Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
October 11, 2009

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By Victor Lodato
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $25

“Most people are far away. Worse than stars. Outer space is right here, when you think about it. Outer space is your living room. You practically have to be an astronaut to live in a house on Earth.’’ This is the pitch-perfect voice of 13-year-old Mathilda Savitch. Mathilda is direct, smart, and savvy but also anxious, confused, and clueless.

The clues she is missing are to her older sister’s death. Sixteen-year-old Helene was killed by a train. Perhaps she was pushed; perhaps she jumped. Mathilda both wants to know and doesn’t want to know, and in the end, having the facts gets her no closer to understanding Helene’s mind or heart. Ma and Da, who try to provide comfort but are clearly in need of it themselves, are floating in their own ether.

And Mathilda’s world is crawling with terrorists who blow themselves up as well as push girls in front of trains. “Howls of Grief as Town Buries Children’’ is the title of a video clip of a terrorist attack that Mathilda watches obsessively. In it, Russian women “were down on their knees with their hands up in the air like Jesus freaks.’’ Mathilda waits for her parents to shriek and keen, but she only sees a few tears, only feels the void of space.

I SHUDDER: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey
By Paul Rudnick
Harper, 336 pp., $23.99

Paul Rudnick is at his funniest, which is very funny, when he writes about his experiences - in Hollywood films and the New York theater. Slightly less funny are the pieces about being gay, Jewish, and from New Jersey.

In New York, Nicol Williamson, starring in Rudnick’s play “I Hate Hamlet,’’ behaves horribly - drinks, brawls, gropes, and even takes a sodden, wobbly swing at Rudnick. “It was like being assaulted by a sleeping bag.’’ Rudnick’s theatrical agent is pitched a play that will be a sure-fire smash because it combines “A Chorus Line’’ with “Star Wars.’’ “The weird thing was, she was right: the piece was never produced, but it was in fact the story of starving, unemployed actors on other planets.’’

Rudnick goes to Hollywood, “which is UNICEF for playwrights,’’ to make “Sister Act,’’ which he wrote expressly for Bette Midler. Scott Rudin, the infamous Hollywood producer, signs on for what Rudnick hopes will be a satire of “mainstream nun flicks filled with sage, older nuns.’’ Planning to “subvert all of this prissy uplift,’’ Rudnick forgets that Rudin works for Disney, a firm that is not about to attack family values and the Catholic Church. Rudin’s assistants, who last six months working for him, are “so well trained that they can move on to just about any other job they want in the entertainment industry. Or the Taliban.’’

By Joan DeJean
Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $28

In this fascinating and surprising study, DeJean traces the invention and triumph of comfort, convenience, and privacy in home design from the mid-17th to the mid-18th centuries. Working from the outside in, she begins with architecture and moves through plumbing and furniture to textiles and clothing.

DeJean, a historian of French culture, credits France with the innovations of taste and style that replaced pomp with comfort. During a relatively brief period, the rigidity and formality of the court at Versailles gave way to the creation of private spaces where the armchair and the sofa were essential for all. Large formal public spaces were reconfigured as private rooms - bedrooms, toilets, bathrooms, nurseries, boudoirs. The flush toilet, bathtub, French doors, writing desks, and the chest of drawers were introduced.

But it was upholstered furniture that had the greatest impact. Plush furniture favored the development of an interior life - solitary thinking and reading in a bergère, seduction, and sexual display on a chaise lounge, conversation and flirtation at a double sofa. Thus, DeJean draws this conclusion: “The interior furniture of the home and the mind’s interior furnishing were thought to be interdependent.’’

Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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