Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dark Water by Robert Clark and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston

I recently finished two nonfiction books on terrible historic events—one natural, the other unnatural—in Florence, Italy’s recent past; well, recent when compared to the age of the city itself.

Dark Water, by Robert Clark, recounts the devastating flood that struck the city in the fall of 1966, specifically the damage wreaked on the renaissance art that is synonymous with Florence, and her citizens’ efforts to restore it.

In his story, Clark parallels the history of 13th Century Italian artist Cimabue’s Crocifissue with that of the Arno. The Crocifissue is considered to be the seminal transitional work that links the art of the Medieval Age and the beginnings of the Renaissance. As Florence’s main tributary, flowing through the center of the city, the Arno is her lifeblood. Clark takes the reader from the early days of Cimabue’s career to the day of the flood, highlighting the Crocifissue’s periods of distinction and celebrity, and her lows of disfavor and disinterest by the art world. So too has Arno had its share of highs and lows, flooding the city every few decades. Clark does a nice job of integrating Florentine’s reactions to their waterway’s occasional distemper and their efforts—mostly a lot of talk—to prevent her banks cresting again in the future, including Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest proposal, which is returned to every time the Arno floods. Clark looks in on other works along the way as well, including Vasari’s Last Supper.

Throughout this preliminary history leading up to the flood, Clark keeps from crossing the line into art-history pedantry by sprinkling in entertaining but pertinent anecdotes. When the flood does hit, the pace kicks up to The Da Vinci Code levels. At times I was breathless as Clark followed the personal stories of Florentines and transplanted outsiders during the cataclysmic event, like the tragic tale of the wheelchair-bound elderly woman who was trapped in her apartment. The most emergency crews could do was hoist her as high as possible with a makeshift rope winch dropped through the security grill of a window and hope the waters crested before they reached her. Or the story of the priests who rowed into the church in which the Crocifissue was displayed in order to save it, scooping up bits of floating gold paint that had flaked off which they hoped could be used in the crucifix’s restoration.

When news of the flood’s devastation was reported the next day, restorers, artisans and students from around the world descended upon the city to help in the recovery of Florence’s art and antiquities, including several tons of priceless books and documents. As more and more attention is drawn to the plight of the Crocifissue and other irreplaceable works, and as city officials and overseers of the recovery process take advantage of the increased global attention to further their own careers, Clark’s examination gives equal due to the human cost of the tragedy. Who restores their lives? Clark wisely leaves the reader to make his or her own conclusions.

If there is one glaring fault of Dark Water, it is the lack of photographs—barely a half dozen—to accompany the text. Yes, the reader is treated to a shot of the Crocifissue before the flood, but not after. And the few photos of certain events after the catastrophe are interesting. But they only serve to accentuate the reader’s hunger for more.

Still, Dark Water is a great read and receives four out of five spiders.

As for The Monster of Florence

What would you do if, after moving to your dream home on a hilltop of the beautiful Tuscan countryside, you discover that a brutal murder took place just outside the door of your home a few decades before?

So that’s why the house was so cheap, might be a reaction once the initial shock subsided, but more than a few would seriously consider moving. But if you’re a writer whose move to Florence was in order to research and write a murder mystery concerning Renaissance art, you might simply shift gears and write about real slayings instead. That’s what author Douglas Preston did. In The Monster of Florence—which Preston wrote with journalist Mario Spezi—Preston recounts the serial killings that shook Florence from 1968 to 1985 and the investigation that continues to this day.

Spezi is actually the one who reveals the horrifying secret of the house to Preston, during an interview Preston undertook as part of the research for his planned mystery. As one of Florence’s most distinguished newspaper reporters, Spezi followed the slayings closely. His knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal and court systems; his deep network of contacts therein; his deductive analysis and flair for dramatic writing increase his notoriety as well as his paper’s circulation.

The killings are brutal; the victims’ lives taken while in the act of lovemaking. Evidence of both a gun and knife—believed to be the sort used by scuba divers to gut fish—are found at each scene, and the female victims are never left whole. Still, a mere hundred pages into the book, the murders are done . . . and the real story begins to unfold. Nary had I a chance to question the direction the book would take when I was hurtled into the unbelievable world of the investigation.

It is said that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction has to make sense. The Monster of Florence could be the poster child for this adage. My flurry of page-turning was only given respite when events in Preston’s story forced me to take a moment to shake my head in disbelief and remind myself that I was reading a true story. Then I plunged back in, each time under the delusion that things could not possible get any stranger . . . and then they would!

The Monster of Florence isn’t so much about a serial killer as it is about the Italian judicial system, a system wrought with conspiracy theorists and run under the firm belief that the answer to a crime must equal the temerity of the crime itself. The evidence be damned; logical deductions that do not measure up to the wickedness and horror of the crime cannot be viable, regardless of how solid the findings. And woe be to those who deign question the investigation.

