A friend told me a while ago, he had visited Barry Humphries at his home in Sydney Australia in the early eighties. Hanging immediately inside the front door, looming in the hallway was a portrait of the not-yet-famous Dame Edna. The portrait was framed in a toilet seat and my friend said he knew then that Dame Edna would be big. Though that might not have been my impression, I appreciated the character that envisioned herself as the height of all that is good about society being framed by a symbol of the great common denominator; the toilet seat.
According to John Lahr’s book, Dame Edna Everage is renowned enough to compare with Western Civilization. “Dame Edna and the Rise of Western Civilisation” traces the creation of the mega-star herself and Barry Humphries journey to Edna and consequently Edna’s journey from dim housewife to Superstar.
In 1955 Barry Humphries was 21 and playing Duke Orsino in a bus and truck touring production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Humphries created Edna on the bus to entertain his fellow actors. She started out as an imitation of local ladies that would invite the players to receptions or dinners and then wax typical about the play. By the end of the year, Edna stepped out on stage in her own comedy sketch. She was an Australian housewife hoping to house a real Indian, being a hostess to visiting Olympic athletes that would be coming to Australia in 1956. In that same sketch Edna Everage’s (Everage as in average) unseen family was created. There was her young son Kenny, (about six in 1955) who eventually grew up to be a dress designer with the ‘loveliest friends’ and her husband Norm (abbreviated from ‘normal’), who would eventually die from prostate cancer as part of a late eighties Edna stage show.
The subtitle of Lahr’s book is “Backstage with Barry Humphries.” With the exception of a few ‘testy actor’ episodes, the text is a panoramic view of a brilliant artist at work. Every Dame Edna appearance is engineered to bust the audiences gut and it almost always does. From guest appearances, to her television shows right down to the press conference promoting her book, “My Gorgeous Life” Edna is on and on target.
Lahr’s love of theatre and his having grown up as the son of a famous clown seem to have made Barry Humphries comfortable in sharing with him. Scheming, genius and trade secrets are revealed. It is not ‘stand-up.’ It’s a show that includes the audience on every joke, sometimes by excluding Edna. It’s a very rare comedian that can succeed at feigning ignorance, and abhor ignorance in others, yet still be loved and respected by the audience. Lahr makes sense of it all: “Her need for attention is no smaller than the audiences need for joy. Dame Edna doesn’t want to leave the stage and the audience doesn’t want her to leave it.” And Dame Edna has been on the stage a long time. Humphries has outlasted the best of them, and yet outlasting is cold comfort when you realize he may be the last great vaudevillian.
Long after Milton Berle has hung up his dresses, Humphries is pushing seventy and Dame Edna is still working. While most comedians get stale with age, Humphries has ripened into an unparalleled wit. The staying power is in Edna’s evolving through the years and the power she had from her inception. From the start she lambasted what was revered as normal. As she grew into a globetrotting ‘Mega-Star’ over the decades, she was able to skewer the rich and famous, sometimes by hilariously pointing at the humdrum lives of her audience by sharing bits of gossip about her elbow rubbing with the stars. She loves the folks in the cheap seats and takes them with her as she makes the people in the orchestra seats.
Lahr’s book is a backstage sketch of contradictions. Edna simultaneously points out the dullness of middle class normalcy with the absurdity and irrelevance of wealth. With this comic knot the possibilities for humor are endless but Edna’s brand of brilliance is too rare. Comedy lives mostly within the moment the joke is got. Lahr’s exceptional gift is to have captured the essence of the ethereal comic performance of a genius in the pages of this book.
PERFECTLY PURE AND GOOD
The anti-heroine of Frances Fyfield’s latest mystery, is the imperfectly pure and good Sarah Fortune. After reading the story, my limited definition of the concept of fortunate led me to believe that the lead character may have been misnamed. Looking further, I found that my Webster’s defines “fortune” as “a hypothetical force or personified power that unpredictably determines events and issues favorably or unfavorably” and realized that Ms. Fyfield has, of course, a far better grasp of the English language than I do.
