen pals and soulmates, exchanging poems and fueling each others' dreams.

The lush, pastoral nature of these early domestic scenes, and the languorous pace with which Kent and Towhidi set them up, show what is sacrificed to war, in terms of lifestyle, dreams, and, of course, promising young lives.
Harrington and Vikander: collateral damage
When the young men graduate the next year, war is looming. Edward helps Vera convince their father to let her take the entrance exams for Oxford, and she's thrilled when she's accepted.

But by then, Edward, Roland, and Victor have already signed up to go "fight the Huns" in Europe—with no earthly idea of what awaits them there.

Vera soon disappoints her headmistress (Miranda Richardson) by quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse.

The hospital scenes can be harrowing, but no less so than Vera's attempts to reconnect with her psychologically damaged friends after they've been to the front, or the heartache of letting them go again.
Vikander, Richardson: left behind.

The eagerness of these young people to make a difference, to be a part of something larger than themselves, can't be faulted. But the more experienced she becomes (at a field hospital in France, she tends German as well as English soldiers), the more fervently Vera believes that war itself is the enemy, a lie to seduce young men into madness.

Vikander is luminous as Vera, with Egerton buoyant as brother Edward. Harrington (aka Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) makes a properly romantic Roland, but the real find is Colin Morgan, warm and dynamic as their friend, Victor.

And director Kent has a shrewd eye for telling details: an island of women waving goodbye as a troop train pulls out; a church pew full of mourning women in black on Armistice Day; innocuous objects the eye zeroes in on while a woman receives devastating news on the phone.

It's these personal details that make the film so hauntingly universal.
The real-life Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson, ca 1915


Sunday, June 28, 2015

DESIGNING WOMAN


Female gardener helps build Versailles in fun, if uneven 'A Little Chaos'

Alan Rickman is capable of so much more than his sublimely unctuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. Still, the chance to see Snape as King Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France, in the period piece, A Little Chaos, is just about irresistible.

It's a surprisingly good fit: both characters are imperious, uncompromising, and suffer fools not at all. And Rickman layers each character with an unexpected shading of sympathy.

Rickman also directs the film, and you can see why he was  eager to cast himself in such a plummy role. It's also the kind of popular reimagined history in which a plucky woman defies convention to make her way in a male-dominated society.

Rickman as Louis XIV: extreme unction
 Co-written by Rickman (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan), this romantic historical drama concerns a genteel widow eking out a precarious living as a gardener who receives a commission to design a garden at Versailles.

It's a charming concept with a great cast, and a splendid showcase for star Kate Winslet, even if it doesn't quite all come together.

Sabine De Barra (Winslet) is a young widow in 1682 Paris, supporting herself as a gardener. King Louis (Rickman) is building himself the magnificent new palace of Versailles in the countryside. Sabine dares to submit her plans for one of the royal gardens to the king's legendary landscape architect, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in Far From the Madding Crowd).

She's treated as a joke by the other (male) garden designers vying for a commission—and by Le Notre himself, at first—but her plans intrigue Le Notre, who grants her a commission to plant a garden and build a waterfall for an outdoor ballroom at Versailles.
Winslet and Schoenaerts: big plans

While Le Notre favors "order," and Sabine appreciates a little "chaos" in design, they earn each others' respect amid the pomp and petty rivalries within Louis' circle. (Among the film's pleasures is Stanley Tucci as the Duc d'Orleans, Louis' droll royal brother, whose humor consistently livens up the action.)

Winslet is wonderful, as unaffected, sensible Sabine, working in the mud alongside her construction crew, and speaking with refreshing candor to Louis himself in a nice moment when she mistakes him for one of the king's gardeners.

Another intriguing scene occurs at court, when Louis' new favorite, Madame de Montespan (a lovely Jennifer Ehle) befriends Sabine and introduces her to the sisterhood of court ladies—mistresses, former favorites, dowagers—all of whom, like Sabine, have lost children, or husbands, or both. And all of whom are fascinated to meet a woman who actually does something in her life. These women deserve more screen time.

