Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"For the sake of being modern"

If you are as enamored of this movie as I am, you will enjoy The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty which is taken in part from the life of twenties film actress Louise Brooks. As a teenager, Louise travels from Wichita to New York to take part in a summer dance program. Since she's only fifteen, her parents hire a chaperone to accompany her. Cora Carlisle, whose own sons are leaving for college, takes the job.  

On the train, when she's not thwarting Louise's attempts to flirt with strangers, Cora remembers another train journey. As a young child, she traveled from an orphanage in New York to her adopted parents' farm in Kansas. She hopes by visiting the orphanage as an adult she can discover some information about her birth parents. In the process, she discovers that while she can't charm her way through life as Louise can, she can rely on a different set of feminine wiles.

Louise embodies all that the older generation finds shocking. As the chaperone, Cora finds herself espousing a moral code she can't quite articulate. But as the novel progresses through the twentieth century, Cora finds herself questioning the conventional attitude towards contraception, race relations, and sexuality.  

Ironically, near the end of her life, Louise finally finds contentment in a life off-screen. Cora, however, is cast in the role of a lifetime as she and her husband keep up appearances as a happily married couple - even though they have both found love elsewhere.    

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bread-and-Butter Notes

Justine and her grandfather are searching for Caleb. Caleb, her grandfather's brother, left home in 1912. Using tenuous leads found in obituaries, old school photos, and phonograph records left behind, the pair travel by bus and train to interview anyone who may know his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Justine's husband has been fleeing his family legacy for years.  When the obsession of the moment (health food, antique furniture, goats) has ceased to keep him out of the bottle, they pack up and move to a town that's a little closer to or farther from Baltimore, the family's home base. Tired of the transiency, Meg, Justine's daughter, runs away to marry a minister.

Although there are several funny moments in Searching for Caleb, the laugh-out-loud-moment (for me) occurs when the family goes to visit Meg. On her parents' first social call, Meg is anxious to play hostess, but must abide by her mother-in-law's ideas of hospitality. After an awkward visit, Meg confesses to her mother that she realizes her decision to marry out of her "crazy" family has only succeeded in bringing her into one even crazier.

Reading this earlier Anne Tyler novel, I was struck by a brightness that defies its 1975 publishing date. The characters are endearing. The story is charming. The end is satisfying.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

My daughter, who is reading Anne of Green Gables, refuses to read the last chapter because she knows "something sad is going to happen." I, on the other hand, don't stop reading, but read faster, when I know there will be tears. Thus, I sped through the ending (middle and beginning) of Care of Wooden Floors because it's not only sad, it's catastrophic. 

A somewhat sloppy English writer has come to care for an old friend's flat in Eastern Europe. Oskar, the owner of the flat is a composer. He leaves the flat, two cats, and a pristine expanse of polished wooden floors to the writer's care while tiding up a divorce in California. How hard can it be, the writer thinks, to leave the flat just as he finds it? 

Oskar seems to have anticipated this very question and has left detailed notes near the cleaning supplies, under the bed, in the kitchen drawers, on the bookshelf, and under the piano lid. 

After a fitful night, the writer wakes to find his wine glass from the night before. To his horror, drops of (red) wine have made their way down to the floor; the stain has set. And events (disastrous, astonishing, uncomfortable, but nonetheless, hysterically funny) are set in motion. 

I will never look at a glass of red wine in the same way - especially if it's near a wooden floor. Or a cat.