While the acid burned female cop who lives in a bell tower from Fyfield’s last book, Blind Date, is undoubtedly my favorite of her heroines, Sara Fortune runs a close second, mostly because I don’t fully understand her motives and I am awed by their outcome.
Sarah is an attorney living in London who was nearly undone by the attentions of a lover turned stalker. Saved from certain death by the son of her employer, she takes him as a lover, changes him for the good and is in the process of dumping him when we come upon her a year later. Her employer sends her to a small seaside village to do some work on a complicated family will as a means of removing her from his son’s field of vision. The only problem is that this quaint village is were her stalker lived, beat his wife and committed suicide…or did he. Thus begins the mystery.
As usual the peripheral characters in the novel are as engrossing as the main ones. Rick, the hulking, abused son of the arcade in love with the youngest daughter of the family Sarah has come to minister to. Mouse, the matriarch of the family. Her sons Julian and Edward and the secret of their paternity that alienates them from each other. Even Hettie, the family sheep is interesting and seems to have a fate…a fortune if you will.
The story flies by not only because of the easy style, but because the reader has been given tantalizing snippets of information that leave them hungry for more. We watch the players all trying to present the image of being perfectly pure and true, but we also sense, because of the wonderfully laid clues, that just below the surface of the faŤade lies all the information they need to be truly happy. Or at least catch a glimpse of the road to happiness, if only they would stop trying to be perfect and concentrate on being human.
With this novel, Fyfield has finally succeeded in writing a story that is as interesting as her characters. While you have some idea of what is going on, it is not until the end that you realize the fortunes that the human personality can lead to, for good or for ill. In the end it is being honestly ourselves that makes us perfectly pure and true, not the guidelines set up by others.
THEY HAVE A WORD FOR IT
A Light Hearted Lexicon of
Untranslatable Words & Phrases
The subtitle gives the idea. This is a collection of words and phrases from various foreign languages that have no direct translation in to English. Just as trivia, it is a fascinating book. One can dip into it at random and be entertained and enlightened by all the various words (and concepts) contained in other languages. Rheingold not only defines each word, but also gives a brief discussion of its usage, and the culture that encompasses the word.
But Rheingold has a deeper intention. Words do equal concepts. A language with a word for a particular concept incorporates that concept into its culture. Likewise, a culture whose language does not contain a particular word may downplay the importance of the concept it represents, or have no notion of such a concept. For example, the Japanese word “wabi” means, more or less, “the beauty of an object which its unique flaws bestow upon it.” American culture, which equates beauty with perfection, not only has no such word, but the concept is as foreign as the word. Imagine the torment American women would be spared if our concept of beauty was similarly based on uniqueness and imperfection.
That is Rheingold’s main message, that language is not only based on our view of the world, but in turn affects (or even determines) how we view the world. And simply by learning new words, we can change our perceptions of reality. In many cases, the words he has included are words he feels we Americans need to know, because they represent concepts which could be useful for our own culture.
Not every word equals a concept unfamiliar to us. Another joy of the book is finding words for overly familiar situations, such as “farpotshket”, a Yiddish word meaning “something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it” and “attaccabottoni”, Italian for “a doleful bore who tells sad, pointless tales.” We have surely encountered both of these, and there is a certain pleasure in having a word to describe them.
“They Have a Word for It” is wonderful book for any lover of language. At the least, you will learn some wonderful new words and concepts. And perhaps one of them will ring true in such a way as to change your perceptions of reality.
G. Murray Thomas
Alfred A. Knopf
In Tuff, Paul Beatty walks a thin line between realism and absurdity. The novel is firmly rooted in today’s inner city reality. Beatty has a fine eye for the details of that reality, and presents it in its full glory. You feel the streets of Harlem as his characters wander them.
