The Talented Mr. Ripley

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Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has been called a master of the psychological thriller. Her character Tom Ripley is as well.

Highsmith was the Edgar-award winning author of Strangers on A Train and The Price of Salt, recently adapted into the film Carol. Tom Ripley, introduced to the world in The Talented Mr. Ripley may have been her greatest invention: a psychopath with self-esteem issues who kills in cold blood, assumes the life of his victim, lives the high life in his victim’s clothes for a while — all the while holding the reader in thrall with some actual empathy for poor Tom’s predicament.

He remembered that right after that, he had stolen a loaf of bread from a delicatessen counter and had taken it home and devoured it, feeling that the world owed a loaf of bread to him, and more.

The Movie

Jude GwynethI had seen the Matt Damon-Gwyneth Paltrow-Jude Law film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999, and loved it. All those gorgeous retro costumes. Italian scenery. Jude Law in a bathing suit. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett and Anthony Minghella. It was nominated for five Academy awards and deservedly so. But I had not read Ms. Highsmith’s original work until recently.

The Book

And it is riveting. The Talented Mr. Ripley begins in New York with a decidedly untalented Tom Ripley running a series of minor cons in order to finance his woeful life. He’s out of a job, out of a home, out of friends. Until Herbert Greenleaf appears and begs Tom — as one of his son’s “dearest” friends — to travel to Europe, first class, on Herbert’s dime and convince son Dickie to come back home. It takes Tom all of about two seconds to jump on board and the next thing you know, he’s walking down the beach in fictional Mongibello (rendered on screen as the volcanic island of Ischia) having to introduce himself to an acquaintance who barely remembers him.

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Alain Delon as Tom Ripley in the 1960 French adaptation, Plein Soleil

But Tom has decided to be the kind of guy who makes good things happen for himself. Whatever the cost.

There’s been a but of hubbub in my noon bookclub at the Carnegie Center Lexington recently about whether a book without a likable protagonist is a likable book. There have been loads of recent bestsellers whose less-than-likeable, ok . . . psychopathic . . . characters made them insatiable reads: Girl on A Train, Gone Girl. In a 2015 article, Sam Jordison of The Guardian takes on the topic by reexamining The Talented Mr. Ripley. When faced with a reader complaining of the lack of books with likable characters, Jordison suggests handing them a copy of the The Talented Mr. Ripley:

It is near impossible, I would say, not to root for Tom Ripley. Not to like him. Not, on some level, to want him to win. Patricia Highsmith does a fine job of ensuring he wheedles his way into our sympathies. It’s a classic story of someone who starts off down on his luck and disregarded, but who, through force of personality, hard work and sheer determination, manages to make something of himself. He’s had a hard upbringing. He lost his parents and was brought up by an aunt who called him a “sissy”. And yet, he came out the other end polite, self-effacing, hard working. He is endearingly shy in company and worried about the impression he makes on others. He is always assessing himself, always trying to improve.  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/02/tom-ripley-the-likable-psychopath-patricia-highsmith

And yet … eyeglasses_318-68634

He had appreciated Marc’s possessions, and they were  what had attracted him to the house, but they were not his own, and it had been impossible to make a beginning at acquiring anything of his own on forty dollars a week. It would have taken him the best years of his life, even if he had economised stringently, to buy the things he wanted. Dickie’s money had given him only an added momentum on the road he had been travelling. The money gave him the leisure to see Greece, to collect Etruscan pottery if he wanted (he had recently read an interesting book on that subject by an American living in Rome), to join art societies if he cared to and to donate to their work. It gave him the leisure, for instance, to read his Malraux tonight as late as he pleased, because he did not have to go to a job in the morning. He had just bought a two-volume edition of Malraux’s Psychologic de I’art which he was now reading, with great pleasure, in French with the aid of a dictionary.”

I truly enjoyed the time I spent in Mongibello with Dickie Greenleaf and his friend Marge and meeting their friends — and others. Your book club will enjoy it too. And there’s great Italian food to be culled. And lots and lots of Martinis.

