Where's the book?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Murder, murder, and more murder #19, 20, 21

I love Phryne Fisher! At least, I love Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the Australian show that I stumbled across a few months ago and greedily binged my way through all three seasons of. I hadn't read any of the books--hadn't even heard of them--until now. The book series is called the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries, which was wisely changed for the show, to eliminate the difficulty of pronouncing Miss Fisher's first name, which rhymes with briney.

I began at the beginning, of course, with the first three Miss Fisher mysteries: Cocaine Blues, Flying Too High, and Murder on the Ballarat Train, all three wisely packaged together as Introducing the Honourable Phrye Fisher. 

Unlike most books, these work so much better on screen, which is not something I often believe, and I don't think I'm being influenced by having seen the TV show first. For one, the show wisely smoothes out some of the bumps and unnecessary complications of the books, which makes the mystery more straightforward. Kerry Greenwood, the author, tends to throw in lots of plot on top of more plot on top of more suspects on top of some more clues, and the whole thing eventually starts to resemble what happens to a long necklace when you let it sit in a pile--a big mess of tangles.

For another, one of the great pleasures of the show is Phryne's amazing clothes and jewelry. Did I mention that the stories are set in Melbourne in the 1920s? And Phryne is stinking rich and has a wardrobe that could make the gals on Downton Abbey jealous? Although their are lengthy descriptions of her clothes and accessories in the books, reading about them is boring. Seeing them is heaven.

And for last, the TV show wisely changes the character of the police detective Phryne works with. In the book, he's a friendly, dull fellow with a wife and kids and probably a stamp collection and a nice dog. In the book, he's a steamy, dreamy guy with an ex-wife and a rivalry with that becomes a fascination for Phryne. In three seasons they've managed to kiss, but I have high hopes for season four. After all, even Sam and Diane got it on by the end of season one.

Jack Robinson and the Honorable Phryne Fisher

The other characters in the show are here (except for Phryne's stuffy Aunt Prudence, who's another reason to prefer the show): companion Dot (although she doesn't have a beau), ward Jane, all-round assistants and commie cabbies Bert and Cec, female physician Mack (although she's young and attractive in the show), even Mr. Butler (although in the books, there's a Mrs. Butler). There's a clearer explanation of how Phryne become "the Honorable" and got all her dough, why she ended up in Melbourne to begin with, and how she got her unusual name.

But overall, the books don't hold a candle to the show, although I may read another one or two while I wait, impatiently, for Phryne to return to the screen.

#18 Murder most fun

I read this book way back when, probably not long after it came out in 1978. I remember thoroughly enjoying it. I read more of Susan Isaac's books, but never liked any of the others as much as this one. And I saw the movie when it came out in 1985, starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. I remember great chemistry between Sarandon and Julia, but the more constrained movie never allowed them to consummate their attraction, unlike the book, which has plenty of good sex between the two main characters (which was surely one of the reasons I liked it so much).

After reading it again, I can say that I enjoyed it nearly as much the second time around--especially since in the intervening decades I'd completely forgotten who the murderer was, which made it just as much fun to try and figure out. 

The book was a big bestseller back in the day. It's a combination of the bored housewife genre of that time (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, etc.) and a romp of a murder mystery. The main character is a bored (of course), smart, funny Long Island housewife named Judith Singer. Her life picks up when she begins an investigation into the murder of a local periodontist, a raging philanderer who not only philandered but took compromising photos of his conquests, any one of whom could have plunged the fatal ice pick into the back of his neck. 

The murder investigation is a heck of a lot of fun with a long list of suburban housewife/suspects. And the romantic relationship that develops between Judith and the sexy police lieutenant investigating the crime is so satisfying. Isaac's writing keeps all the balls in the air with a light and humorous touch. It's a talent I respect, having read enough murder mysteries to know that this type (the romp-ish, sexy ones) are often confusing (too many similar suspects) or nonsensical (the clues don't add up) or infuriating (the conclusion comes out of left field and doesn't build on what leads up to it). In this genre, Compromising Positions is an standout. 

Sarandon and Julia doing the It's a Wonderful Life sexy telephone thing.

#17 for Victorian drama, the real kind

I'm not exactly sure how I came to be reading this book. It ended up in my ginormous books-to-read pile and it had been there long enough that when I stumbled upon it I could no longer remember how it got there. Did I see it in a bookstore and think, oh that looks interesting, I'll buy it and surely read it in a timely manner? Did someone lend it to me? Was it a gift with purchase?

Who knows. But find it I did, and read it I did, and it was, qualifiedly, interesting.

It's the story of one of the first divorces in Britain, after the laws had been changed to allow middle-class Britons access to divorce in the 1850s. Isabella Walker, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson, a well-off civil engineer and manufacturer, in 1844. They had two more sons together, but the marriage foundered from the start. Henry was cold and remote. He demanded, and took control of Isabella's money, leaving her with nothing of her own. He traveled often, and was angry and demanding when he was home. 