First Wives Club, 17th Century-style
Schoenaerts' Le Notre is perhaps too restrained and stoic, even for someone cautiously navigating court society. He never gets angry at his scheming wife (he seethes quietly, but never yells), nor quite loses himself in passion with Sabine. This is partly the fault of the script, in which his character fades into the background, partnering Winslet with gallant deference, the way the prince in a ballet steps out of the spotlight while the ballerina dances her solo.
Portrait of the real-life Andre Le Notre

Not that they don't have some sexy and affectionate scenes together. (When Le Notre and Sabine take a break at the job site and share an impromptu meal of rustic bread and home-made pâté, it's memorable as one of the first—and few—times that the guarded Le Notre actually smiles.) But Schoenaerts is such a compelling actor with so much presence, and Winslet is so vibrant, we wish their characters were taking more joy in each other.

(By all accounts, the real-life Le Notre was a wit, whose droll humor earned him Louis' fickle friendship throughout his life. In real life, Le Notre was also 25 years older than Louis, but why ruin a good story with dreary facts?)

Sadly, there is no historical evidence that anyone like Sabine existed, or helped build Versailles. But so what? The whole point of imagining such a scenario in a historical context is to encourage women to push boundaries in their own lives, to promote what Carolyn Heilbrun in her seminal book, "Writing A Woman's Life," refers to as "...the alternate life (the writer) wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination." In that respect, for all its flaws, A Little Chaos succeeds beautifully.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

ME & MY VILLAGE


It takes a village for me to edit a book.

I never have any less than about three or four docs of plot, character motivations, Notes to Self, and, oh, yes, the ms doc itself, open at any given time on my trusty iMac. I'd need an IMAX-sized screen to accommodate all the docs I could be using!

(Notice, I even have random notes stuck in the clay mug off to the left, sheesh!)

Then I need a print-out of the ms, as in actual paper, to scribble on. (# 2 1/2 pencil: my weapon of choice.) This also helps me to actually see all the typos. I know they're in there, I can hear 'em breathing, but it's much easier for me to see them in print, instead of on a screen.

The final element to a productive work day? All the images I can find for inspiration!

This is my Pinterest page for the book I'm editing now, Beast: A Love Story. Yes, it's a fantasy, a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, but it's rooted in a specific historical period (rural Burgundy, France, ca. 1600). And anything I happen upon while cruising the Interwebs—dress, architecture, various objets, the French countryside, or potential character studies—goes into the file for future reference.

I am presently deep into the edit suggested by my terrific new editor, Kaylan Adair, chugging away toward my upcoming July 15 deadline.

All systems are go for me and my village!


Sunday, June 14, 2015

DIRE STRAITS

Buckle your sword belts, folks. It's that time of year that Game of Thrones fans fear above all others—the end of the season. Which means the dreaded season finale is almost upon us. (Tonight, to be exact.)

Never in the history of the cathode ray tube has a popular TV series so relentlessly abused its loyal fans as GoT. Based on the mammoth series of books by George R. R. Martin, still being penned as we speak (five volumes and counting), this is a series that ended its first season with the decapitation of the guy everyone assumed was the hero.

It was as if Don Draper got run over by a cab after one season, or Walter White blew himself up in a meth lab. Talk about the element of surprise! 

Since then, dedicated Thronies understand that their favorite characters are on shaky ground with each new episode. No one is safe, however high up in the narrative food chain they appear to be. "Trust No One," as they used to say on The X-Files, and the ones we don't trust the most are the GoT writers.

Dinklage as Tyrion: don't call him a hero
And Martin gives them plenty of opportunity to wreak mayhem. His books are set in a fantasy world not unlike the Late Middle Ages in Europe; transport is via horseback, ship or on foot, weapons are forged steel, and combat is hand-to-hand.

And there's plenty of it, with some 10 to a dozen royal houses and various upstart factions (I tend to lose count after about seven or eight), from an increasingly broad spectrum of neighboring and foreign lands, all vying for the Iron Throne, whose king or queen rules all. (Nominally, at least.)

Daenerys and her alpha dragon: timely reappearance
Fortunately, as the GoT universe expands, there are plenty of heroes to go around—along with anti-heroes, would-be heroes, and characters who occasionally blunder into heroism by sheer accident, not to mention antagonists and outright villains. Lots and lots of the latter, villains for whose demise we avidly root for.

Sadly, villains in the GRRM universe seem to have a much longer shelf life than the good guys. But when they do meet their just deserts, oh boy, look out!