Then he pushes the situations of the story in extreme and absurd directions, always stopping just short of unbelievability. For example, Winston Foshay, aka “Tuffy”, the protagonist, applies for a Big Brother, even though he is already 22, and gets a middle-class Jewish black man who listens to Simon and Garfunkel. Absurd, yet Beatty makes you believe it.
Likewise, the characters all have some exaggerated characteristic, which makes them more memorable and enjoyable to read about, without damaging their credibility. Tuffy weighs 300 pounds, yet moves with a graceful agility. Among his friends are Fariq, a club-footed black nationalist, and Inez Nomura, a Japanese internment camp survivor devoted to Marxism.
Unfortunately, the actual story line of the novel fails to achieve the same level of interest. Although many of the episodes are quite entertaining, the overall plot failed to hold me. I liked the characters, but there didn’t seem to be enough at stake in their lives.
I can recommend the book for its writing style and humor, but a stronger plot would certainly have helped.
G. Murray Thomas
VENUS ON WHEELS: TWO DECADES
OF DIALOGUE ON DISABILITY, BIOGRAPHY,
AND BEING FEMALE IN AMERICA
University of California Press
(Biography, Anthropology, Disability
Diane DeVries was born with no legs and only vestigial arms. To herself, she is normal; this is how she is. When she was a year old she discovered how to pick things up, and she figured out a way to walk when she was two or three years old. She participated in the childhood games of her neighborhood, and has had an active social life since she was a teen. She was married for several years. With the help of friends, her husband, assisting institutions, and her own determination, she overcame many obstacles to earn a Masters degree in clinical social work, and earns a good living as a social worker among AIDS patients.
Author Gelya Frank met Diane in class when they were both in their twenties, and was fascinated at first sight. Diane made no effort to hide her physical differences, preferring to wear shorts and sleeveless tops that emphasize her well-developed bust – only partly because sleeves irritated her arm stumps. Ms. Frank’s first thought about Diane was that she could have no sex life, an assumption that was one of many to be quickly proven wrong. Starting with a revealing account of their first meeting, from both her own and Diane’s points of view, the author explores for us her reactions to Diane and the reasons for them. This is part of the technique of cultural biography, in which the writer recognizes that his/her interpretation of the person and events being observed is going to be affected by the writer’s own viewpoint, making it important that the reader know the author’s attitudes and background. The author attempts to lay wide open for the reader her conscious and unconscious self-explorations as they affect her view of Diane over a twenty-year period.
This book needs to be reviewed from three viewpoints: those of the scholar, the layperson, and also Diane’s viewpoint. Every decision the author makes shows clearly that her first priority is academic legitimacy. I am sure VENUS ON WHEELS has received good reviews in the academic community. The book discusses the terminology, history, methodology and ethics of life histories such as this one, and returns frequently to these subjects throughout the book. The author includes chunks of Diane’s unpublished autobiography, explores with Diane her experiences and attitudes in many moods, and describes her own involvement in Diane’s life. She recounts in detail the developments in the independent living movement that is evolving throughout their lives, in order to place Diane in her cultural setting. (One wonders, is this setting perhaps too limited? Diane participates in a country and an intellectual climate, not just in a disabled culture.) She examines the ethics of forming a personal bond with her subject while publishing her own opinions which Diane does not always agree with. This is very much a scholarly book presented with all attention to academic forms, but also with the author’s own individuality giving life to the study.
The best lay audience for this book would be a reader who wants to understand a disabled person involved in his/her own life. To a layperson, this book will probably be tough going. The sections on terminology and methodology are meant to communicate to readers in the field of anthropology, and like a computer textbook, it may require some prior knowledge of the subject. The story is here, Diane’s achievements and difficulties and the story of the relationship between Gelya and Diane, but it is embedded in a great deal of non-biographical material. For those with a personal stake in the issues, it will be useful. Even though the author may not quite grasp Diane’s feeling of being normal in her own body, she describes what Diane has told her about it so the reader will have a chance of understanding it. She vividly shows how Diane innovates to do things most people depend on full limbs to handle, such as writing. It is obvious from her descriptions that Diane has a leadership personality and a friendly and understanding nature. These things help us understand how much a disabled person can have to contribute, and how inventive he/she might be in finding ways to contribute.