Unlike Dark Water, The Monster of Florence contains eight pages of black-and-white photos. But DO NOT look at them until you have finished the book. Key plot points are revealed in the captions that accompany the photos. Rip the inset out and give them to a friend, if you must.

The Monster of Florence receives four and a half out of five spiders.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Crazy Hair is the third children’s book from the multiple-award–winning team of writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, but the first of their efforts set to rhyming.

Young Bonnie confronts a teenage boy about his misbehaving mop of hair, which he proudly proclaims has not been touched since he was two. He then regales Bonnie with the outlandish things that have taken residence over the years within his manic mane, one-upping the absurdity level with each successive claim.

This is a common device used in many children’s books and one that can easily fall to lackluster repetition if not handled with ingenuity and deftness. Gaiman doesn’t disappoint. His rhymes are never stale, though the cadence remains consistent, kept fresh with McKean’s “heady” mix of real (or just realistic?) hair with ink and exuberant splashes of color. His adroit use of mixed media captures deep dark jungles, roiling oceans and cacophonous carnivals. I found myself reluctantly turning the pages, torn between my desire to linger on McKean’s beautiful art and wanting to see where Gaiman’s playful text would take the artist next.

When the young man’s warnings continue to go unheeded by Bonnie’s relentless pursuit to comb his feral follicles, the reader may suspect what will follow, only to have Gaiman twist them with a sweetly surprising conclusion that is all the more satisfying in its unexpectedness.

This is a delightful book that children will love and parents won’t mind reading to them over and over again.

Four out of five spiders.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

'Ice to Meet You!

More often than not, I was cold in the costume. When I knew I’d be appearing outside in a cold clime, I’d bring the thermals with me that I’d gotten at my first appearance in Vermont. Unfortunately, there were times when I didn’t know I was going to be outside until I arrived at a gig. Such was the case in Regina, Canada one winter.

Regina is centrally located above the US border. It has two seasons: August and winter. I was traveling in January, so I knew the temperature would be in the double digits below zero. My actual appearances, however, were to be indoors at various gas station kiosks in the area. You know the type. Go in to pay for your gas before pumping and perhaps pick up a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a cold beverage, the newspaper, the latest bestseller or some candy and snacks. If your lucky, maybe a Slush Puppy, although I wasn’t betting on the Slush Puppy empire having a strong foothold in Regina. I had no reason to believe that the convenient kiosks at the gas stations in Canada would be any different, so I left the Spider-Man thermals at home. Key fateful-decision music.

As expected, Regina was cold, –30˚ C or approximately 20˚ below zero Fahrenheit to us Americans. Like Winnipeg, the city was connected by a series of heated underground and aboveground walkways, because mere seconds exposed to the intense cold they experience for much of the winter risks inflicting frostbite to their skin. I don’t know how the locals got around pumping gas in these frigid temperatures. As with all gas stations, my appearance locales were stand-alone affairs. Worse, yet. They were situated in remote areas outside the city, remote flat, barren areas with nary a snow bank or bare tree in site for miles, giving the wind free reign to blow unimpeded across the plains. The “frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” that ESPN Sportscaster Chris Berman often eludes to was a patch of sand in Death Valley on a summer’s day compared to the places I was visiting in Regina. No worries. I’d be safely ensconced in the warmth of the convenience kiosks of the gas stations, nestled somewhere between the rack of Tim Horton Doughnuts and the Labatt’s Beer display.

The news from my chaperone that I should already in uniform when he picked me up from the hotel and would be unable to take off the costume until the day’s appearances were complete, should have triggered a warning klaxon in my head that these kiosk visits would not be as I’d envisioned. I knew the schedule was tight—there were Spider-Man appearances set for a half dozen or so petrol stations (that’s what Canucks call ’em) consecutively with only enough time betwixt them to travel from one to the next—so I assumed the reason behind my inability to change into my civvies between visits was due to time constraints, not that there weren’t any bathrooms, or even closets, in which to change in the kiosks. Why? Because they were about as big a Mini Cooper.

Technically, yes, I was indoors, but these petrol-station convenience stores were far from the snack food oases that I’d envisioned. They were more like Foto-Mats with doors on both sides that enabled the cold Arctic wind to whip through like a Ping-Pong ball in a vacuum tube. The only available space was directly between the two doors, which were no more than ten feet apart . . . if that. I was already shivering from the short trip from my ride to the first stop, breaking and re-breaking a land speed record each time I arrived. Yes, that red-and-blue blur was I. Had the doors remained closed, I might just have defrosted and only been terribly cold, but the locals came out in droves, keeping the doors open as they patiently waited to meet Spider-Man. I couldn’t tell you much about Regina’s winter activities, but, given the residents’ enthusiasm to standing in line outside gas station kiosks in –20˚F temperatures just to get Spider-Man’s autograph on a free comic book, I’d say these people were starved for entertainment. I’d have been flattered if I wasn’t so busy trying to keep my eyes from crystallizing.

