What You Wear Is Code

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.

Legal opinion on how dress codes may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, Ford believes, the courts are missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”

Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. It became more sober and conservative for men. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.

Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from the Men’s Wearhouse.

You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity of their quest?? A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.

Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who wore trousers anyway “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.

By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!

Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

Tennessee Williams: The Deep Dive

What do you think of when you think about the man many critics believe is one of America’s three greatest 20th century playwrights, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller? Other than thinking that’s a good way to start an argument, as I can hear you saying, “What about August Wilson?” “What about Sam Shepard?” “What about . . . ?” So, forget “one of the three” and just say, “one of the greatest.”

Probably you instantly call to mind several of his best-known plays. Maybe you think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor pictured), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. With further thought, you probably come up with The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth. Oh, and Night of the Iguana. And . . .

Go ahead, Google him, and you’ll find the sheer number of famous plays he wrote is remarkable. And the best-known ones may not even be the best plays. Like great artists in many fields—painting, music—sometimes he’s ahead of the rest of us. Two hundred years ago, audiences gave Beethoven a cool reception too.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Book Club is conducting a six-week Zoom course on Tennessee Williams and his plays, led by STNJ artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte. The predominant reason the forty-plus (number, not age) students signed on was to learn more about this author, of course. That’s a more interesting reason than it sounds, given how well known many of his plays are.

Several students commented on productions of his works they’d seen decades ago that they still remember well. I recall STNJ’s powerful 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. At the end, the audience was momentarily too stunned to applaud, and the leads (Laila Robins as Blanche and Nisi Sturgis as Stella) looked as though they might weep through the curtain call.

Monte had a particular exposure to Williams while she was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in its 1982 season. The festival’s artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos planned a production of excerpts from the plays, billed as Tennessee Williams: A Celebration. Monte put the show together, and Williams was pleased with the result.

Not so Hollywood’s treatment of his work. Endings have been changed, material excised, and portrayals skewed, so if the versions you’re most familiar with are Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives in Cat or Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, and Deborah Kerr in Iguana, or Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster in Tattoo, you’ve missed the real Williams. Of course, with casts like those, the films were bound  to be memorable! All the worse, Williams must have thought.

My interest in Williams was sparked by a personal encounter too. I attended the 1980 Kennedy Center premiere of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, his play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and during intermission, I saw Williams standing alone, leaning against a wall, not eight feet from me. Thrilled, I turned around to tell my husband and bumped into Elizabeth Taylor. Alas, those moments are what I most remember about the play, which was not a critical success. Still waiting for me to catch up, perhaps.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.

Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

Movie Titles as Mood Creators

Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)

Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.

A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”

In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.

Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!

Foreign Object(ive)s

origami, frog

Three short novels from international authors, all under 175 pages, showing you can do a lot to tell a great story, evoke reader emotion, and, by the way, garner significant critical praise in about half the length of the average American novel.

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina MacSweeney – A young boy in Mexico City is obsessed with folding and refolding origami frogs. This is one of the rituals he developed to fill his mind and his time after his mother walked out on him, his older sister, and their rigid father. She couldn’t take their stifling middle-class life and vowed to join the revolutionaries in Chiapas. But did she? After a time of youthful doldrums, he takes dramatic action to find her and doesn’t. Then word comes she died in an auto accident. But did she? Now an adult, her son appears irredeemably “lost in the woods of machismo and social revolts ” says reviewer Alejandro Zambra.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori – Thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura found work at a convenience store when she was in her late teens and, despite her likely abilities, has never left that job. The daily rituals and predictable rhythms of the convenience store soothe her, and she has a talent for the needs of the job—customer support, upselling, store display. Her family wants her to aspire to more, to return to the university, to find a husband, but life at the Smile Mart is what satisfies this “defiantly oddball” woman. Named a “best book” by numerous publications.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, translated by Sam Taylor – You can brace yourself for winter by reading this highly praised adventure involving the hunt for an intact dinosaur skeleton high in a remote Alpine wilderness. It’s the late summer of 1954, and three palaeontologists and their taciturn mountain guide have only a limited time to search before winter closes in, and close in it does. The guide insists they leave, but Stan, the organizer of the group, won’t go. Eventually, they leave him and he braves the elements so as to get an early start on the search the next spring. All alone, in the cold and dark, the boundaries between waking and dreaming, the now and the past blur. “Spare, elegant and poetic, this slender novel is quietly devastating” said the Daily Mail.

Photo of frog origami by Hanne Hasu for Pixabay.

Tune Out the Politics: Listen to a Great Book Instead!

earphones

Since I listen to audio versions of books nominated for various crime-writing awards (and there’s a lot of them!), they are almost always excellent listens. Clicking the title gets you to my Amazon affiliate link.

Your House Will Pay

Steph Cha has created a timely and unforgettable story about crime, injustice, and the collision of two Los Angeles cultures, not written in abstract terms, but in the painful impact the conflict has on multiple generations of two families—one Black, one Korean. Listening to this will give you more insight and compassion about American social conflict than in a hundred presidential debates!

Although most of Cha’s story takes place in 2019, it’s rooted in the real-life conflicts that ravaged the City of Angels in the early 1990s. Alternate chapters are told by Grace Park, a young Korean American woman whose parents harbor a terrible secret, and Shawn Matthews, a Black man a decade or so older than Grace. Greta Jung and Glenn Davis narrate. They nailed the multi-ethnic intonations and cadences, even to Grace’s stiffness and Shawn’s barely masked pain. My full review here.

The Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz

Fans of Golden Age mysteries will recognize the heritage of Anthony Horowitz’s story-within-a-story. Popular mystery author Alan Conway has written a new book. His editor, Susan Ryeland, is reading it, anxious that it be a best-seller and keep the publishing house she works for afloat. You hear Conway read the entire novel, which involves some grisly manor-house deaths and plenty of suspects, and as his story’s climax approaches, the manuscript abruptly stops, three chapters short of an ending. What happens next? Where are those essential chapters? Susan can’t ask Conway; he’s committed suicide. And there seems to be a larger plot afoot. Expertly narrated by Samatha Bond and Allan Corduner.

The Lost Man

Jane Harper’s award-winning family story delves into what binds and separates three brothers working on remote cattle ranges in the Australian outback. It’s a  powerful read. The story begins with the discovery of the most  successful brother’s body in the broiling sun. The outback almost becomes a character itself, with it’s implacable demands and brutal dangers. As the eldest brother sorts out what happened, secrets and missed opportunities are exposed. They may be brothers, but there’s a lot they don’t know about each other. Loved this, and the narration by Australian Stephen Shanahan, whose accent will carry you all the way across the Pacific.

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)