What is Diane’s reaction to VENUS ON WHEELS? Gelya and Diane talked about that. Gelya jokes that Diane thinks the book will be very dry reading, and that another version will have to be written by someone else, maybe Diane herself. Diane wants her message of accomplishment and potential to go out to as many people as possible, and the style of this book makes it inaccessible to many readers. It sounds as if Diane feels the message hasn’t yet been put across the way she wants it.
Generally, VENUS ON WHEELS emphasizes how important it is to a disabled person to develop his/her potentials, but it is also clear how inappropriately named the “independent living” movement can be. Diane’s “independent living” is deeply dependent on the people around her, so much so that her mother and husband both broke under the strain. This book does not count the cost of developing a disabled person’s potentials, but both the disabled person and those around him/her must do that. For the sake of all, we need to learn how Diane might have reached her present position as a productive member of her society without either draining those people and resources or smothering her own qualities.
THE WTO: FIVE YEARS
OF REASONS TO RESIST
Lori Wallach and Michelle Sforza,
Introduction by Ralph Nader
Seven Stories Press
Last month the two major political parties held their national conventions nominated their respective presidential candidates and articulated their positions on a number of issues. Conspicuously absent from their agendas was any critical discussion of “free” trade, globalization and the institutions set up to implement the free flow of capital across international borders. Nor did the mainstream media take much interest in these crucial topics, and that’s why we need books like THE WTO by Lori Wallach and Michelle Sforza.
Ms. Wallach and Ms. Sforza are both members of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and have both conducted considerable research into the dynamics of globalization as well as having written several articles about the issues raised by unfettered global trade. They tell us in this compact booklet that the World Trade Organization (WTO) was set up 5 years ago by passage of the provisions of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The WTO is an international body composed of trade representatives from 135 nations that functions as a forum for negotiating trade agreements and as an organ for monitoring and enforcing agreements reached by the member nations. While GATT concerned itself primarily with lowering tariffs, the WTO focuses on doing away with what it calls non-tariff barriers to trade.
And what are these non-tariff barriers to trade? Any environmental, health, or labor laws that have been passed by member nations that can be construed as restraints to trade. This means that local laws that protect consumers from pesticide soaked food, food labeling, that ban the sale of, say, tuna caught with drift nets, that protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances, that protect the environment from industrial waste and pollution or that keep out products from nations suffering under repressive regimes can be challenged by the WTO and eventually struck down.
A case in point is the Massachusetts Burma selective purchasing law. The law has been a key human rights tool and was modeled on legislation that was successful in putting economic pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa. It bars companies that do business in Burma (thus supporting the military dictatorship there) from receiving state contracts. In November of last year, European and Japanese corporations persuaded the European Union and Japanese government to challenge the law as an unfair trade barrier as defined by the WTO. The U.S. Federal Appeals Court struck down the Massachusetts Burma law, agreeing with the corporate arguments. In March of this year, the case went to the U. S. Supreme Court. Last July, the court upheld the lower court’s ruling, thus nullifying the Massachusetts Burma law for good. This ruling has far reaching consequences for future strategies for human rights work.
THE WTO: FIVE YEARS OF REASONS TO RESIST CORPORATE GLOBALIZATION is another excellent addition to the Open Media Pamphlet Series. In 80 pages the authors tell you the history, purpose and organizational structure of the WTO, in short, just about everything you need to know about this instrument of global capitalism’s latest assault on democracy. On the last page there is a useful list of activist contacts with phone numbers and web sites. Read this book and find out what the battle for Seattle was really about.