And they followed me!!! I was on a tight schedule, an hour at each location, then approximately fifteen minutes to get to the next. Anybody who missed out at one station followed me to the next, where they were first inline to those already awaiting Spider-Man. It was like something out of Hoosiers with everyone in town following the team bus to the game. Like a traveling missionary, my flock continued to grow with more and more people overflowing to the next stop. I should have been running for the Canadian Parliament. Truth be told, I was incredulous. Not a single person complained. They were that happy to meet Spider-Man. I certainly wasn’t about to disappoint them, but I was freezing. I barely could hold a Sharpie never mind sign the comics.

Relief came in the form of a gas station attendant’s jacket, the heavy, uncomfortable-looking affairs that mechanics wear in the winter of an indiscernible hue forever stained by oil and reeking of diesel fumes. I was loathe to cover the costume, but I had no choice. To keep my toes from chipping off, I’d remain hunkered on the chair so the coat draped over my entire body, keeping what little body heat I still had intact. Fortunately, a coat was available to me at each locale. My fans thought it was a hoot. Most were understanding, but there was the occasional jerk, who asked why Spider-Man needed protection from the elements.

“It doesn’t get quite this cold in New York and I forgot my thermal suit,” I’d quip. Or, “Cold? Me? Pshaw, I just felt it was the least I could do in exchange for the wonderful hospitality Petro Canada has shown me. Just a wee bit of reciprocal promotion.”

The suit absorbed the fumes, so I smelled of gas long after I defrocked and took a hot shower. I’m sure the Tin Woodsman would find it an alluring scent, but it was making me stoned. Still, it was better than getting frostbite.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Mice and Monkeys

Gorillas don’t like Spider-Man.

I can’t speak for other primates, but I know for certain that gorillas don’t like Spider-Man.

I was in New Hampshire at Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, a family-owned and -run zoo and amusement park that I was shocked to recently discover had closed its gates in 1987. That would mean that my Spider-Man appearance occurred during its final months of operation. At the time I was excited, because I took field trips to Benson’s as a kid through a program at the playground in Manchester-by-the-Sea where my family spent their summers and loved the park. Unlike today’s combination amusement park/animal safaris, Benson’s retained a warmth, charm and hospitality.

Although small, Benson’s had all the features of a larger park, sans the acres of cement. There were rides, games, food, souvenir shops and wild animals, but on a smaller scale. They also gave as much consideration to the grounds as they did the amusements. Everything was nestled amongst towering conifers, expansive picnic areas and natural flora. Visitors were neither mugged by lights and noise as they entered, nor were their feet assaulted by an endless sea of hard tarmac. Also, while the park’s rides were decent and entertaining, they didn’t have the cutting edge, supersonic, inverted, double twister, zero gravity, triple loop-de-loop, mega-ones that were being installed in other parks. Unfortunately, these unique and appealing features were most likely what led to Benson’s eventual downfall.

I was appearing as Spider-Man, one weekend, little realizing I would be joining another superhero cartoon character. Mighty Mouse and the Terrytoons stable of characters had become the park’s mascots—the way the Peanuts characters are for Knott’s Berry Farm in California; and Bugs Bunny and the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies characters are for the Six Flags Adventure Parks across the country—in the years since I last visited the park in my early teens. What’s more, Benson’s featured a Mighty Mouse Playhouse, an adorable, little barn, set in a grassy lea with a raised proscenium thrusting from its faux barn doors. It’s the type of barn one envisions in those endearing classic MGM musicals, wherein Mickey Rooney inevitably cries out, “My Uncle’s got a barn,” to which Judy Garland replies “Let’s do a show!”

Twice a day, the “Mighty Mouse Players” performed a skit, which echoed the Mighty Mouse cartoons of yore. Oil Can Harry kidnapped Pearl Pureheart and Mighty Mouse would “come to save the day,” as made notable in his famous theme song, which in turn briefly regained prominence in an amusing, early Andy Kaufman routine. Another of the Terrytoons characters, Sour Puss, was also featured in the cast, although, in the cartoon shorts, his character played second fiddle to another named Gandy Goose, who was not represented. I can only assume that Sour Puss was perpetually terrified in these cartoons as the costume’s mask was designed with an expression of terror.

Contrary to Spider-Man, the Terrytoons characters were played by amateurs, specifically three local high school boys on summer hiatus. They took the job nonchalantly, figuring as far as summer jobs go, it was better than flipping burgers at McDonald’s. When I say “nonchalantly,” I don’t mean to imply that they didn’t work hard or portray their characters accurately. They simply were as relaxed as beanbag chairs, kidding around as they dressed, even though they were portraying somewhat iconic characters themselves.