Like last year's Season 4 finale (SPOILER ALERT if you're still catching up with it on Netflix), when Tyrion Lannister finally put an end to the evil schemes of his reprehensible Daddy Dearest. Thronies were screaming like demented World Cup fanatics.

Harrington: Snowblind
Tyrion, the witty, roguish dwarf played to acerbic precision by the great Peter Dinklage, continues to be the best reason to watch the show. This year, Season 5, has fulfilled the promise of its teaser poster by sending Tyrion on a fateful (and not entirely voluntary) voyage to the Eastern realm of dragon girl Daenerys (Emilia Clarke); one of the baby dragons she helped to hatch in the first season made a timely reappearance—all grown up now, thanks very much—in last week's episode.

Fans have been waiting a long time for Tyrion and Daenerys to join forces, since they are two of the very few characters we consistently root for. A third is Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), bastard son of initial hero Ned Stark (now deceased). Jon Snow always tries to do the right thing; exiled to the monk-like brotherhood of the Night's Watch, he's been elected their commander—just in time to lead a desperate campaign against the undead armies of the demonic White Walkers.

All three of these characters were in extremely dire straits as of last week. The suspense is killing me.

(But, sshhhh, don't call them heroes! We know what happens to them.)

Btw, if you fear GoT withdrawals after the imminent end of Season 5, get ready for: Game of Thrones: The Muscal! No, not really, but that's the premise of this very funny video in which Chris Martin of Coldplay envisions just such a horrible hybrid—to the dismay of several cast members. 12 minutes, complete with songs—check it out!


Also, if you needs further proof that Time Marches On, here's a fabulous fun pic of the kids of GoT back in 2009, when they were first cast. (The series debuted on HBO in 2011.) That's little Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) in front, Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), and, yes, that's Kit Harrington (Jon Snow).

Thursday, June 11, 2015

MIND GAMES

Davidson, Carroll: head-smacked.
JTC closes season with bittersweet comedy 'Woman In Mind'

Santa Cruz's Jewel Theatre Company is the little company that could. Artistic Director Julie James, works miracles with limited resources, mounting ambitious, professional theatre in tiny local spaces like Center Stage (where JTC has been the resident company for the last five years). James' eagerness to tackle everything from Beckett to Sondheim to Athol Fugard, from musicals to West Coast and World premieres, makes her company consistently worth watching.

For the finale of JTC's Tenth Anniversary season, James presents Woman In Mind, a bittersweet comedy of disillusion by popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. First produced in 1985, the play starts off as a jaunty comedy about a midlife suburban woman confusing her fantasy of perfect family life with the far more mundane reality. Ayckbourn's play quietly evolves into something much more poignant, and this production, directed by James herself, strikes both its sad and funny highlights with effective precision.

The story begins with protagonist, Susan (Diahanna Davidson), prone in her modest garden with a strange man kneeling over her, spouting gibberish. Turns out she has just performed the classic slapstick comedy maneuver, stepped on a garden rake and smacked herself in the head, a short trip to oblivion from which she is just now waking up. The man is a medical doctor, Bill Windsor (Shaun Carroll), who's just summoned an ambulance, his nonsense words finally resolving into ordinary English that Susan was mishearing in her delirious state.

A perfect English garden of the mind.
It's daring to start off with a scene so disorienting to the audience, and Ayckbourn wisely sticks to Susan's increasingly suspect and fractured perspective for the rest of the play. As soon as Bill goes back in the house, the drab brick wall of Susan's yard becomes a gateway to an extravagant English garden, full of mazes and hedgerows. (Kudos to Set Designer Kent Dorsey and Lighting Designer Mark Hopkins.)

Through this gateway pour Susan's doting husband, Andy (David Arrow), adoring daughter, Lucy (Danielle Crook), and devoted younger brother, Tony (Jimmy Allan). They seem to have wandered in out of a 1930s Noel Coward play, in their sporty white outfits (costumes by the great B. Modern), wielding tennis racquets and glasses of vintage "champers." The giddy Susan assures them all that she's perfectly fine.
Davies, Torres-Koss: too true to be perfect.

