Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- The Sinister Pig, by Tony Hillerman

The desert southwest is a primary character in many of Tony Hillerman's mysteries, which is one reason I generally enjoy them. I grew up on the Western slope of Colorado, where the red soil is dotted with scrubby green trees, and snow peaks tower all around. It was truly a paradise. And yet the country that speaks to my soul is a little further west and south: Canyon country, the area around the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and south, on into the Sonoran desert. This area, the Four Corners region, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, is the locale for most of Hillerman's novels, including The Sinister Pig.

Like Hillerman's other mysteries, this novel features Navajo Tribal Police detective Jim Chee and his now retired boss, Joe Leaphorn. The plot involves old, abandoned oil and gas lines in the New Mexico desert, which are being used for sinister purposes. The story also continues the developing relationship between Chee and Border Patrol agent Bernie Manuelito.

This was one of my least favorite Hillerman mysteries. I'm not going to give away the plot here, even though it is quite obvious from the beginning who the bad guys are and what their game is. Revealing the evil characters early is a deliberate tactic on Hillerman's part, but it makes the plot seem a little too rote and obvious as the events play out.

But that isn't the biggest problem with the book. Hillerman seems to have an ax to grind, which gets in the way of the novel. As he writes on the acknowledgments page, billions of dollars owed to the Tribal Trust Funds are unaccounted for. Chee, Leaphorn, and half a dozen other characters dutifully recite the fact that this money has been mismanaged or stolen by the Federal government. And yet, despite Hillerman's efforts to make this part of the story, the missing funds do not really play a role in the novel. Thus, all the references to the missing money seem more like a diatribe than an intrinsic and fluid part of a novel. More effective are Hillerman's underlying arguments about the futility and injustice of a drug war that targets small -time drug users rather than the big money smugglers, and his characterization of illegal aliens as hard-working people simply searching for a better life.

Even the landscape failed to move me as much as it usually does in a Chee/Leaphorn novel. Although Chee's travels take him from Window Rock to Gallup, Lordsburg, Deming and on down to the Mexican border -- drives I've made many times myself -- I suspect that I visualized the shimmering landscape more from my own experience than from the power of his description.

I also wasn't terribly thrilled that the female characters in the book are so darned stupid. Bernie the Border Patrol agent seems naive and incapable, blundering around like the girl who goes in the closet in the stereotypical horror movie. A woman like this wouldn't last a month on the border. And she is one of two young women who need rescuing in the book.

For me, the most successful part of The Sinister Pig was Hillerman's handling of multiple viewpoints. The most memorable and chilling scenes involve the murder of a young woman that takes place early in the book, seen first through the eyes of the assassin and then by the man who ordered her death. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't live up to those chapters.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not a die-hard Hillerman fan. This is the sixteenth book in this series, and I've probably read only four or five of them. Someone who has followed the series from the beginning and has grown accustomed to the characters, landscape, and Navajo customs may be more enamored of this book than I was.

It was a quick, generally enjoyable read, great for the beach or poolside, but not my favorite Hillerman work.

Rating: 2 Kachinas. Read more!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum

The main reason we went to New York a couple of weeks ago was to see the first exhibition ever hel
d at the Guggenheim museum featuring its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the building, which was completed 6 months after Wright died in 1959, at age 91. Original drawings, models (too few of these) and documents spiraled up the museum’s ramps.

A New Yorker article about the exhibit notes t
hat "staff at the Guggenheim like to refer to the building as the most important object in the museum’s collection...." That is so true. We certainly go there to enjoy the building itself as much as the artwork it contains.

And if you believe the story told by the tour guides at Talesin, Wright's home in Wisconsin, the building was inspired by another obj
ect, this conch shell, which to this day sits on a shelf in his home. (I photographed it a few weeks ago through a window, since you're not allowed to take interior photos.)

It was strange and exciting to see Wright’s own drawings of the Guggenheim displayed in that very building itself. It was like walking into an M.C. Escher drawing. (Frink always says he wants to put an LCD TV with a video of a crackling fire in a fireplace over the real fireplace. Or one of those videos of fish swimming next to the fishtank. He's a clever lad, that Frink.)

It was also interesting to compare how the design evolved and changed – how the site selection, the other projects Wright was working on, and the negotiations with the client (who in the case of the Guggenheim, had a mind of her own) changed the artistic vision. Wright, for example, wanted the building’s exterior to be red. In another version, the widest part of the spiral was at ground level.

For architecture buffs and FLW groupies, the actual drawings, often larger than those in books, provided a lot more detail about
the plans for buildings, both those that were built, those that were outrageously and brutally demolished (like Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel), and those that were never built (like a huge, spacey Jetsons-mod theater complex and park Wright designed for Bagdad.) Some of the drawings had never been reproduced or displayed before.

Speaking of the Imperial Hotel, here's a photo (from
Wikipedia Commons.)

(My Aunt Fern and Uncle Edmond actually stayed there in the 60s, and when I get a scanner, I'll upl
oad Uncle E's slides of this magnificent building.) Ahead of its time (built 1923), it was designed to withstand an earthquake. In a weird twist of fate, at the opening ceremony, one of the worst earthquakes in Tokyo's history struck. While buildings throughout the city crumbled and burned, Wright's hotel was unscathed.

I bet the Japanese are kicking themselves for their short-sightedness in
tearing it down. Today, a single plate from the cafe sells for hundreds of dollars and chairs for thousands apiece. People would pay a premium to stay in one of the world's greatest structures. Tourists flock to the bit that remains in a museum. Until we can afford to fly to Japan, the closest Frink and I will ever come is this urn from the hotel, now in the Metropolitan Museum. It stands more than 5 feet tall. And our reproduction Cabaret china from the hotel's less formal cafe. But I digress.

