Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Extra long review today.

I have owned this book for years and years. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. I have many times referenced a quotation on page 92: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” (My copy of the book falls open naturally to page 92 and the line is highlighted. It’s pretty weird to have this relationship with a book I’d never read before.)

The novel’s narrator is a young man named David, an American who has been living in Paris. The book opens: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He takes much of the book, however, to reveal what is so terrible about the morning to come. One of Baldwin’s interesting artistic choices here is a disjointed chronology; the story is told from this night-before-the-terrible-morning, in flashbacks, which sometimes jump backward and forward in time, and then we return to the night and the terrible morning. David had been in Paris with a woman named Hella. When he proposed, she left to go travel in Spain; she needed time and space to think things through. She’s an independent woman. In her absence, David accompanies a sort of frenemy, Jacques, to a gay bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the bartender. (Jacques had intended to hit on him, but got distracted.) This is Giovanni, a young Italian man, with whom David finds interesting conversation, mutual attraction, and a very complicated set of feelings: push/pull, desire/revulsion, love/hate. They go back to Giovanni’s room, and they live together there until Hella’s return some months later, when David leaves (saying nothing to Giovanni) to return to her. She has decided she wants to be married, and David is too bound up and self-loathing to stay with the man he loves. Giovanni is distraught. I will not spoil the plot item that is the “most terrible morning of [David’s] life.”

The story is told in David’s first-person perspective, and it is full of angst and disquiet. I don’t think he’s supposed to be remotely likeable. He’s disappointed in his relationship with his father, in his relations with women (including but not especially Hella), in his feelings for men (before Giovanni, there was a boy in his boyhood as well, though he has repressed this memory), in his view of his own masculinity. He struggles with the ideas of home and belonging, both in terms of geography and identity. He is a miserable partner to Giovanni, and we are left with the impression at the book’s end that David will walk away from these events angsty as ever but materially fine, while Giovanni most certainly does not.

Giovanni’s Room has a handful of themes and angles for interpretation, but there are a few that especially interest me.

For one thing, I think the novel is very much about power structures. Jacques, the friend who takes David to the bar, is older and richer; David doesn’t actually like or respect him but wants to borrow (or “borrow”) money. Giovanni’s (also older) boss at the bar holds an analogous power over his employee: as an immigrant, Giovanni’s work prospects are few, and Guillaume is an egregious sexual harasser. David and Giovanni have a twisted codependency, and the power dynamics within their relationship are complicated. Giovanni works while David keeps house (some basic cleaning duties, but he is clearly anxious about the housewifeliness of it all). David comes from a far more secure background, economically, although he’s effectively broke on the ground in Paris because his father won’t send him any money. By contrast, Giovanni is in real danger of homelessness and starvation if anything goes wrong in his life. David withholds emotional intimacy; Giovanni is always chasing after something he can’t get from his partner. As discussed with my friend Vince, though, I think there’s an argument that each is obsessed with the other, in different ways. Then there is Hella, the strong woman who fled a marriage proposal to travel alone: she returns changed, suddenly dedicated to a life in which she explicitly wishes to be beholden to a man. She’s decided it is women’s only option, only way to truly live. (Vomit: but this is the 1950s.) I think in the end, David’s anxieties about manhood and masculinity, and his distress at his homosexuality (bisexuality?), are in some ways about power structures, too.

On a related subject: the elephant in the room here is that Baldwin’s protagonist is a blonde-haired white man. I felt surprise when I discovered this (as do many readers), which bears examination. Who do we expect to write about whom? Clearly I expected Baldwin, a Black man, to write Black characters. (To be fair, he has done so in all the other works of his I’ve read, but that’s not the root of my assumptions.) Baldwin was also a gay man, and an American who lived in Paris: he gave his protagonist these characteristics of his own, but not race. What does it mean, for one thing. And, this is too big a subject to be properly handled within this review, but it’s also part of the ongoing question about representation in fiction: what identities are represented, by what authors (of what identities), who gets to be the “default,” and on from there. Elsewhere Baldwin has written his frustration that, as a Black man, he’s expected to write about “the Negro problem,” and never allowed out from under that bell jar. Here he just turned his back on the topic entirely (or did he?), and if I felt surprise, or even if I felt a bit cheated, this is a good time to be reminded that he doesn’t owe his readers any content in particular. He is quoted in The New Yorker: “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