Except that she's not quite. We know something is up as soon as the somewhat bumbling, but good-hearted Bill comes back out and makes reference to family members Susan at first doesn't acknowledge. Her real-life family, as we soon learn, led by stodgy husband, Gerald (Chad Davies), an Anglican clergyman who neglects her for the book he's writing about the history of the parish since 1386.

Then there's frazzled Muriel (the ever-stalwart Diana Torres-Koss), the widowed sister to whom Gerald is devoted, whose culinary attempts have everyone quaking in fear. Aimless son, Rick (Nat Robinson), has joined a cult that forbids him to speak to his parents.

Fantasy family: too perfect to be true.
There are plenty of laughs as these two worlds begin to collide (including a comic Q&A expertly lobbed by Davidson and Carroll, with the recurring punchline "since 1386," including how long Gerald has been working on his book). Arrow, Allan, and Crook are all hilariously suave and arch as the fantasy family, and Davies maintains a vague, melancholy dignity as poor, plodding Gerald.

But this production doesn't really get going until the second act, coming together at last, even as its heroine unravels.

It's not simply that Susan retreats into idle romantic nonsense; the process by which she's become disengaged with her life has been involuntary and devastating. Once content as a wife and mother, she feels abandoned now that no one needs her any more. In her prickly conversation with son Rick, we see how they wound and infuriate each other, despite their best intentions. Finally, even her perfect alternate family starts to get on her nerves.

Davidson's Susan is onstage throughout, and her sharp, yet aching performance helps JTC end is tenth season on a high note of dramatic complexity. (This show plays through June 28.)


(Photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

FUTURE IMPERFECT

Hey kids, remember when the future used to be fun? We were going to colonize the Moon, zip around in hover cars like, the Jetsons, and voyage to the stars in the Starship Enterprise. Labor would be robotic, clothes would be space-age and really cool, and peace would be intergalactic.

But somewhere along the way, our dreams of the future got tarnished. It occurred to some cynics that humankind as a species was no more likely to create Utopias on other worlds than they had on this one, and our visions of the future became more and more bleak—like the present.

Think of the dripping, steaming perpetual night of Blade Runner. The burnt-out, post-apocalyptic survivalism of the road-raging Mad Max series. The repressive dystopian future of a thousand YA novels made into movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent series.
So bright, he has to wear shades.

So Tomorrowland is a breath of fresh air, harking back, as it does, to the good old days when the future still seemed shades-worthy. Yes, it's a Disney movie, and, yes, it began as a blatant attempt to cash in on another Disneyland attraction revamped for the screen (a la Pirates of the Caribbean).

 But the good news is the movie works on its own terms, largely thanks to the crisp direction and splendid sensibilities of Brad Bird (beloved by this blog as the director of the most soulful animated robot movie ever made, The Iron Giant). Among many other assets, this cheery adventure makes an effective case for engagement with the future, and considering how actions we take (or fail to take) in the present may serve it—or destroy it.

The story begins at the 1964 New York City World's Fair. On the soundtrack we hear "It's A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow," jaunty theme song from the onetime Disneyland attraction, Carousel of Progress. (On its revolving stage, "audio-animatronic" (ie: robotic) figures from several different eras—Victorian through the 1950s—in their various period rooms, extolled the virtues of futuristic devices like automobiles, washing machines, telephones, and vacuum cleaners.)

Eight-year-old Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) comes to the fair with a futuristic device of his own—a personal jet pack he's cobbled together from spare parts out of his dad's garage—hoping to win a contest presided over by a man named Nix (Hugh Laurie). Frank's invention doesn't actually work, but the principle is sound enough so that Athena (the poised and enchanting Raffey Cassidy), a girl he takes for Nix's daughter, slips him a special badge.

Just Imagine, 1930: Retro future.

 Frank follows them into a boat inside Disney's It's A Small World ride (yes, it debuted at the 1964 World's Fair), and finds himself transported into a parallel universe, a sparkling clean, fabulously sculpted chrome and steel high rise cityscape called Tomorrowland.

Cut to the present day. Teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), daughter of a NASA engineer, is committing midnight acts of sabotage to try to stop the authorities from shutting down a NASA research site. She's something of an engineering whiz herself, and through the agency of the weirdly unchanged Athena, scrappy Casey is teamed up with the grown-up Frank (George Clooney), now a brilliant, cynical recluse hiding out in a booby-trapped house out in the middle of nowhere.

