Books 6/3/04

So I finally finished The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Mitford girls were such a unique group of people, and the way they each got involved in the political movements of their time was almost too perfect- they could have come from a young adult historical fiction novel. “Six sisters grow up in the English countryside, only to be torn apart when war comes. One will run away from home to become a communist, one will marry the wanna-be Fascist ruler of England, and one will become friends with one of the most despised men in history.”
I was interested while reading this book by the reality of life in the time before WW2- why people thought fascism might work, why people turned to communism, and how the two groups played off each other. Most interesting was how people believed the reports of atrocities being commited in other countries to be communist or fascist propoganda against the other group, which allowed them to disregard problems they did not want to face.

My brief thoughts on the sisters, in no particular order:

Unity: I actually admire Unity for her integrity, although her embracing of Nazism boggles my mind. I can understand that she thought fascism would fix her country, at that point they didn’t know the atrocities being commited in the name of fascism in other countries, just the reform that was happening. I can also understand that she admired Hitler in an obsessive way and in doing so explained away his less than lovable characteristics; from the information in this book I don’t think she saw his bad side. He was like a superstar who she was able to get close to through sheer willpower, and it sounds like he was comfortable and casual around her. It’s the anti-Semitism and that part that I don’t get, obviously.

Decca: I’m really conflicted about Decca. She’s the sister I most expected to love- she was a communist and good friends with Maya Angelou- but from what I read in this book, I can’t stand her. She held grudges for epic amounts of time, transfered guilt to family members for things they weren’t responsible for (blaming Diana for Esmond’s death), jumped to conclusions about Diana in jail without trying to find out the truth, and I just can’t wrap my head around her statement that sisters are the trials in life, when SHE made them into that. She injected politics into situations where they didn’t belong and then couldn’t understand when people got mad. I need to read her autobography to get her side, but I’m just not up to it right now, she just bugs me.

Diana: I need to read more about Diana to form a complete opinion. Contrary to other people who revile her, most of what I read about her just made me sad. I don’t believe that she understood why she was in jail, I think she felt she and her husband were trying to do good for England. And as for being truthful and unremorseful about what happened, why they were fascists and what they thought of Hitler- someone’s got to explain it so it won’t happen again. I can see her perspective, what happened happened, and they believed in it at the time. She found Hitler charming when she visited him socially; thats a valuable thing to know about him.

Nancy: I really like Nancy. She’s interesting but also sad. She was never anyone’s great love, but she deserved to be. At the same time, she was a meany-pants, and I don’t know if she understood that she hurt people. It broke my heart to read the line from her father regarding the way she portrayed him in her books, “This just shows how horrible I must have been without knowing it”. NO! Poor sweet man.

Pam: I love Pam, her sweetness and ability to love despite the fact that various members of the family were on non-speakers.

Debo: I like Debo very much as well, but I don’t have anything to say about her at the moment.

and even though she’s not a sister,
Syndey: It makes me sad to think that she lived her life feeling that she hadn’t done right by her kids, but she did everything she could. I really like her.

Overall I loved the book and am very interested in learning not only more about the sisters, but about the whole time period, and how fascism got started in Europe.

I also read Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh because it’s been sitting unread on my shelf and it’s about one of the Mitford sisters. I’m sure I’ll burn in some level of literary hell for saying this, but I just didn’t get it. I mean, I understood it, but I don’t get what the big deal is. Waugh is supposed to be this great wit, and I just don’t see it. Parts of it were quite amusing, but I just didn’t love it. It’s the first Waugh I’ve read, so maybe I just started with the wrong one.

I’m listening to Don’t Know Much About American History on my computer at work. The further I get through it the more I think it’s intended for Jr. high level kids, but it’s informative and I’m getting a complete picture of US history that I’ve never had. Tying in with the Mitford book, I’m understanding much more why the wars happened and how they impacted the world.