There is an argument that racial tension does appear in Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni is Italian in France, and there is no question that this is a) racial and b) a disadvantage for Giovanni. Baldwin does not go Heart of Darkness with darkness imagery, not in terms of skin tone: when we meet Giovanni, he is “insolent and dark and leonine,” but that is the only mention I found. There is however a lot of darkness imagery in the story: mainly related to spaces being dark, which can be related to their boding ill, to privacy, to queerness, to the shame David feels about this and other liaisons. Based on the above quotation from Baldwin, it sounds like he either did not intend commentary on race, or he didn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s entirely possible that any such commentary was subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think there’s an undeniable power imbalance between the blonde David and the Italian Giovanni, which is most explicitly about class, rather than race – but since when have class and race ever been extricable? And let’s keep in mind that Italian immigrants to the United States (where both Baldwin and David grew up) were historically considered very much not white, although that would change shortly after this book was published.

Physical spaces, and a sense of home and the belonging that it entails, make up another theme that fascinates me here. (Recall that line marked in my copy.) As I keep reminding my students: pay attention to titles; they are trying to tell us something. This novel is not titled for the story of David, or of Giovanni, or for love, or death; it is titled for the room. Giovanni’s room is the place where he and David live and love together, a life and love which David feels are dirty, and sinful. It is rather obsessively described and recalled, always in negative terms. Small, claustrophobic, dirty, untidy, in a state of change (“Giovanni had had great plans for remodeling the room and there was a time, when he had actually begun to do this, when we lived with plaster all over everything and bricks piled on the floor”), cluttered, garbage-filled, dark. It is like living underwater. Other spaces where David does sinful things are also dark and dirty, as are corridors, alleys, and the spaces under bridges where men tryst, and the bars where they meet. David leaves Giovanni’s room to go to Hella’s. He never has a space of his own. The book opens and closes in the “great house” in the south of France which he must clean before he leaves it. He is embarrassed for the landlady to see the state he’s kept these rooms in. All of this accrues to anxiety about place and about spaces, and the connection between spaces and the activities they contain. None of which even begins to address the American-expat-in-Paris problem, which is a whole genre of novels unto itself (see also Stein, Hemingway, Henry James). Whew.

[I was reminded of Hemingway often. The American expat in Paris; certain aspects of character, like detachment and resistance to intimacy (others have cited Jake from The Sun Also Rises); a writing style that lends itself both to brevity as well as syntactic complexity; an insecure obsession with masculinity. I wonder if I project my own reading history. But no, Baldwin has named Hem as an influence. It shows.]

In addition to home as irrevocable condition, consider this Schrodinger’s cat between Giovanni and David.

‘…you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’…

‘Beautiful logic,’ I said. ‘You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?’

He laughed. ‘Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’

‘I seem,’ I said, ‘to have heard this song before.’

I’ve heard it before, too: the version I like comes via Maya Angelou in a 1987 interview. “You can never go home again,” is the famously quoted version. The completion of her fuller line is instructive. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Okay, I’m revealing my own obsessions now, but I think it’s safe to say that Baldwin shares them (and David, too).

This review has gotten awfully long, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to interpret and interrogate about this novel, brief at under 200 pages and yet deep and rich. What can I say about Baldwin? Go read him yourself.


Rating: 8 glasses.

Original Short Stories, volume 1 by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve reviewed a few stories from this volume in the past, but only after years have I finished reading the whole thing. It’s odd to know Maupassant as a literary figure but to have read so little of him. (I taught his story “The Necklace” this past year, but otherwise, these collected stories are the bulk of what I know of his work.) As a general impression, I appreciate his knack for description, and I see what Hemingway admired* and learned from**. The simple, strong statements, including judgments couched as description, felt familiar. I frequently found the stories to be vicious, though, and often rather gratuitously so. Sometimes this brutality felt like justice (“Mademoiselle Fifi”), but often it felt a little senseless. I frequently missed the final ironic turn for which “The Necklace” is so known.

The first four stories I’ve reviewed here pleased me more than the final eight; or maybe it’s that they began to run together. They certainly share subject matter as well as style. Maybe it’s not the moment for Maupassant in my life, or maybe I’ll keep my eyes open for a different collection.


*Hem’s recommendation is actually to read “all the good de Maupassant.” Whatever that means.

**He also thinks he surpassed Maupassant in the end, so there you are.


Rating: 6 expensive oil paintings.

Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Frankenstein (2011); and my weekly update

Last week’s NT Live release was 2011’s Frankenstein, which is viewable here until this Thursday night, when we get a chance to see Antony and Cleopatra.