Their mission? Well, I forget, but they have to outwit a sinister band of robothugs and get back to pristine Tomorrowland to try to persuade Nix (the governor of the place) not to abandon Earth to the fatal ravages of environmental disaster.

This involves escape from Frank's fortress in a jet-propelled bathtub, and a trip to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where, in the movie's most delicious sequence, they blast into space in a steampunk clockwork rocket designed by Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Gustave Eiffel.
Just Imagine, 1930: The future is wow.

Trust me, it makes sense enough (more or less) while you're watching. And Laurie gets to deliver a hilariously acerbic screed (as only he can) on how no amount of scientific reason, evidence, and proof can persuade willfully ignorant humanity from lifting a finger to save themselves and their planet before it's too late. 

In the meantime, we get to feast our eyes on gorgeously rendered visions of  the unpolluted waterways, unclogged aerial freeways, and clean energy of the future as it ought to be.

All of which reminded me of an odd little movies from 1930—barely a talkie—called Just Imagine. This weird little production (I think it's a musical) has a pretty silly, Sleeper-like plot about some schmoe from that era transported "50 years into the Future!" (ie: 1980.)

Okay, the state he discovers is a tad conformist and controlled. But it looks clean and beautiful! The film's production design is outstanding, some images from which I'm posting here, as a point of comparison. (Check out the complete movie on You Tube.)

Tomorrowland: the future as it ought to be.
Too bad that whenever we just imagine a really cool future, it's only a movie.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

NEW YORK STORIES

The Inconstant Traveler does NYC

Okay, I'm a beach girl. I don't know from the city. I'm not like my friend, Vivian, who used to panic if she couldn't feel concrete under her pumps. Just thinking about the fast pace of city life exhausts my brain.

Nevertheless. Although Old World cities like Paris, Prague, Vienna, and Bern might be more to my taste, the phenomenon that is New York City ought to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

Art Boy and I had a chance to take a whirlwind 3 1/2-day trip to NYC earlier this month. Our good friend, Marta, grew up in the area and still visits several times a year; she decided she and her husband, John, should play tour guides and show us the sights. We secured a rental apartment on the Upper West Side, boarded the Jet Blue red-eye out of San Jose late on a Sunday night, and arrived at JFK around 7:30 in the morning, NY time.

I don't really sleep on planes. (Sitting upright for six hours with eyes squeezed shut is not the same thing.) Still, we knew we had to hit the ground running on such a short visit. And we had to be selective: we couldn't just wander around bug-eyed. We had to have a plan.

Glorious: The Woman In Gold
 The first order of business was the lengthy drive via car service into town—sadly, under a layer of fog that obscured the fabled NYC skyline. However, we discovered our apartment on W 52nd Street offered a spectacular view (see above), as soon as the fog cleared off.

Next, it was time to buy a good bottle of French champagne for my Francophile agent, to thank her for negotiating such a sweet deal for my upcoming Beast book. But my visit to her downtown office wasn't scheduled for a couple of days, and in the meantime, we had a city to explore!

Art museums were high on our list, and we'd done our homework online. So we knew Monday would be our only chance to visit the Neue Galerie, which has recently become famous as the permanent home of "The Woman In Gold (Adele Bloch-Bauer I)," masterwork of the great Gustav Klimt.

In honor of the recent movie The Woman In Gold, the Neue's current exhibit displays Adele as the jewel in a lovely setting that includes another four Klimt paintings, as well as furniture, graphics, silver, photographs, and objets d'art from Klimt's era, the glorious Viennese Secession movement.

The real Starry Night—better than a coffee mug!
But the centerpiece is "The Woman In Gold." And no matter how well you think you know a famous painting from books and print reproductions, there is nothing like seeing it in person. The complexity of Adele Bloch-Bauer's face and hair, the rich, intricate fantasia of Klimt's patterns, and all the gold leaf-on-gold detailing are simply amazing. (Up close, you can also see the variety of the initials "A" and "B" worked into those patterns.) She's worth a trip to NYC all by herself!

