Thursday, February 11, 2010

Red Chrysanthemum

Red Chrysanthemum is the 11th book in Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro series.  Three years into his tenure as Chamberlain, Sano and his wife Reiko haven't exactly grown apart, but his new position means they spend less time together, and Sano is often too distracted or tired to really listen to Reiko.  Additionally, as a compromise candidate in an unstable political climate, Sano must constantly be vigilant for any plot to depose hiim.

Reiko is an unusual character - a Samurai class woman whose father allowed her to train in marital arts, and a clever detective who helped Sano when he was the Shogun's chief investigator.  Now, with few outlets for her mental energy, she has begun helping those who write to her.  She's done some good, freeing abused wives from marriages and bringing the killer of a pregnant peasant teen to justice, but she's also made enemies.  Did one of those enemies frame her for murder?

Reiko has been found - by Hirata, Sano's former right-hand-man and now successor as chief investigator - in the bed of a murdered and mutilated daimo.  Reiko can't explain how she got there, her memories don't make sense, and the daimo's widow claims Reiko was her late husband's lover and killed him in a jealous rage.  Rowland interweaves Reiko's mystery with the political machinations of competing factions in the Tokagawa Shogunate which may lead to Sano's execution for treason.  Like one of House's patients, everyone Sano, Reiko, and Hirata meets lies, or tells a tale too remarkable to believe.

Red Chrysanthemum is a tightly plotted mystery, with all threads (including the false leads and red herrings) getting neatly tied up in the end.  Because I read paperbacks and almost always know that there will be a next book, I was never really concerned that Sano or Reiko would be executed, but I was mostly pleased at how Rowland 'saved' them.  I have one minor quibble, though, and it's with Hirata.  He seems to bend to the needs to the plot and occasionally against his known character, and his actions in the climactic scene have a hint of deus ex machina.  Still, this is a good entry in what has been a remarkably even-quality series.

Revolutionary Road

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so the 50s were a recent memory to which the current day was unfavorably compared.  It wasn't until later that the general pop culture allowed us to see that, like all eras, the 50s had both positive and negative sides.   Still, there was the occasional movie or book, like Revolutionary Road, which cast a jaundiced eye on the contemporary landscape.

Revolutionary Road showed the unpleasant and unhappy people behind the shiny curtain of 1950s suburbia.  April and Frank Wheeler married too young, had children before they were ready (if they'd ever be ready), and moved to the suburbs because it was expected.  They're miserable - a frustrated actress reluctantly keeping house and an insecure pseudo-intellectual in a do-nothing office job.  It's possible that neither would be happy in any life - wealthy April was abandoned by her parents as a toddler and raised by a remote aunt; born to older parents a generation after his brothers, Frank spent his childhood moving constantly as his father's sales career spiraled downward - but they seem to feed on each other's misery.  

The book opens with a community theater production that goes poorly.  April was the star, and after a few good scenes, gave as wooden a performance as the rest of her cast mates.  This starts a multi-day fight with Frank, and you get the idea that the two of them never have a reason for their disputes and yet are rarely on speaking terms with each other.  Against this bitter backdrop, they go through the motions of normal life - work, housework, drinks and dinner with a neighborhood couple.  Then April decides they should move to Paris - she's worked everything out, government agencies need secretaries and Frank can 'find himself' abroad - and at first this dream brings them back together.  They spend long nights discussing their dreams and making love.  

And then it falls apart.  Maybe he's afraid of change, maybe it's because he's actually engaged at work for the first time, or maybe he just sees the problems in April's plan, but Frank starts to waver.  Then April discovers that she's pregnant.  Neither really wants a third child, but a baby is a good way to postpone moving to Paris.  Maybe Frank really doesn't want to move, but is that a reason to see keeping April from self-aborting as a battle to win?  It's an uncomfortable passage.  For some, even contemplating abortion is reprehensible; and yet Frank seems concerned only with winning the battle with April, not with the baby.  Frank was never a particularly sympathetic character, but when he wins, he seems to let his crueler nature peek through.  That mean streak, and a pair of visits from their realtor's disturbed son, leads up to a fight that ends tragically for all.  