Well, it had to happen: there had to be an NT Live production I was less taken by. I found less to revel in here than usual. I’m sure the acting was very fine, but it felt a little indulgent, in terms of theatricality. Opening scenes in which the Creature discovers himself and the world around him went on a little long for my patience. The pacing in general felt a bit draggy, and the themes of trying-to-be-god and man-is-monster not terribly uplifting… which might have been my feelings about the novel, too, actually. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing the two lead roles, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature; this film version offers Cumberbatch as the Creature. Again, very good acting I’m sure, but I often felt a little impatient; I didn’t buy into the drama as I usually do. This production also included just a few musical sequences and the odd spot of comedy, both of which felt a bit out of place in a story that’s otherwise, well, quite serious. If you love Frankenstein, do check this out, of course, and I’d be interested in your take. This one was not so much for me. Ah, well. This week will be better.

In other news, since around the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I’ve been having weekly literature talks (by phone) with the 8th-grade daughter of some friends of mine. We are heading into our seventh week together. L has mostly read short stories that I’ve also taught to my Short Fiction class (semester wrap-up coming later this week!), and our discussion follows what I’ve done in class; I’ve found her to be at least as ready as my college students (freshmen through seniors) to handle the elements of fiction and the real-world implications of the themes of these stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure – and now that my own semester has ended but my chats with L continue, I’m still more grateful for this small-scale opportunity for a little teaching, a little talking, a little contact with a lovely, clever young woman. Last week I asked her to assign me a reading, based on our recent discussion of dystopian fiction (following stories by Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, and Lidia Yuknavitch), so we discussed chapter 3 of The Hunger Games. And now I’m going to be reading that book. Good job, L.

In other news, I have been sorry to learn that my book review gig with Shelf Awareness will be moving to a digital reading format due to the pandemic and resulting difficulties with printing galleys and ARCs… it all makes perfect sense and there are far bigger issues to be sad about, but still I was sad to realize that all my reading-for-review will be moving away from hard-copy. My first e-reader arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve been loading my e-galleys and DRCs (that’s digital review copies, previously advanced review copies which were printed) onto it and doing my first reading. The Kindle Paperwhite is much smaller than I’d expected. But it’s pretty easy to use, once I got it set up, and the small, lightweight physicality of it is nice, I admit. I guess I’m torn between feeling grumpy about this new development, and committing myself to liking this, since it’s going to happen regardless. I’m trying hard to commit myself to liking it. And to be fair, nothing about the reading experience is hateful so far – although I definitely miss the feel of pages and the ability to take my notes on a bookmark and even underline passages on real paper. (I’m aware that the e-reader has highlighting & note-taking functions. It’s not the same; and it’s not nearly as easy.) Well, we’ll see, but I’m trying to get happily on board.

In other news, let’s see… I’ve enjoyed a few TV series online in the last two months (already!) of work-and-everything-else-from-home. I fell in love with Luther and then even more in love with The Wire – I may very well turn around and watch the latter again. I ripped through season six of Bosch, and was glad to see that my enjoyment of that series has not suffered from my recent disappointment with a Connelly novel on audiobook (that review to come).

Spring is off-and-on here in central West Virginia, and when it’s on, Hops and I walk miles and I ride my bike on the local trails, which have been mucky for weeks and weeks but are super fun nonetheless; I’ve also put in some trailbuilding & maintenance with my new friends here. Oh, that’s right: I’ve begun a new little project via a new Instagram account, wvwildlifewanderer, where I document the plants and animals (mostly plants, much easier to observe and photograph) that I see around here. I’m trying to learn how to recognize trees and flowers, which does not come easily to me, but it’s been a rewarding process so far.

What have you seen, onscreen or in the world, that intrigued you lately?

National Theatre Live at Home presents Twelfth Night (2017); and my weekly internet roundup

This week on NT Live at Home: Twelfth Night, viewable for free here until this Thursday night, when we lose Twelfth Night and gain Frankenstein (with Benedict Cumberbatch). Lucky us!

And you’ll be shocked to hear it’s another excellent one. This is a great play, and I love the casting and the acting here. Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are Black; Malvolio, Fabian and Feste the fool are women (Malvolia, Fabia and… I think just Fool); and the whole thing has been recast in, what, 1930s-ish trappings? There’s no modernization of the dialog, thankfully, just the visual effects. I love the gender play, and what could make more sense in a play where a woman dresses up as a man to woo another woman on behalf of another man, than to mess about with gender roles a bit more? Malvolia is as ridiculous as ever; the lesbian twist on her desire for her boss is only natural. I think this may be the best Malvolio I’ve seen (although he was memorable in that movie version). I think the best chemistry of the whole production was that between Viola/Cesario and Duke Orsino. Sebastian is hot, and I loved the moment with Orsino gets confused one more time at the end and kisses the wrong twin; but the Viola + Orsino scenes have something going on that no other prospective couple achieves.

