Friday, July 09, 2010

American Stories

These two books don't actually have much in common. I just read them around the same time and had sharply differing reactions to them.

Although I had somewhat mixed feelings about the previous Geraldine Brooks novel I'd read, People of the Book, I was excited to read March. I have vivid memories of being in second grade, sitting on the swing during recess and reading Little Women. At the time Pizza Hut was doing some kind of reading promotion with elementary schools and if you read enough books you got free pizza, It was a giant hardcover copy of some 600 pages and when I was done I was rather proud of my accomplishment and got so many reading credits that I got a free personal pan pizza for that book alone. So it's a fond association. Also I like historical novels and think the history of the Civil War is interesting.

March has a lot going for it. It's well--if unremarkably--written and tidily constructed. There are no loose ends, no bits of story that go wandering drunkenly off. One feels that their reading experience is in the hands of a thoroughly competent novelist. In the end though, I felt like the connection to Little Women was tenuous, even gimmicky. There seemed little narrative reason for the protagonist to be Mr. March as opposed to some other man not featured in a classic novel. And although, by centering the story around an abolitionist during the Civil War Brooks takes as her subject what is arguably the most important war, the most important period of American history, the book feels small. Under a veneer of thoughtfulness, it's an safe, comfortable novel that doesn't challenge readers. Maybe if Marmee were a real person she wouldn't be as supportive and perfect as she seems in Little Women--it can't be! Abolitionists were well meaning but still blinded by white privilege and even racism--surely you jest!

One of the great joys of reading fiction is that the author can reveal something new and truthful to the reader through their work. Your world can suddenly expand in small but noticeable ways. You can learn something you never expected to. A book doesn't have to do that, of course, to be enjoyable. But I think that a novel that asks the reader to take it seriously--to devote time and thought to it--should. It ought to challenge its audience in some way.

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart is a far messier book than March. But it has a delightful energy and sense of risk that made me want to forgive it all its flaws and just go along for the ride. Rather than feeling like the author is simply showing the reader things he or she already knows, M. Glenn Taylor introduces a story in which the elements are familiar but skewed in such a way as to make them feel new.

Like many ballads and folk tales, this one presents us with the story of its protagonist's life from birth to death (at a very advanced age). Divided into three sections--roughly speaking, youth, middle age, and old age--it begins more strongly than it ends and takes odd detours along the way. Trenchmouth Taggart is a larger than life figure, a sharp-shooting union man, a snake charmer, and a harmonica player, among many other things. At its best, the novel is a modern tall tale and feels quintessentially American. The story is one that couldn't take place anywhere else because it so clearly springs from the culture and landscape of its setting.

It makes sense then that the first and longest section, which embraces the oddness and distinctiveness of both the characters and the rural Appalachian setting, is the strongest. In middle age Trenchmouth becomes a bit Forrest Gump-ish, constantly encountering famous historical figures, and by the end of the book he slips into the cliche of an elderly man uncomfortable with the modern world. One can't help but wish that the focus had remained on these earlier years and people. But by that point the novel has earned so much good will (at least from me) that these flaws can be forgiven.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All-Ashton at ABT (with bonus complaining about hockey)

Today was not a good day for Sabres fans (make sure the sound is on when you follow that link). I hate days like the trade deadline and the beginning of free agency because the Sabres never do anything exciting (unless one counts losing players as exciting). Which would only be partially bad except certain Sabres fans (not linked to here) then proceed to flip out about the lack of activity even though said dullness has been the GM's m.o. for years and is therefore entirely predictable. It makes me cranky.

On the other hand--and be prepared to admire this incredibly smooth transition--I did have a lovely evening at the ballet last night. I went to see American Ballet Theatre's beautiful All-Ashton program. Having never seen any of Ashton's work I was excited to go and was even more excited when the box office sold me a student ticket for a seat toward the front of the orchestra. So different from sitting in the Family Circle and watching the tiny dancers.

The first ballet--Birthday Offering--featured roles for seven female soloists and costumes gaudy enough that they might have been improved by watching from the Family Circle. But I loved how distinct each of the seven variations were and particularly liked Misty Copeland's, in which she repeatedly flicked her feet rapidly in front of and behind the knee as if knitting with her legs. And Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm looked wonderful both separately and together. They're two dancers I'd so like the opportunity to see more often.

I was much less sure of the partnership of Sascha Radetsky and Hee Seo in Thais Pas de Deux. The pas de deux achieves a delicate exoticism without veering as sharply into orientalism as other ballets do although the orange costumes don't help. Seo looked graceful and soft and otherwordly but her beautiful lines made Radetsky's look short in comparison and he couldn't match her air of mystery. I usually like him very much--I just think this role might not serve him well.

The second pas de deux of the evening was the Awakening from Ashton's Sleeping Beauty which I don't think works particularly well as a stand-alone piece. Although maybe it would with a more charismatic pair of dancers. Particularly problematic for me was that Paloma Herrera seemed so much the stronger of the two. Cory Stearns seemed almost superfluous when partnering her; it felt as though she could do all the same things with no help at all. Maybe if he had been more authoritative it would have helped. I feel as though my lack of knowledge when it comes to dance really hurts me at times like this. I don't know if my problem is the choreographers or the dancers and I don't know if my problem is something technical or if it's just that I'm watching dancers that don't quite do it for me for whatever reason. Well, it's something that I imagine I'll understand better the more I see.

Even if I hadn't enjoyed the first three ballets of the evening though, it would have been more than worth it to see The Dream. I particularly appreciated the clarity of the storytelling and the way that the dancing constantly moved the story forward. Maybe it's the result of having no background in dance but the utter frivolity of so many story ballets can drive me crazy. I sit there wondering why I'm watching a variation in a particular place or what purpose some bit serves other than obstructing the story or if it was really quite necessary for the dancers to do that move again. Then again, maybe it's just that a lot of these ballets are very silly indeed. But with Ashton's take on The Midsummer Night's Dream there was none of that. The dancing--coupled with the lovely set and costumes--served to create characters and atmosphere with very little that felt like excess. And such dancing from all involved (I saw the cast with Herman Cornejo as Puck and David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy as Oberon and Titania respectively)! I felt fortunate to be sitting in the theater, watching people who are capable of creating something so beautiful and funny and charming.