Adele is on permanent display, but the rest of The Woman In Gold show runs through September 7. If you're in the city between now and then, don't miss it. (And don't forget to stop by one of the two Viennese coffehouses in the building, Cafe Fledermaus or Cafe Sabarsky, for kaffe drinks and tortes—including the special Klimttorte, hazelnut cake and dark chocolate. Yum!)

The same sense of renewed awe I felt in the presence of Adele washed over me again the next say at the Museum of Modern Art when I saw Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." I don't care how many coffee mugs and tote bags you've seen with this image on them, seeing this painting for real is extraordinary. There is no substitute for standing three feet away and seeing the brush strokes and the fierceness with which they were applied, noticing how the work was evidently done in such a fury (of creativity? Hyperactivity? Possession?) that the paint doesn't even always stretch to the edge of the canvas. Talk about someone in the grip of his muse!

Bertold Loffler: oddly charming hybrid of styles
And speaking of painting in a fury, we saw a great show of outsider artists ("naive" art makers so compulsive, they are often only one step away, if not already in, an institution) at the American Folk Art Museum. This is a splendid little space on Lincoln Square that all art lovers should know about.

It has a terrific collection, hosts wonderful shows like the one we saw, When The Curtain Never Comes Down, and has a gift shop that offers not only the usual educational toys, books, postcards, and reproductions, but many pieces of genuine, original folk art, as well. Paintings, little boxes, wooden carvings, really cool stuff. Admission is free, although I encourage you to donate to the tip jar on the way in.

I had a lovely chat with my agent, the invincible Irene Goodman, first thing Wednesday morning. Her agency on the West Side is housed in a warren of small, cozy rooms with books literally stacked up everywhere—my kind of place!

Afterwards, Art Boy and I headed off for The Met (the art museum, not the opera house)—a plan only momentarily jeopardized when we flagged dow the only cabbie in NYC who doesn't know where The Met is! Fortunately for us, John and Marta (who were heading off elsewhere) were still standing curbside, so I rolled down the window and asked her to give our cabbie directions. (Hey, it's not like WE know the street address!)

Maurice Denis: weirdly evocative, even without faces
But we finally did arrive, grabbed a map and plotted our course, finding our way up to the 19th-Early 20th Century paintings exhibit. Besides the usual suspects—Picassso, Matisse, Gauguin, Renoir—we made some cool discoveries.

The decorative Vienna Secession-meets-the Pre-Raphaelites of Austrian artist Bertold Loffler's "Youth Playing the Pipes of Pan," 1912. Odilon Redon's pastel and mystical "Pandora." And the sketchy and dreamy "Springtime" by Maurice Denis, a French Symbolist artist neither of us have ever heard of.

We probably spent an hour or two wandering around, until our eyeballs couldn't absorb any more, and what we saw was maybe one twentieth—probably lots less—of the Met's exhibition space. It makes a person weep to look over the brochures, once back home again, 3000 miles away, to see all that we missed—from Greek pottery, Egyptian art, and medieval manuscripts to The Met's fabled Fashion Institute costume exhibits. *Sigh* But who had the time?


One thing we did have to make time for—Marta insisted we couldn't leave NYC without sampling them—were pastrami sandwiches from a New York deli. And they were great: paper-thin pastrami (and plenty of it!), soft rye bread, mustard and a whole pickle on the side. So NYC!

Back home in Santa Cruz, I can't really say I miss the Big City. It's nice to take life at a slower pace, to wake up to birdsong in the lemon tree outside our window instead of honking traffic, and to have cats and flowers around again. And stars! There are too many city lights to see the stars at night in NYC, which disappointed my inner Van Gogh.


On the other hand, the NYC skyline at night is its own dazzling light show. We don't get this view in Live Oak!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

FOUR'S A CROWD

Hardy love quadrangle explored in 'Far From Madding Crowd'


You might call Thomas Hardy's 1874 literary classic, Far From the Madding Crowd the grandfather (at least one of them) of the modern romance novel. (Along with just about anything written by the Brontes.)

Set in a wild, rural landscape—Dorset, in the West Country of England—Hardy's story features a strong-willed, rule-breaking heroine loved by three very different men who play out the novelist's recurring themes of love, class, passion and independence.

I was an impressionable teenager when I saw John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation of the novel with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terence Stamp. I thought it was the most romantic movie I'd ever seen.