This one also features another creative set design, circular and moveable-changeable. While not all reviewers loved the drag/fetish club scene, I thought it was great fun. Again they had me guffawing out loud and startling a sleeping old dog (sorry, Hops). I was all-around entertained. I think Twelfth Night might be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays to follow, and there is fun here for anyone, promise. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat and heartily recommend it all around, as usual for everything NT Live offers.


Rating: 8 hot tubs.

Continuing my new pandemic tradition of reviewing other cool stuff on the web: I was so pleased with this astonishing performance (via a link from Mark Doty, so thank you for that, sir) that I’ve watched it several times now. It’s tableaux vivants of Caravaggio paintings, performed to Mozart; but beyond the classical tableau vivant which is a stationary performance, these are shown in setup and takedown as a whole moving theatre. The addition of movement helps me to appreciate the physical strength of the players, making it athletic as well as dramatic as well as a visual art form – plus the music – really a revelation.

A couple of nights ago I “attended” a 50th anniversary show for KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica public radio station, and got to see performances by nearly three dozen artists with ties to my hometown, including a couple of old favorites and a few I didn’t know but was really drawn to. Hayes Carll made me cry unexpectedly. Other highlights included BettySoo, Ruthie Foster, Shinyribs, and Lisa Morales. I don’t think this is available anywhere now, but it was a real treat for me, and since then I’ve been spending some time on Carolyn Wonderland’s YouTube page.

Finally, and while we’re thinking about Shakespeare, I dug this Guardian article about the question of reading drama versus watching it performed onstage. I guess I’ve always assumed that theatre performances were the highest actualization of any piece of written drama – why write a play but to have it performed? But there are some good points here. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading drama, and while there’s a special place in my heart for the stage, it’s nice to be reminded that we can all bring Shakespeare (and others) home with us as well. The timely article is about bringing him home now when we can’t get out to the theatre, but of course, thank dog for NT Live! Yes, you can have it all!

I watched a great movie the other night too but that one gets its own review, of course. I think this is the week that pagesofjulia will have to return to thrice-weekly posts… so much goodness in the world, in terms of art and entertainment. Plenty of bad, too, but so much good.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Treasure Island (2015), and the other stuff I’m watching online

This week’s edition of NT Live at Home is another repeat for me, but one I was glad to be able to revisit. Treasure Island can be viewed here until Thursday, when we’ll get access to Twelfth Night. I’m looking forward to it!

This was the first NT Live show I ever saw, with my father, in Bellingham, WA at their outstanding Pickford Theatre. It’s as delightful as I remember. The talented Patsy Ferran plays Jim, who’s a girl in this version – I love a little gender-twist to a classic, and the empowerment that comes with it in a case like this. While it’s not such a big deal as to steal the show, she gets in a few lines about how girls can have adventures too. (Likewise, a few female crew members and pirates draw the odd remark – acknowledged, but not earth-shaking.) Ferran’s Jim is expressive and fun. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is perfect: charming, and terrifying. I love the scene where his one-leggedness is revealed. And I like how they managed the one-leggedness onstage. I see in my original review that I was bothered by certain aspects of the adaptation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel; I am unbothered on this go-round, by more distance from reading the novel, for one thing, but also by appreciation for the theatre. Still impressed by the modular set! This is a great show.

Otherwise, this weekend I’ve been catching up on some of NPR’s excellent Tiny Desk Concerts: Bob Weir and Wolf Bros., Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, Rising Appalachia, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Café Tacvba… and the odd Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, like one from Tank (from Tank and the Bangas). There are so many great ones to dig into.

I am also reading my way right through nearly 1,200 pages of The Stand and grading hundreds of pages of student essays.

Put NT Live on your schedule, if you haven’t already!

National Theatre Live at Home presents Jane Eyre (2015), and other online events

Week two of NT Live at Home! This was a repeat viewing for me – I saw Jane Eyre when it was a new production, and loved it. I was perfectly happy and grateful to see it again. And again, to remind you: this production is viewable for free but for a limited time, until the next show goes up on Thursday, so do go see it here asap. This week’s release will be Treasure Island, another outstanding production. Put it on your calendar!