Isabella, on the other hand, was a high-spirited and intelligent woman, with a passion for new ideas, the arts, and for a married doctor named Edward Lane. What makes the story so interesting is that Isabella kept a secret diary in which, over five years, she recorded her ardor and longing for Dr. Lane, who finally returned her affections. Her writing is sensual and suggestive, although in good Victorian style she never directly states that she was unfaithful. But is there a reasonable doubt that she wasn't? I don't think so. Why else would the good doctor be warning her about post-copulation pregnancy prevention?

Unfortunately for Isabella, she became ill and in the height of her fever, and the presence of her husband, she called out her lover's name. In a rage, Henry tore her room apart looking for evidence and, in a locked drawer, found the revealing diary. He petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. The diary was used in evidence against both his wife and Dr. Lane, and passages were read into the court record and published in the newspapers. The trial was the scandal of the day--a middle-class, respectable wife and mother who was restless and unhappy, a British Madame Bovary (which was published in France that very year but considered too scandalous to be published in England until the 1880s). 

The trial was humiliating for Isabella, whose very looks were used against her by her erstwhile lover. In his own defense he claimed he would never have become romantically involved with such an unattractive woman in her fifties (at the time Isabella was in her late thirties). She was labeled a harlot, a whore, mentally ill, a bad mother, a bad example of an Englishwoman, and any other mud that could be flung at her. Her defense, as sad as it was, was that the diary was an exercise in fantasy fulfillment, and not the record of an actual affair. 

Isabella's writing is so juicy that Summerscale's often pales in comparison. But it's a gripping tale that sheds quite a bit of light on the prejudices and assumptions we make about marriage and women, even today.

Miranda, he gets the job done

I think I'm better now. I think I'm over it. I've seen the show three times, I've listened to the cast album until I know every word and sound effect and breath by heart. I've analyzed the lyrics, read every article, watched every Ham4Ham performance. And now I've read the book. I think my hamilaria may finally be subsiding.

The book (#16) is Hamilton:The Revolution by Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the show from early on, and, of course, the creator and star himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Chapter by chapter, it takes us through the creation of the show, from that famous White House rap when it was just going to be a concept album, to the opening on Broadway six years later and the show's astounding success.

There are wonderful photos, a look at Miranda's notebooks (his handwriting looks like an eight-year-old's), interviews with dozens of the people involved, wonderful behind-the-scenes stories, every single lyric and every single line, including many that didn't make it into the final product, and more than 200 footnotes by Miranda himself, a fun little peak into the mind of a genius and really fun guy.

If you love the show (is there anyone who doesn't?) it's a thrilling look at how it came to be and the incredibly talented people (it isn't all Miranda) who made it happen, as well as a fascinating story of how any show goes from an idea in someone's head to atop the boards of Broadway.

#15 back to the seventies on a "Speedboat"

Probably the only thing I really liked about this strange book by Renata Adler was its depiction of New York City in the 1970s. It captures the grey gritty harshness and energy of that time perfectly, which it should, since the book is a sort-of roman a clef of Adler's life as a swinging journalist in this city in that difficult decade. 

The book doesn't have any sort of conventional plot or recurring characters. We don't even find out the name of the young journalist narrator until the second half of the novel. It is a series of disjointed paragraphs, anecdotes, and stories that are by turns pointed, funny, neurotic, telling, occasionally moving, even more occasionally boring, that add up to a pointillist portrait of a time and place. It's the kind of book you can pick up and put down whenever. Some of the anecdotes are quite gripping, some left me cold. 

More of a collage than anything else, it's an entirely different sort of book. And while I might pick it up again sometime, read a paragraph or two, and walk away, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who likes those old fusty things like plot, or character, or story. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

I finished the hat! #14

Even a less-then-passionate Sondheim fan will get the reference: "Finishing the Hat" is one of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim's brilliant songs, from his extremely brilliant musical Sunday in the Park with George. It's a song about the art of making art, and the life of the artist, and is, according to Sondheim's book, Finishing the Hat, one of his few autobiographical songs. 

The subtitle of the book says it all: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The grudges and whines come through loud and clear: Sondheim's critiques of other composers and lyricists are strongly phrased and withering. I don't get the impression that he suffers fools. And I do get the impression that, to him, most of humanity may fall into that category. His portraits of the many remarkable people with whom he's worked are also pointed. I may never again be able to fully appreciate Jerome Robbins's choreography for West Side Story now that I know what an egomaniacal bully he was. 

Little Stephen Sondheim at the piano
I've been reading the book a little at a time for a while and have finally finished it. It's mostly fascinating, an incredible inside look at how a Broadway musical is put together. Or actually, was put together, since the days of out-of-town productions in Washington and Boston are long over. As a history of the theater as well as the history of theater greats, and an inside look at Sondheim's creative process, it's pretty compelling reading.

The book covers the first half of Sondheim's career, from his first musical, Saturday Night, a student production, through his first lyrics-only shows (West Side Story and Gypsy) through the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) through his next nine productions: Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.

An impressive list, an astonishing list. Anyone would be happy with a career encompassing even half of those legendary creations. But remarkably, it's only the first installment. The second book, Look I Made a Hat, begins with the show from which the lyric comes, Sunday in the Park with George and goes through 2011. 

It's incredibly sad that there won't be a third volume. Can we clone Mr. Sondheim, please?