A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bird's Blythe Spirit

The following review appeared yesterday in the Houston Chronicle:


By Sarah Bird

Knopf, 302 pp., $23.95

Sarah Bird’s new novel is a Cinderella story. Although when it begins, her Cinderella has already married and divorced the Prince; she’s been booted from the palace not by her wicked stepmother but by her wicked mother-in-law. She has to return to the scullery, but she finds there the equivalent of a fairy godmother. And when another Prince comes along, she has some helpers, like the mice and birds of the Disney version, to prep her for the ball.

But in truth, Bird’s heroine, Blythe Young, is an anti-Cinderella. Her “trailer-trash tramp of a mother” had christened her Chanterelle – “in her single, solitary moment of maternal lyricism she had named her only child after a mushroom.” After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin when the dot-com bubble was at its most inflated, Blythe started a catering business called Wretched Xcess Event Coordination Extraordinaire. At one event, she caught the eye of the crown prince of Austin high society, Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix the Third, whom she married, thereby surviving the bubble burst by riding in triumph into Bushworld.

Now, trying to make a comeback as a caterer after her divorce, she stages a garden party for one of her old socialite friends. But when the hostess discovers that Blythe is passing off taquitos from Sam’s Club as Petites Tournedos Béarnaise à la Mexicaine, she threatens to withhold payment. Whereupon Blythe spikes the party’s kir royales with Rohypnol.

Blythe has been fueling herself with her “proprietary blend of Red Bull, Stoli, Ativan, just the tiniest smidge of OxyContin, and one thirty-milligram, timed-released spansule of Dexedrine.” She’s up, she’s down, and – having slipped a mickey to the cream of Austin society – she’s out: of money and gas for her catering van. Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service is nipping at her heels because of her casual attitude toward her taxes. So she heads toward the only refuge that remains: her old college rooming house, the Seneca Falls Housing Co-op, now run by her former roommate, Millie Ott.

Blythe’s antithesis, altruistic Millie tends not only to the needs of Seneca House’s fringe-dwelling college students but also to various street people: homeless men, illegal-immigrant day workers, and panhandling runaway teens. With Blythe’s arrival, this secular saint meets the devil wearing Prada. (Actually, Blythe is decked out in her last remaining outfit, Zac Posen with Christian Louboutin shoes.)

And thus Blythe plummets – ascends? – from Bushworld into hippiedom, giving Bird a chance to gleefully skewer the denizens of both planes of Austin existence and serve them up as a satiric shish kabob. Readers of Bird’s novels know that she loves her misfits, and won’t be surprised that in the end, hippiedom wins out. Not to give anything away that the reader won’t see coming a mile off, this time it’s the fairy godmother who gets her prince while anti-Cinderella learns a few things about what really matters.

How Perfect Is That doesn’t have the range and depth of Bird’s best novel, The Yokota Officers Club, or the engaging exploration of a subculture found in her most recent one, The Flamenco Academy. It has to be said that her satiric target, the Bush-worshipping nouveaux riches, is as bloated as a blimp, and that Bird attacks it with a broadsword. The women all have names like Kippie Lee, Bamsie, Cookie, Blitz and Missy, and they vie with one another to see who can build the most extravagant mega-mansion in Pemberton Heights. Kippie Lee’s ideal is Becca Cason Thrash, whose 20,000-square-foot Houston house has 13 bathrooms, but her husband insisted on only four, whereupon “Kippie Lee split the difference and went for eight” and her husband started having an affair with his dental hygienist.

Topical satires usually wind up in the remainder bins, victims of creeping obsolescence. But How Perfect Is That takes note of the winds of change. The story begins in April 2003, a month before the declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” when Bush’s popularity was near its post-9/11 peak. But time wounds all heels, and by the end of the novel, even Kippie Lee and Bamsie are distancing themselves from the president: “We never really liked Bush anyway,” Bamsie confesses to Blythe. “Every Southern girl in the country knew a hundred frat guys just like Bush and every one of them was smarter and better looking.”

Bird’s snark is tempered with heart, and the tug of her plotting and the warmth of her characterization overcome the occasional heavy-handedness of the satire. Blythe is a splendid creation, a kind of Auntie Mame for the Internet age. Though How Perfect Is That isn’t perfect, it’s exactly what you’re looking for if you want an enjoyable summer read.

As I noted, How Perfect Is That isn't quite up to the standards of either The Yokota Officers' Club or her more recent The Flamenco Academy. Here's my review of the latter:


By Sarah Bird

Knopf, 381 pp., $25

Early in her career, Sarah Bird wrote a clutch of romance novels as Tory Cates – a pseudonym that might be translated as "conservative delicacies," which almost sums up the damsels-and-rakes genre in a phrase. But genre fiction is too limiting for a writer as irrepressibly clever as Bird, whose novels under her own name have earned her critical praise and a small, enthusiastic following. The best of them is probably "The Yokota Officers Club," a coming-of-age tale about the rebellious daughter of an American military family stationed in Okinawa.