So, Jane Eyre as repeat: still outstanding. I think I loved it even more this time around, although I see I originally rated it a 10, so I can’t do better than that! I am impressed all over again with the set – so simple, and yet used to convey so much movement and so many different sets; the movement of people, including the lovely, clever form of travel in a carriage left to the imagination but fully communicated by the actors; the use of actors as set (as a doorknob, for example) and (I still love this) the actor who plays a dog. And the bird. Each actor, excepting Jane herself, plays multiple roles, with few but meaningful costume changes, and yet they’re not a bit hard to keep straight. Minimalism is the thing all around: set, costuming, cast (in numbers only) are spare. But the acting is superb.

I had forgotten the musical numbers entirely! And while they contribute something (and are stunningly performed), they are not the most important element. What I remembered best about this play – minimalism and extraordinarily great acting – are still the best parts. I didn’t remember it being so passionate – I don’t remember Jane being so passionate, even when she was a child. As my mother would say, this character has an overdeveloped sense of justice. (I won’t say whom my mother has said that about!) That’s interesting, because in my interview with author Erin Blakemore, I recall she and I agreeing that Wuthering Heights is the novel of passion where Jane Eyre is the novel of reason – but this is surely a story of passion! at least in the stage version. Another new observation: on this go-round I badly want to reread the novel, which I haven’t read since high school. Maybe I can straighten all that out.

I was really stunned and deeply impressed with this re-viewing. Don’t miss it. My previous rating, 10 fires burning brightly, stands.

In other news, and continuing my feeling of overwhelm at all the lovely art & culture available online these days, I’ve seen some additional great stuff the last few days, including a Drive-By Truckers concert (from Pickathon 2017), a Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires jam session and fireside chat, and an author reading by Paul Lisicky and Carter Sickels at the Blue Stoop in Philly. (This was an event I’d originally planned to see in person – I had a dogsitter lined up and everything. But instead I got to attend with a whiskey in hand and dog in lap.)

This was the third time I’ve gotten to hear Paul’s voice in recent months. I interviewed him about his recent Later (that interview will be here on Friday), and I attended (online) another recent reading. He’s made me cry all three times; I don’t know what to tell you about that, but it’s a moving book and I’m a fan. Actually, Carter’s reading made me cry as well; they were both lovely, beautiful readings as well as beautiful books. (I haven’t read Carter’s, but I’ve since preordered it through Taylor Books.) There was some question of how new releases are reading, now, in the pandemic – because the books that are being released now of course date from before COVID ruled our lives. And while some have not profited by the change, sounding frivolous or tone-deaf in the new landscape, both of these books have aged well, if you will. Both are about sickness, which of course is creepy in its own way, but both have intelligent things to say about contagion, isolation, and how illness and death are in some ways confirmations of life.

having a whiskey with Paul Lisicky

Just last night I reveled in this Tank and the Bangas concert. There are concerts and plays coming out fast and thick – and I’m also reading three books at once and teaching a couple of college courses! Whatever else may be true in social isolation, bored I am not. I’ll say it again: the pandemic is a terrible thing. But there are some bright points of light in this darkness: art.

television: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I have been thinking, again, about some wonderful memories that have helped to shape me. For starters, please go revisit this post, as I think about what a precious gift my Grammy gave me when she took me to see my first live Shakespeare production at a beautiful theatre in San Diego when I was ten. And just now, I’ve been remembering watching Poirot, perhaps Agatha Christie’s best-known detective, when I was a little girl with my mother. I recall vividly the art-deco entry sequence. I loved this show.

In my memory, this was an old show, but I see now that it began in 1987, when I was five years old. So by the time I was watching it it was not new releases, but still pretty recent. Well, I’ve just rediscovered the series thanks to a few different channels on Amazon Prime. There are now thirteen seasons, and thank goodness, because I can’t get enough.