I got the soundtrack to the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even though it’s not a book, there are some musical/narrative elements I want to write about, and it’s my blog so I can if I want to.
Musicals are one of my favorite narrative forms for the same reason I love comics- by adding an element to the words (visuals or music) you can add to the impact of those words. I love Richard O’Brien’s original libretto for Rocky Horror. His melodies are gorgeous, and I think he was able to subtly define his characters through the way they sing. Unfortunately, I don’t think the people who revived the show noticed that. They seem to have made changes just to make them- to differenciate their show from the original, and in the process I think it lost intended meaning. (They made amazing changes to the orchestration which I love, what I’m talking about are changes to the melodies sung by characters.)

For example:
In the original, Susan Sarandon’s Janet sang in a high, awkward register. While slightly irritating, this had the effect of making her sound hysterical and emotional. In the revival they lowered Janet’s register across the board, completely negating those traits in the music. It also lessens the effect when, finally freed of inhibition, she opens up and sings out in Rose Tint My World, since she’s been sing that way the whole time.
Likewise, Columbia’s parts were high pitched and sqeaky, adding to her image of a naive girl swept up in decadence she didn’t understand. Her register is also lowered and desqueaked in the revival, so she just sounds like a rocker girl.
The changes in Sweet Transvestite, however, are the biggest loss. In the original, the strict cadence of the opening lines: “How’d you do I/ see you’ve met my/ faithful handyman./ He’s just a /little brought down, because/ when you knocked/ he thought you were the candyman”, is hypnotizing in its beat-punctuated rhyme, circling around Brad and Janet and the listener. The revivalists, in their attempt to differenciate their Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Tim Curry’s, seem to totally miss the fact that the lines rhyme. Their Frank delivers the lines conversationally: “How do you do/ I see you’ve met my/ faithful/ handyman/ he’s just a little brought down because/ when you knocked/ he thought you were the/ candyman.” Aarg.

Not all of the changes are bad. While those listed above felt arbitrary, I believe a number of changes were made to accomodate the voices of the actors. Raul Esparza and Daphne Rubin-Vega who play Riff Raff and Magenta are incredible, and I believe the changes made to their songs allow them to fully channel their characters. (On a slight tangent, both Esparza and Rubin-Zuniga have been in Jonathan Larson musicals: Johnny in Tick,Tick…Boom and Mimi in Rent. They’re on the soundtracks, and I highly reccomend both. Stunning music and narrative. And music as narrative.)
I love Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff, but Raul Esparza takes Riff Raff to new levels. In the original, Riff Raff’s voice- while odd- had a whine to it which hinted at his discontent at being in a servile position. Ezparza’s voice is raw and powerful, changing Riff Raff from put-upon servant to someone who you realize at the end has actually been in control the entire time. I think this happened less for character reasons than the fact that it might be impossible to reign in Esparza’s voice, and it would have been a waste if they had. His voice is shiver-inducingly perfect.
I think the changes with Magenta were made for similar reasons; Magenta of the original was a lusty alto, while Rubin-Zuniga is a feline soprano ( I don’t know- thats the best way I can describe it. Something about it reminds me of a cat.) Changes would have to be made to accomodate that, and to allow her to wail her way through the songs, which she does gorgeously. She keeps the breathiness of the original Magenta, but is able to keep her voice raw at the same time.
In addition to those two, a very successful element is the cross-dressing casting of Lea DeLaria as Eddie/ Dr.Scott. Meatloaf had a high register for a guy, and DeLaria has a low register for a woman, so it balances out quite well. DeLaria has such amazing control of her powerful voice that she succeeds in sounding exactly like a saxaphone during Hot Patootie, which underscores Eddie’s identity as pure rock and roll.
The songs that work the best are the ones they changed the least (not including changes made for Esparza and Rubin-Zuniga)- Time Warp, There’s A Light, Hot Patootie, Superheroes- with the exception of Dammit Janet where they changed the kinda boring original backup singing to something quite clever.

Despite how this analysis probably sounds, I really do like this soundtrack; as I stated above, the changes to the orchestration are amazing, and overall it’s really enjoyable. I’m not complaining that they changed things, just that they changed things that I think served a purpose, and they did it without fulfilling another purpose. I just wanted to look at what happened to it narratively as a result of those changes. Why am I apologizing? Buy it, it’s good.

Current total:50
Just Finished: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Currently Reading: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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