Revolutionary Road is depressing and compelling.  I knew from the start that the characters were doomed, but I wanted to know how.  The characters are generally unappealing, but I still wanted to know more about them, maybe find some redeeming characteristics.  

My copy of the book is a movie tie-in, so there's a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover.  Normally, when I read a book that's been made into a movie I haven't seen, the cast doesn't influence how I see the characters, but for some reason I saw DiCaprio as Frank.  I'm not sure why (I haven't seen many of DiCaprio's movies), but I think it's because he looks uncomfortably boyish.  In his 30s, he still has a baby face but an adult presence.  He's one of those people whose age you can't place because he seems both younger and older than he actually is, and that's Frank - a world-weary but immature 30-year-old manchild.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

It's a Lacroix, darling - Edina Monsoon

I've never really understood the appeal of labels and logos.  Part of it is that when you get right down to it, I'm frugal (unless you ask my mom who'll tell you I'm cheap, and back it up with tales of unbroken twenties and moth-filled wallets, some of which may actually be true) and can't get my mind around the idea of paying a 300% premium for the privilege of wearing someone else's name across my butt.  I'm a rarity though, as Dana Thomas tells us in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.  Thomas traces luxury houses from their early years of hand-crafting beautiful luggage, clothing, and accessories for the very wealthy through their expansion into new markets in the 1980s, to their status as mall stalwarts earning profits on entry level products.  Along the way, she stops for factory tours, a ride-along with a detective who specializes in busting counterfeiters, and a gossipy look into the world of celebrity stylists.  

Luxury used to belong only to the wealthy - wealthy women ordered couture dresses and custom-made handbags.   That was fine for small, family owned houses which took pride in their craftsmanship, but as the luxury companies merged into publicly-held groups, profits became more important.  To keep up with the pressure from stockholders, brands initially expanded into emerging markets (especially Japan) and lower cost items such as perfume and accessories.  The next step was to cut costs.  Thomas mentions the move towards unlined items and one (unnamed) house which shortened the sleeves of their jackets by half an inch, saving thousands of dollars (a move which particularly bothers me, a 5'8" woman with very long arms).  She also discusses outsourcing, a practice most houses try to hide, by placing the "made in China" label in an inconspicuous place or by emphasizing the European site at which the Asian-made parts were assembled.  These sections poke a hole in the "I'm paying for quality" argument I sometimes hear from women carrying designer bags - the entry level bags are at least sometimes made in sweatshops and from substandard materials, just like the counterfeit versions and the no-name bags found in discount stores.

Thomas's book is more a collection of essays on related topics than a unified work, and the chapter on the rise of the Hollywood stylist was the most fun to read.  Old Hollywood was a pretty, escapist, world where everyone wore evening dress and each studio employed stylists who not only designed gorgeous costumes but also dresses for stars to wear when they were nominally off-duty.  As the studio system fell, and a more naturalistic style of film came into vogue, movie characters wore off-the-rack clothes and stars were on their own on the red carpet.  Dressing movie characters in the sort of clothes their characters would wear in real life (no more picnicking in elaborate silk dresses) makes the movies more realistic, but also freed stars to indulge in tackiness.  Stylists stepped in, saving stars from their baser tastes and the public from seeing a repeat of Kim Basinger's self-designed, one-armed 1990 Oscar gown.  As stylists became more powerful, they began making demands on the houses, some of which were unreasonable and none of which were substantiated in the book.  I understand that Thomas's sources for this chapter probably spoke off the record to preserve their own jobs, but they ring true, perhaps because I've seen so many beautiful stars wearing the wrong dress from a hot designer.  The chartreuse dress Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars in 1997 made her look seriously ill, and the dress as seriously ugly as Demi Moore's bicycle shorts from a few years earlier, and the only explanation I can think of for her wearing it was a backroom deal by her stylist.  

I enjoyed Deluxe, but for the most part it confirmed what I knew or suspected.  Luxury brands are no longer a sign of high quality but a public badge consumers wear to say "I've arrived" or a marketing-driven indulgence.  A complex web of advertising and product placement has convinced us that a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or an Armani dress or a Vuitton bag are necessary indulgences, or at least of higher value than a similar item with a less prestigious name.  