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Fresh greens simply dressed with good olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper

Pasta with seafood. I would make linguine with white clam sauce because that’s my favorite. I buy the small cans of clams at the grocery store and use the recipe on the back but add white wine to the saute.

Martinis.stock-illustration-5259788-retro-martini

MUSIC

The setting of The Talented Mr. Ripley is reputed to be in the late 1950s though Highsmith throughout uses a date with the notation “19–,” leaving the question open. I tend to be influenced by the movie’s choice of music and would play:

Chet Baker

Charlie Parker

Miles Davis

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

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Growing Up: Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

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I’m not sure why Saint Monkey is the title of Jacinda Townsend’s debut novel about two girls coming of age in 1950’s small Southern town other than it is catchy and an infrequent-nickname for one of the characters. Then again, I’m not sure I could come up with any better title for this insightful, aching look at friendship and anti-friendship, first loves, ruined love, passion and disdain, achievement and disappointment. Perhaps Saint Monkey as a title is just amorphous enough to contain a hint of the contents of this Pandora’s box of a book.

Audrey and Caroline live across the street from one another in racially-divided Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. Both have dreams of leaving the dirt road on which they live far behind. Audrey’s talented father is gone and her mother is mostly absent but Audrey is able to both lose and find herself in her music.

Caroline, aka Pookie, the Saint Monkey of the title, loses both of her parents early in the novel to a horrible situation. She then becomes the de facto mother of her sister and seeks her own way out by romancing the lean, hungry teen-age boys who inhabit her world.

miles davisAs Audrey moves into the New York City jazz world, the two maintain a correspondence that threatens to erode Caroline’s already-struggling self.

Townsend’s poetic prose expresses the dreamy yearnings of what it is to be a small town girl with big city dreams.

Still, my granddaddy built me this porch swing the week after my daddy died, not because he thought I was grieving, but because he meant to keep me amused.  “Keep Audrey occupied,” he told people.  “Keep her around the house with her dress down and her bloomers up.”  Since my daddy died, Grandpap has begun to see me as a dry leaf in freefall, a wasted petal about to be crunched under a man’s foot.  He wants me to forget all the boys of Montgomery County and take studies in typing, to let go the idea of marrying a town sweetheart and become, instead, a woman of the city in a store-bought dress and nylons, with my own bedboard and bankbook.  I’m supposed to fly and dream about all that, sitting here in this swing.  He painted it white, whiter even than the side of this house, whose thin coat is peeling to expose the aged black wood underneath.  He painted the wood slats of this swing so white that when you stare at them for a time, they seem blue.  Swing high, and the porch ceiling creaks where he riveted the screws: the grown people who walk by warn me.  “Hey gal, it ain’t a playground swing,” they say.  For them, for their limitations, I stop pumping my legs, and the creaking stops.  But when they’ve faded down the walk, I fly high again.

In her review for the New York Times, Ayana Mathis compares Saint Monkey to the classic American novel by Zora Neale Hurston. “Caroline’s yearning recalls Janie, the young heroine of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” lying one afternoon under a blossoming pear tree, overwhelmed by sensuality and possibility and driven toward the fulfillment of what she senses life might offer. That Janie’s life does not go as well as she hopes, that it does in fact take a tragic turn, does not eclipse her capacity for joy or hope.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/books/review/saint-monkey-by-jacinda-townsend.html?_r=0

Saint Monkey won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction awarded by the Society of American Historians in 2015.

Saint Monkey is a luminous and compelling novel that shines a bright light on neglected corners of the American past. The book brings to life a small Black community in the hardscrabble country of eastern Kentucky, a place in many ways a borderland: between the industrial future and the agricultural past, between the urban north and the Jim Crow South, and between the seeming complaisance of the 1950s and the seismic upheavals of the 1960s. Audrey Martin and Caroline (“Pookie”) Wallace, Townsend’s marvelous protagonists, reveal worlds of hope and hurt through their barbed, intense friendship. Her profoundly unsettling and profoundly humane vision—of ordinary Black women struggling to achieve safety and authenticity in the face of the extraordinary ruptures and insecurities that have for centuries beset Black lives in the Americas—is essential for our understanding not only of the African American experience but also of American history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

https://sah.columbia.edu/content/prizes/james-fenimore-cooper-prize/2015-jacinda-townsend-saint-monkey-ww-norton

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I had the pleasure of meeting author Jacinda Townsend during the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in September and she was gracious enough to share a recipe with me. She calls it her “nasty” casserole and says it is “straight from the 1950s. My kids complain but they love it.”