I didn't have quite the same rapturous response to the handsome new Thomas Vinterberg film of Far From the Madding Crowd.
Will it be Bachelor Number 1, Number 2, or Number 3?

For one thing, okay, I'm no longer a teen. (And that makes a BIG difference!) For another, Schlesinger's film was some 49 minutes longer than Vinterberg's new version, and it's difficult to compress the scope of Hardy's 460-page book into a concise, digestible two hours.

The plot points tick off right on schedule, but it sometimes feels as if there's not enough time for the emotional weight of the events to fully resonate with the characters (much less the audience).

It's too bad, because Danish filmmaker Vinterberg's excellent last film, The Hunt, was all about emotional nuance.
Mulligan and Schoenaerts

Still, working here from David Nicholls' script, Vinterberg makes a beautiful piece of craftsmanship out of the film. The rolling green hills, rugged seacoast, and stone villages of Dorset (the film was shot almost entirely on location) look splendid and convey Hardy's sense of place.


And the cast is generally persuasive. The non-traditional casting of lively Carey Mulligan as heroine Bathsheba Everdine is very effective. Michael Sheen is excellent as Boldwood, the wealthy but edgy bachelor next door.

But it's the sturdy and seductive performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as a suitor aptly-named Gabriel Oak, who becomes the backbone of the film.

It's in the subplot concerning bachelor number 3, dashing cavalry officer Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge, last seen as the painter Millais in Effie Gray), that the movie founders a bit.

Bathsheba might be swept away by the first taste of raw passion she's ever known, but it's unconvincing that this independent-minded woman would be married to him within a few scant minutes of screen time, and utterly baffling that she's regretting her decision (in a heart-to-heart with Gabriel) before the wedding feast is even over.

It doesn't help that the filmmakers can't decide of Troy is simply a cad or a man wounded by a tragic former love affair. Sturridge gamely plays him either way, as the scene demands, but he can't find anything deeper in the character than a certain pouty haughtiness. (Read more)

Just for laughs, look at the poster for the 1967 version, packaged as a potboiler romance. Don't even get me started on Julie Christie's Swinging London minidress and hairstyle!

Btw, my favorite screen version of Hardy's novel is still Tamara Drewe. Netflix it now!




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

ALIAS HOOK SAILS ON


Here are a couple of fun things I found on the Interwebs this week.

The graphic above was posted awhile back on Leonor Antunes' excellent book blog, A Cup of Coffee and a Book. I was thrilled that Alias Hook placed # 3. (Thanks, Ner!)

Meanwhile, over at another bookish blog, Me, My Shelf and I (love that name!), I found the graphic below. It's always fun for an author to get a play-by-play from a reader while the book is being read!

They have also just posted my guest blog Child's Play: Revisiting the Neverland Through Grown-Up Eyes. Big thanks to Team MMSAI  for inviting me to come over and play!


And this just in: a wonderful review of Alias Hook was just posted over at The Emerald City Book Review. Thanks to Lory for such a thoughtful review!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

CO-ED

I don't know about other writers, but I love to edit. Once a few drafts have been written, and I finally know where the story is going (if I'm lucky), and the plot is more or less in place, it appeals to the Virgo in me to sculpt and shape to make everything stronger and (I hope) smarter.

So I was thrilled to get my first letter of editorial suggestions last week from the editor who just bought my next book, Beast: A Love Story.

No wonder other authors run out of superlatives when discussing Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair online!

In her thoughtful, 7-page letter, she covers four major plot points, and offers several alternate ideas of how I might approach each issue—or not, as I see fit.

This she follows up with a Miscellany section, touching on very small details (like character nicknames), what she thinks could stand to be re-imagined, and why.

None of her suggestions are set in stone; none come in the form of a command. But her ideas are so persuasive, the movie of my book that's on a constant loop inside my head is already starting to play out in a much more interesting way.

I'm in Virgo heaven!

Yes, I'll be going back to the keyboard, but it's amazing how sharp her suggestions are. Best of all? She totally gets this book! I can't wait to plunge back in!

(Love the above illustration for Beauty and the Beast from English illustrator Paul Woodroffe, ca. 1905. That candlestick is especially pivotal in my version of the tale!)