Yet, they were impressed with the visiting professional Spider-Man from New York City. There were a lot of “Cools!” and “Awesomes!” as they pummeled me with questions about being the world-famous Web-Slinger. They fawned over the costume, all of which embarrassed me. Comparatively, they certainly were making peanuts. Yet, they were working as hard, if not harder than I was.

I dressed with them backstage. Surprisingly, they rotated costumes. It was no big deal for them to don a costume that one of their colleagues had worn and sweated in the day prior or even during a earlier performance that day. On one occasion, one of them did let out a pronounced “Ew, this one’s due for a cleaning!” Then, he put it on and didn’t say a word about it the rest of the day. This also meant that they all knew each other’s parts. Granted, it wasn’t Shakespeare and it was only a ten-minute skit, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. And since, there were no women amongst them, a man played Mighty Mouse’s love interest Pearl Pureheart. Again, there were no complaints. On the contrary, one of them announced “I think I’ll play Pearl today for a change,” and that was it.

There wasn’t a director and the owners of Benson’s left me in the hands of Mighty Mouse and his friends to work out Spider-Man’s integration in the show. Management’s trust was well-founded. These high school kids were more professional than most professionals I’d worked with. And, blessedly, less vain and emotional. There were none of the dramatic ego-clashes synonymous with actors left to direct themselves; no one was whining or pouting over their ideas not being heard, or storming off because their staging—which was obviously better than anyone else’s—was not being considered never mind used. The teens’ approach was practical, pragmatic and economical—they retained the entire production, adding Spider-Man’s entrance during the show’s final moments. It took minutes and didn’t even need to be rehearsed.

The show itself was approximately ten minutes long, comparable to the average length of an animated short. Mighty Mouse’s arch-nemesis Oil Can Harry abducts the valorous vermin’s paramour Pearl Pureheart—with the help of a dim-witted sidekick Sour Puss—sets a trap, from which Mighty Mouse escapes; and a crazy chase ensues, at the end of which Pearl is rescued, and both villain and accomplice are confronted. The restaged ending: with Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss’s back to the upstage barn-door entrance as they face off against Mighty Mouse, I slink in and tap the feebleminded felons on the shoulder. Seeing Spider-Man, Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss drop to their knees, kiss my feet and beg for mercy. Of course, there are no punches thrown—this was a family show, after all. Mercy is granted and everyone descends from the stage and greets the audience.

While Mighty Mouse and I remained sedate, as our characters demanded, Oil Can Harry and Sour Puss played like puppies. They ran around, wrestled, even climbed trees. Yes, climbed trees. Wearing costumes similar to those worn by the bipedal characters on Sesame Street or at Disneyland—with oversized heads and enormous feet—they actually climbed trees. And they were hysterical. I got so caught up watching their antics that I forgot that I was working. I also had to remind myself that they were not trained actors. Yet, they imbued their characters with such life, I could almost hear the voices, though their every movement was pantomimed. I’ve overseen Marvel character auditions and witnessed professional actors “dissolve into a dew” after donning the webbed red-and-blue. These “kids” were amazing puppeteers. They were one of the best troupe of performers I’d ever worked with; no egos, no whining, gut-wrenchingly funny and talented.

What does this have to do with Spider-Man-hating gorillas? Not far from the performance barn, was the gorilla house, wherein Colossus, a 500-pound silverback gorilla was kept. Unfortunately, Benson’s animal accommodations were not ideal. Most animals were pent up in small caged areas. There were some animals which had larger areas, because their size demanded it. The African rhinoceros, for example, had large ranch-like quarters with room to run around. Still, the facilities were a far cry from the facilities provided for the animals at the San Diego Zoo or Bronx Zoo. Colossus had it worst of all. First, he was alone, no others of his kind to play with. Second, he was trapped in a room, no bigger than 20 x 20 feet, surrounded on three sides with plexiglass walls. The room was housed in a larger facility, so the ape never saw the sun or breathed fresh air. There was the prerequisite tire swing and that was it. The only item missing was the Samsonite Luggage.

During a lull, I bounded to the Gorilla House in my Spider-Man suit to take a peek. Upon seeing me, Colossus quite literally went ape. He bounced off his walls, punched the glass, swung the tire in a fury, roared and pounded his chest, all in an attempt to get at Spider-Man. I do not doubt that had he escaped he would have ripped off every one of my appendage and then used my head as a soccer ball. I was terrified and quickly left. I trepidatiously returned later when out of costume, but the gorilla was nonplused. Call it naïveté or stupidity, but I was seriously concerned that Colossus would recognize me and explode in a frenzy of anger again.

I’m sure a zoologist could offer a logical explanation for the gorilla’s insane behavior, but I figured he was just more of a Superman fan.