Saturday, October 31, 2009

Secret Boyfriend Death Scene

You should all rent Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellen right now. The film (which was based on a play based on the Shakespeare original) moves the story of everyone's favorite villainous and scheming hunchback, Richard of Gloucester, to a 1930s Nazi-ish alternate reality England. And it is awesome in every way. And one of the ways in which it is most awesome is this scene with secret-boyfriend-extraordinaire, Robert Downey, Jr., who plays the queen's playboy brother.

It is the part he was born to play, baby!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Life at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1857–1997 (1999)

The lovely Choo recently loaned me a copy of Life at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1857–1997 by Sarah C. Sitton (1999). The Texas State Lunatic Asylum is what is now known as the Austin State Hospital, and since it is right in my neighborhood, I was very interested to learn more about it.

Sitton's book is a nicely researched history both of the Austin State Hospital and of the history of state-supported mental health care over the past 150 years. Starting with the asylum philosophy of curative care through cleanliness, order, routine, and a beautiful living environment, moving through the custodial care philosophy of much of the 20th century, and ending with the de-institutionalization movement of the 1980s, Sitton shines a light on the ideals of mental health care and contrasts them with its sometimes sad realities.

Through a detailed examination of records at the state hospital and local archives, in combination with oral history interviews with former administrators, doctors, attendants, staff, and patients of the hospital, Sitton gives us a well-rounded view of the successes and failures of the institution. The book is nicely illustrated with dozens of pictures that show the physical changes of the hospital campus over its 150+ years of existence. This is a well-written book that avoids technical jargon and provides the necessary context to understand the history of the Austin State Hospital in its relation to national mental health care movements and historical events.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kiss of the Spider Woman and Two Other Plays (1994)

This collection of plays by Argentinian author Michael Puig includes Kiss of the Spider Woman (El beso de la mujer araña) (1983), Under a Mantle of Stars (Bajo un manto de estrellas) (1983), and Mystery of the Rose Bouquet (El misterio del ramo de rosas) (1987). The totally awesome book club that I'm in (actually, it's a literary society) decided to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, together with Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending for our most recent discussion.

Actually, in addition to Puig's 1983 play of Kiss of the Spider Woman, there is also his 1976 novel of the same name, the 1985 film version staring Raúl Juliá and William Hurt, and a Tony-award winning musical from 1993. With so many versions, why hadn't I ever heard of it before?

Kiss of the Spider Woman is the story of two cell mates in a Latin American prison. Molina is gay and a few years into his eight year sentence for statutory rape. Valentin is a communist revolutionary. The play covers a short period in the middle of their time together -- they have settled into a routine where Molina helps pass the time by reciting the plots of old movies, they fight, make up, talk about Molina's mother and Valentin's girlfriends, and take care of one another within the boundaries of prison life. A shocking revelation at the end of the first act complicates things and brings the play to its moving climax and its really quite perfect and wonderful ending. I liked this one a lot.

I have dibs to read the novel soon, and I'm very interested to compare the two, but because I read the play first, I feel like none of the other media will be able to capture Puig's minimalist style and sense of character and timing. I watched some scenes from the musical on YouTube. Bleh. Granted it is based on the book and not the play, and I saw the scenes out of context, but still -- nothing at all like the vision of this story that I had in my head.

The other two plays in the collection were also very good -- particularly Mystery of the Rose Bouquet, the story of a sick old woman, her nurse, and their pasts. Like Kiss of the Spider Woman, a mixture of realism and theatre give the story its power. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Promise of Murder (1959)

I picked up this copy of The Promise of Murder [also known as Melora] (1959) by the uniquely-named Mignon G. Eberhart from a used bookstore in Madison on our vacation. How could I resist? The cover is awesome and the author's name is Mignon. When I did a little searching on the author I discovered that 1) She is a woman; 2) She is from my hometown; 3) She went to the same undergraduate liberal arts college that I went to. I also found out that she was one of the most successful female mystery writers (known as "America's Agatha Christie") and that she has written over 60 books. And now I want to read more of them.

The set-up for The Promise of Murder is a lot like Daphne Du maurier's novel (and Alfred Hitchcock's film) Rebecca. A naive young second wife, Anne, comes into a wealthy household and is overwhelmed by the unspoken memory of the first wife, Melora. In this case, however, Melora isn't dead -- she just divorced Brent almost two years ago. No one ever talks about Melora, not even Anne's sister-in-law Cassie -- the widow of Brent's brother who, with her teenage son and daughter, has lived with Brent for the past fifteen years and ran every aspect of his household.

Brent gets called away to lawyery business in France the same day that the two kids head back to boarding school and Cassie goes to visit friends in the country. Anne sees them all off and goes up to the study only to find a piece of her letterhead in the typewriter with the words "I am going to kill you" typed on it. She gets a little nervous, but blows it off as a joke by one of the kids. After an un-nerving run-in with Melora, Anne finds another note, then another. The teenage daughter comes home unexpectedly with the flu and the two settle in for a suspenseful night full of creepy elevators, appearing and disappearing knives, cut phone lines, and a doctor who might not be a doctor at all.

Soon everyone returns and, after a physical confrontation, the police arrive. But then people start dying. And everything seems to revolve around the alluring Melora...

I think this essay does a nice job of illustrating the appeal of Eberhart's writing. A little romantic, a lot suspenseful, a tiny bit goofy, and entirely enjoyable.

[Wonderfully awesome back cover available here.]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gould's Book of Fish (2001)

Gould's Book of Fish (2001) by Richard Flanagan is indescribably weird and wonderful. The story of one forger told by another, Flanagan co-opts the life of real convict artist William Buelow Gould as the narrator of his book within a book that tells the story of a horrific Tasmanian penal colony in the 1830s, art, Australia, love, race, and fish. Lots and lots of fish.

In modern-day Tasmania, a man (who makes fake antiques for a living) finds an unusual book with detailed drawings of fish in the back of a junk store. He becomes obsessed with the scrawled narrative that surrounds the drawings -- bits and pieces of a story, written in different colored inks on found scraps of paper. He can't stop reading the book or talking about it. Every time he opens it, he finds a new passage he hadn't read before, or an unseen slip of paper slides out of the binding. And then one day he finishes it. And the whole thing turns into a salty puddle on the bar. So, after an intimate experience with a fish, he decides to re-create Gould's masterpiece. Which brings us to the book of fish.

Gould is possibly the most untrustworthy narrator ever created, but he is all we have, and he is so damn compelling, that we just make do. He has been exiled to Australia for at least one of a variety of real or mistaken crimes (including forgery, murder, sexing up the wrong people, and disrespecting the flag). And when he eventually is sentenced to the worst and most isolated prison on the rough west coast of Tasmania, he is mistaken by the prison surgeon as an artist, and commissioned to paint realistic drawings of the fish that are brought up in the colony nets for a scientific project in England. Even though he is not really an artist, he likes the small perks that come with the position, and goes with it. At first hating the fish, then loving them, and eventually merging with them completely.

This book has a Tristram Shandyness about it, mixed with a huge dose of colonialism and fishy philosophy. The narrative is at once loose and unconventional, and tightly constructed and satisfying. Absolutely worth checking out.

[Thanks, Corie!]

Thursday, October 01, 2009

interviewer interviewer interviewer

I love my husband because he will drop everything to watch Monty Python clips with me, even when I say all the jokes along with the skit.

Happy flanniversary, baby.