Wearing a logo means you've won the economic game when Deluxe was published in 2007, but does that still apply?  As I read, I felt the ghost of the Great Recession - are consumers as willing to spend for a name without a clear increase in quality?  Is shopping still a hobby, and if not, will it become one again in the future?  How many of the women who bought a new 'it' bag every season have had economic setbacks and look at the shelf full of designer accessories with regret?  Entertaining and well-written, Deluxe, may have profiled the final days of a label obsessed society.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Lady Elizabeth

We know how it ends.  Elizabeth R, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen ascended to the throne of a tiny, near-bankrupt island nation set it on the path to empire and cultural domination.  Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth tells us how it began, with a startlingly intelligent little girl, who before her third birthday asked why she was no longer Lady Princess, but merely Lady Elizabeth.  The reason, of course, is that her father has declared her illegitimate after executing her mother on trumped-up charges of adultery and is once again in search of a wife and an heir, leaving Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary in limbo.   

The Lady Elizabeth is a novel, so Weir can play a little bit with the historical record.  We know the basic facts - Elizabeth was a brilliant scholar but a bit of a little girl lost who never really experienced family life until Katherine Parr married Henry VIII.  She remained Elizabeth's guardian after the king died, and seemed to tolerate her fourth husband's early-morning visits to Elizabeth's room.  Thomas Seymour's physical improprieties with Elizabeth are part of the historical record (and historical rumor), and the scenes are a bit uncomfortable to read.  At 14, Elizabeth was old enough to marry - in fact, Seymour had tried to marry her - and found the Admiral attractive at first, but we're still reading about a teenager being molested by her step-father, with the apparent tacit approval of the only mother she's ever known.  Maybe Weir could have skipped this episode, but instead she uses it as Elizabeth's introduction to the treachery of courtiers.  It's a lesson she needs, because her youth will be spent dealing with shifting political and religious alliances.  Elizabeth survives the proto-Puritan reign of her brother, and the Inquisition-tinged reign of her sister because she's smart and savvy enough to stay out of the political intrigues which might land her on the throne - or the scaffold.  True, she has some brilliant advisors like William Cecil, but she's also poorly served by other alleged protectors like her governess/companion Kat Astley who encourages Seymour's attentions to her charge until long after they've gotten out of hand.

Religion plays a major part in the novel, as it did in the Tudor Era.  Although Henry VIII broke from Rome and is the founder of the Anglican Church, he died as a Catholic, just not one who followed the Pope and who nearly brought heresy charges against the secretly Protestant Katherine Parr.  Elizabeth, too, is a Protestant, and often portrayed herself as a modest Protestant maiden, albeit one who seems to be a forerunner of the Sexy Librarian ("Why, Lady Elizabeth, you're beautiful!").  Unlike her siblings, the fanatically Protestant Edward VI and the equally ultra-orthodox Catholic Mary I, she takes a more nuanced view of faith, believing it to be more of a private matter.  

I agree with Elizabeth, but wonder how much of her half-siblings' fanaticism is natural and how much grew from their circumstances.  Edward VI became king at age 9 and while intelligent, was a sheltered, naive boy ripe for manipulation by Protestant courtiers who wanted to scrub the Anglican Church of its Catholic roots.  He outlawed Catholicism and made the Pope a favorite villain, then died at age 16.  Mary, who first found solace in her faith allowed that faith to grow into an intolerant ultra-orthodoxy during the decades in which she was a political impediment to her father and thwarted in her desire for marriage and children.  After ascending to the throne, she married a man as intolerant as she who argued for her sister's execution, and embarked on the persecution of those who would not embrace the True Faith.  Both monarchs encouraged evil in the pursuit of religion, and I give Weir some credit for showing Edward as weak and Mary as desperate rather than as merely despotic bigots. 

This is Weir's second novel, and I enjoyed it more than her first.  Innocent Traitor was good, but the dogmatic, slightly priggish Lady Jane Grey isn't as interesting of a character as the brilliant and vivacious Elizabeth.  Weir also stays with Elizabeth's point of view, which gives the book a more unified feel than the shifting narration of Innocent Traitor.  She has since returned to biography, including a recently published book on Anne Boleyn's final days, but I hope she returns to fiction, perhaps with a novel about Mary or a humanization of Edward.