The early seasons are what I remember from childhood. The tone is fairly lighthearted; the audience is invited to laugh gently at Poirot, who takes himself too seriously, and who is accompanied by the variously comic Miss Lemon (with her ridiculous hairstyle and her lovable passion for filing), Captain Hastings (“I say!”), and Scotland Yard’s over-serious Inspector Japp. This is the cast of characters I loved so much as a child, and I find them as remembered, but with more depth and nuance now that I’m a few years older. (Or maybe my memory just got vague.) It goes without saying that Poirot himself is played by David Suchet, my first Poirot and the only one I recognize; I have since encountered other iterations and they are all offensively wrong for the role in my eyes. What can I say; I’m loyal to my first experience? but I really think he is the portrayer. I am not alone. “Agatha Christie never saw David Suchet in the role but her grandson Mathew has commented: ‘Personally, I regret very much that she never saw David Suchet. I think that visually he is much the most convincing and perhaps he manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist, to be convincing!'” (source)

note the twinkle in the eye and the little smile

I am sorry to say that after season eight, Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp mysteriously disappear on us. Poirot is rather more alone from here, although he does gain (in season ten) a new butler, George, and a new friend, Ariadne Oliver, an irreverent mystery novelist who is always, always eating an apple. While Mrs. Oliver is good for a laugh or two, George does not provide much comic relief; neither of them replaces the original trio. The overall tone of the show has gotten less light, too. It feels a little bit, to me, as if the show has taken a step toward taking Poirot as seriously as he takes himself. I think the loss of tongue-in-cheek humor hurts. I love a good dark, grim, gritty mystery as much as anyone does, but having loved a slightly ridiculous Poirot I am less enamored of the darkly serious one. It is also somewhere in here that his Catholicism begins to play a role. I may misremember, but I feel like he used to be cynical about religion; now he is devout, always whispering over his beads. It’s not bad, but it’s different, and if my love for Poirot is much about nostalgia, I don’t like having my original version messed with.

we are getting more serious now

I’m very glad it keeps going, though. By the time I got to Murder on the Orient Express, near the end of season twelve, I was marveling at what wonderful storytelling Christie’s original was, for one thing, and at how glad I am to have this cinematic telling. The Catholicism is big in this one, and the darkness. Atmosphere, and the snowed-in backdrop, are very effectively done. It’s a grand story that I feel I’ve seen and read and heard in several formats by now, and this version does the whole thing justice. I’m so glad this production exists in the world; I feel lucky.

I am impressed to read that Suchet has played the entire Poirot canon by now! and “only slightly short of the target he had set himself of completing the entire canon before his 65th birthday.” (I’m using Wikipedia as a source; original interview here.) But I have the usual feeling of impending loss, as I finish season twelve and face the approaching end. Thank goodness there are so many stories in the world, yes? I hear Bosch is returning for a sixth season this spring…


Rating: 8 little gray cells, obviously.

I guess I rate television shows now too. What the heck.

guest review: Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando (2019), from Pops

From Pops, from Bellingham’s Sylvia Center (formerly the iDiOM).

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and directed by WWU professor Rich Brown, with five players on a spare stage. Woolf and the story are still mostly inscrutable to me, but the players and staging are wonderful, with multiple vignettes easily adequate to carry the story and action. This production is creatively played with humor and energy as the narrative speeds through centuries, while centered on Orlando personally.

It is a very physical interpretation with much movement, often choreographed like dance; passage of time is depicted by the actors furtively running in circles or helter-skelter in the small stage area. They may use each other for props like tables and chairs; small props emerge on cue from pockets or capes. Some minor wardrobe changes occur in the flow of staging. Ship voyages are inventively evoked by actors’ bodies locked together and swaying with the waves.

Karlee Foster as the androgynous Orlando is perfect, physically as well as in body language and expression. She is ruffled, wild and spirited, but also ruminates over social conventions; all of which is belied by a tranquil and well-groomed promotional studio photo. The 3-man chorus is excellent, and not mere backdrop; they serve as continuous narrators but each also plays at least one woman’s part. The fifth player is an exotic Sasha, Orlando’s lifelong icon of youthful love. Her ‘Romanian’ accent is nearly overdone and perplexing, but her irresistible effect on Orlando is intently, comically obvious.

Suiting the tale, Orlando passionately kisses each of many characters (and all players) at least once – or more! Other, intimate couplings are openly implied with inventive, chaste staging devices, like backlit silhouettes or covering capes. And, always fun, there is a Shakespearean play-within-a-play – of Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar! (the murder of Cassius) It was delightful, lively entertainment; kudos to the venue, the company and the small arts community that continues to display actors of such craft and energy.

What fun this sounds like! I remain unsure of Woolf, and remember Orlando as daunting (I believe from the 1992 film) (then again, I was 10 in 1992, what do you expect). But this stage performance sounds delightful. Maybe that’s just my feeling about (well-produced) theatre in general. I am jealous; I’m not seeing more theatre these days…

Thanks, Pops!

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.
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