1 package (16 ounces) frozen peas, thawed 1 package (16 ounces) frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained 1/2 package Velveta 3/4 cup milk 1 full sleeve of crackers 1/4 cup butter Add to Shopping List Directions 1 Pour milk into a crockpot or cheese melter; cut Velveta block into cubes and place into crockpot to melt. 2 Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 3 Bring peas and broccoli to a boil. 4 Melt butter in a saucepan; crumble crackers into melted butter and saute. 5 Put cooled peas and broccoli into a greased 2-qt. baking dish. Sprinkle crumbled crackers on top. 6 Pour melted Velveta and milk mixture over casserole until it is evenly covered. 7 Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 12-17 minutes or until bubbly. Yield: 4-6 servings.

MUSICSaint Monkey cover

Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall would be a great one. //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=daeandwritewo-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B000TETIC8&asins=B000TETIC8&linkId=RYLNSBUK6DC4TB6V&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

Happy Reading!

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Forging Art & History (& A MENU!)

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The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro, takes the true story of the burglary of five paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston and forges it with a fictionalized account of a painter who is challenged to reproduce one of the stolen masterpieces.  Along the way, Ms. Shapiro creates a new Impressionist masterpiece, an affair between Isabella Gardner and a famous painter and alters the architecture of one of America’s best-loved museums.

The novel is well-written and kept me awake finishing it until two in the morning.  The author’s description of the painting process itself was so detailed, I wonder if she is herself an artist.  It was written clearly enough for me to understand and appreciate the enormous amount of time and struggle and talent that is required even though I myself can not draw a crooked line.  Given that, it surprised me that her descriptions of the people, at least the modern ones, were sparse.  Most of the novel is written in first person and that may be one reason.  I knew for example the artist/narrator was “beautiful” and got a “stylish new haircut” but I have no idea what she looked like.  Isabella was more clearly described, even though her descriptions were too, for the most part, in the first person via a series of “letters” written by Isabella to her niece.

The book is about 310 pages long and at page 300 or so, I couldn’t figure out how Ms. Shapiro was going to wrap up all the story lines without a sequel.  And I suppose she did and didn’t.  All in all, it was a fun read, I learned something about a subject I had no knowledge of and the plot was exciting enough to keep me up half the night.  It also had lots of good food.

For a book club menu:

Champagne!  (Champagne was brimming over at nearly every opportunity).  Champagne is a must.

Cashews in the bowl

Grilled cheese.  Get a loaf of nice, whole grain bread (or bake one.  I’m not a baker so I’ll just hop over to Great Harvest).  Melt lots of butter in a pancake pan and toast bread on one side.  Add shredded cheddar, fontina and mozzarella to one slice of bread and when it gets nice and melty, place sliced cherry tomatoes and a couple of fresh basil leaves on the melted cheese.  Top the sandwich then flip it to make it nicely browned.

Mac & Cheese.  There was a nice dinner with a very special macaroni and cheese with organic mushrooms and fancy cheese.  I don’t have a recipe for that but my mom always swore by Kraft Mac & Cheese.  And who doesn’t love orange pasta?

OR

Pad Thai.  Now, if you’re going with the Pad Thai (in lieu of the Mac & Cheese), order out unless you are a thai cooking specialist.  If you are, then your recipe is bound to be better than mine.

Playlist.  The book moves mostly among the modern art scene in Boston.  I’d choose something cool and jazzy like Miles Davis.

The image above is Anders Zorn’s painting entitled “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice.”  Interestingly, the photographs of her later in life resemble Margaret Hamilton in her Miss Gulch costume — chin and all.  For the sake of romanticism, I thought it better to use Mr. Zorn’s painting.

Enjoy!