In her latest, "The Flamenco Academy," Bird has given us another coming-of-age story, but her central plot is one that Tory Cates might have dreamed up: A shy virgin meets a dark, handsome, mysterious man who awakens in her the possibilities of passion, but when he disappears from her life as suddenly as he entered it, she becomes obsessed with finding and winning him. Her quest will take her into the heart of the exotic culture from which he emerged.

There are passages of the ripest romance in "The Flamenco Academy," but they blend into Bird's funny, touching portrait of two misfit girls, Cyndi Rae Hrncir and Didi Steinberg. They meet as high school seniors in an Albuquerque hospital, where their terminally ill fathers are being treated. Didi is flamboyant, interested only in "bands, astrology, and weirdo diets." Rae is a nerdy math whiz. But they strike up a friendship born of their alienation from other high school students and are soon breezing about the city in Didi's red Mustang. When their fathers die, they're pretty much on their own: Didi's mother is a lush and Rae's joins a religious cult. The girls move in together and get jobs at the Pup y Taco, a hot dog and Mexican food take-out joint.

Didi has a hunger for stardom that she feeds by playing groupie to touring bands. One night, Rae follows her to a post-concert party at a motel, and meets a flamenco guitarist who has hitched a ride with the band. Rae is captivated by his music – and by him, especially after he helps her escape when the party is raided by the police. The two of them spend the evening wandering the city, but when he discovers she's a virgin he abruptly backs off, flags down a ride and disappears from her life.

Through an Internet search, Rae identifies the mystery man as Tomás Montenegro, a rising star in the world of flamenco. When she learns from a newspaper article that the University of New Mexico has "the only university-level flamenco program in the world," she enrolls in it. Moreover, the teacher of the beginning class turns out to be Doña Carlota Anaya de Montenegro – not only a superstar of flamenco, but the one who adopted and raised Tomás.

Didi follows Rae to the first flamenco class and gets caught up in the dance. Soon the two are star pupils, but with very different styles. Doña Carlota dubs Didi "La Tempesta" because of her fiery but undisciplined style. Rae has a better understanding of compás, the complex rhythms of flamenco, because she can translate them into mathematical patterns. Doña Carlota calls her "La Metrónoma," for her technically perfect, metronomic mastery of compás. She tells Rae and Didi, "'The head and the heart. Together you are the perfect dancer. Apart?' She gave an Old World shrug that dismissed both our chances."

What chance could these two misfits have at excelling in flamenco, an art whose greatest practitioners are Gitano por cuatro costaos – "Gypsy on all four sides"? Didi (née Rachel) Steinberg, "the little girl who wanted AC/DC to play at her bat mitzvah," was born to a Filipina mother and a Jewish father. And Rae has to acknowledge that she's "the exact reverse of all things flamenco, … my broad, pale Czech face … evidence that, not terribly far back in my genetic lineup, there were generations of dozy, strawberry blond milkmaids, all pale as steam."

But Didi reinvents herself. She becomes a star, the diva Ofelia, by studying "Doña Carlota in the same omnivorous way she watched Madonna and Cher, the same way she read Sylvia Plath and listened to Joni Mitchell and studied Frida Kahlo's painting." To succeed, Rae will have to follow the advice given her by Doña Carlota and move out from under Didi/Ofelia's shadow: "You will never have enough light because you will never have enough courage to grow past her and reach the sun." The complementarity of Didi and Rae turns to rivalry, not only as dancers but eventually for Tomás himself.

"The Flamenco Academy" is not only the saga of Rae and Didi. It also gives us Doña Carlota's tales of Gypsy childhood in 1930s Spain, shadowed by the civil war, as well as the reasons for Tomás' own enigmatic behavior. This makes for a heady brew of a novel, lushly romantic at one turn, wryly and wittily observant at the next. If it seems to shrivel into anticlimax at the ending, that's because so much high passion has gone before. And when it comes to characterization, especially compared to Rae and Didi, Tomás never quite turns from Tormented Artist into convincing human being. At times, he's little more than a hero-hunk sent over from central casting at Harlequin Books.

But good conflict makes good fiction, and that's what gives "The Flamenco Academy" such irresistible energy and narrative drive. And what really makes the novel more than just an exceptional summer read is Bird's wonderful ability to create a milieu, from the Albuquerque prowled by teenage girls to the Spanish caves inhabited by Gypsies. Best of all, she gives us the complex lore and intricacies of flamenco, which Didi – always one to get the last word -- describes as "obsessive-compulsive disorder set to a great beat."