The exhibit also included some computer animations, walking you visually through building. There was a cool "exploded" modle hung on wires of the Jacobs I, one of the most important Usonian houses. (Basically Usonian houses were built for regular folks, whom Wright felt deserved art and beauty as much as the wealthy. They featured a lot of wood and windows, great open spaces (Wright invented the "great room" concept), space-saving built-in furniture, and heated Cherokee red concrete floors.)

I'm getting a little better at looking at blueprints and such, but I am the kind of person who can't imagine spaces very well. (When some people want to rearrange the furniture, they can map it out or even imagine how it will look in their heads. I have to actually move the furniture and see it to decide if it looks good. Usually it doesn't. So then I have to move it back.) More models and animations would have made the exhibit even more enjoyable. Also, I wish they had included more photos of the finished buildings. Because FLW is our hobby, I've seen many of the actual buildings, but a lot of the visitors to the exhibit may not have.

In terms of collecting more objects to clutter our home, we were really restrained. We bought only two books, including the exhibit catalog. And of course I saved the free exhibit pamphlet. It featured this curtain, from the Hillside Theater at Taliesen, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Seeing the curtain out of context, hung web.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Exit the King

The third play we saw on our recent weekend in New York has now closed:
Exit the King, starring Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush (who won a Tony for Best Actor.) In fact, we saw it on the last day. I've never been to a closing performance, and I sort of wondered if we would get the full effort. But, aside from Sarandon discreetly cracking up once when the actor who played the guard had some fun repeating a line, nothing seemed amiss.

I have never read this play, by Eugene Ionesco, but it offered an interesting counter-point to
Waiting for Godot. The central dilemma in Godot is trying to find some meaning in life, some reason to keep on going in the face of a futile, often brutal existence. The central dilemma in Exit the King is coming to terms with the loss of that life, however meaningless and painful it might be.

Rush gave a stunning, clownish, scenery chewing performance, one full of bluster and pathos. His King clung to life with every ounce of his rapidly diminishing strength. The world is literally dying along with this solipcistic king -- the kingdom itself torn apart by volcanoes and earthquakes, the population rendered helpless and infertile as he dies.This is one man who refuses to go gently into that good night. The king is the walking embodiment of the id. The world and everyone in it exists for his pleasure. When he ceases to exist, the world will, too.

And isn't this, really, what all of us believe in our heart of hearts, in the secret hidey holes of our souls? I am the center of the universe. I cannot imagine a world without me. Death is the great void. The death of everything. I fear it. This incredible performance gave me the chance to recognize and give voice to those feelings. Actually, it rather insisted upon it.

The script and the play's direction forced us to recognize ourselves in the King, constantly breaking the 4th wall by making direct references to how many minutes his life (and the play) had left, placing the palace's Doritos-munching trumpeter in a balcony box, even sending Rush at one point up and down the aisles of the theater, where he stood right next to us, looking us in the eye as he railed against his inevitable end. (Incidentally, Rush is one skinny dude.)

Sarandon was good as the put-upon first wife, whose eye-rolling, cynical exterior masks a gentle side. In a long soliloquy at the end of the play, her almost maternal love shines as she tries to persuade the king to loosen his clenched fist and let go. Lauren Ambrose could have devolved into caricature as the king's beautiful second wife, Queen Marie. Like Rush, she's over-the-top in her arm-flinging, mascara-running distress. But her palpable love for the king and her blissfully youthful naivitee are compelling and real.

All-in-all, a memorable play and a great weekend on Broadway.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

God of Carnage

In our weekend Broadway splurge, we saw three plays. The second was God of Carnage. I'll be honest -- I don't quite get the 3 Tonys this play won (Best Play, Best Direction, Best Actress.) The play was laugh-out-loud funny, but after it was over, we found that there just wasn't that much to chew over or digest or argue about. And isn't arguing over a play half the fun?

God of Carnage is about two couples who meet in one couple's ultra chic living room to discuss a bullying incident between their children. They begin with polite niceties, but it isn't long before the shoes and jackets come off and the invective and vomit flies.

There's a certain pleasure in seeing actors you know only from the screen up close and personal on the stage. But I feel like I have seen these characters before: the self-important lawyer glued to his cell-phone (Jeff Daniels), the raging-within blue-collar type made good (James Gandolfini--aka Tony Soprano), the mousy, dutiful wife who loosens up after a little alcohol (Hope Davis), and the barely-keeping it together alcoholic who doesn't so much loosen up as fall apart after a few drinks (Marcia Gay Harden, who took home the Best Actress Tony.)

Not being a theater critic, and not having seen Harden's competition for the Tony (except for Davis, who was also nominated), I can't really comment on how well deserved the award was. Harden, though, was fantastic -- brittle, acerbic, and very funny. She was one of the best things about the play.

The set was also wonderful, evoking a tony apartment with a sleek mid-century modern aesthetic -- deep red walls and carpets, a huge rock-lined room divider and an enormous coffee table covered with art books, which play a role in one of the most amusing and shocking bits of action in the play.

But when it was over, it all felt a bit like
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf light or like a stagy and shrill sit-com. The central metaphor -- we're all animals at heart -- is rather obvious. And I didn't find any of the characters sympathetic. Unlike Waiting for Godot, I can't imagine reading this play over and over or breathlessly awaiting new productions to see how a different director or cast interpret the play. It was, to paraphrase Godot, a good way to pass the time.

Here's a link to the theater and more information.

Next up: Exit the King, starring Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush.
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