Snap Judgments (exist) - 3

By Sheerly Avni, Jonathan Kiefer, Jason Victor Serinus, Chris Smith, Elizabeth Varnell | August 25, 2009 | Story

(Graywolf Press)
If you followed the 2008 trial of Hans Reiser, the Oakland software guru who murdered his Russian wife, you might have been struck by Reiser's sense of victimhood—he really seemed to believe that he was the one who'd been wronged. San Francisco writer Stephen Elliott gets into Reiser's head in this fearless memoir/true-crime hybrid, but it's only partly about the homicidal programmer. Elliott is most interested in the stories we construct to govern our lives—“how we order and interpret what we believe to be true,” as he puts it—and what happens when those stories break down, as Reiser's nerdy alpha-dog self-image did when his wife left him, with disastrous consequences. Elliott examines his own life in sharp vignettes that ping from Chicago group homes to San Fernando Valley porn shoots to dot-com-era San Francisco. He scours his troubled past—drugs, homelessness, a horrific family life—for clues to his calmer but still troubled present, which includes bouts of depression, Adderall addiction, and a toxic relationship with his abusive father, who may or may not have killed someone himself. People are mysteries, though, and Elliott (thankfully) doesn't offer up the certainties of most true-crime lit, even to explain his own actions. “How little we know about ourselves,” he writes, but he deserves kudos for this skillful attempt at making sense of his own history. A

(Samuel Goldwyn Films)
This prickly satirical sketch from Marin director Jonathan Parker (Bartleby; The Californians) and cowriter Cather­ine di Napoli takes aim at the easy target of New York's contemporary-art scene. Adam Goldberg plays a swollen-headed composer of laughably abstract sound art who competes with his brother (Eion Bailey), a suc­cessful painter of corporate-decor dreck, for recog­nition from a foxy Chelsea gallerist (Marley Shelton). This is a film in which someone says, “I think I want what I want my work to say to go without saying.” Its momentum depends on deadpan deflations of pretense, so it needs a go-to guy for reaction shots. Goldberg is the man, in rather the same improbable way in which Cris­pin Glover moored Parker's similarly wispy Bartleby. (Let's take a moment to appreciate the filmmaker who cast Glover as a version of Melville's recalcitrant scrivener.) As its title suggests, (Untitled) prefers to hover between amusement and annoyance, and accordingly it remains ensconced in brittle indie minimalism. The movie paints—or performs or installs or whatever—itself into a corner, and you see it coming. But it's often funny, especially when viewed from the safe remove of feeling super­ior to its characters. B

You see it everywhere: the shrunken brown canvas duf­fel with tan leather handles and a little brass padlock. It's Louis Vuitton's Speedy, the unoffici­ally official bag of Union Square—and also Chestnut, Fill­more, and Sacramento Streets, where it's most often paired with a tiny dog. Despite the ubiquity of its logo-ridden luggage, the French fashion house has found a way to push the envelope by aligning itself with a trove of artists, including Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, and Stephen Sprouse, whose 2001 neon Monogram Graffiti print was the first to deface LV's famed insignia. In this latest design volume from Rizzoli, a legion of critics and curators—such as the New Yorker's Rebecca Mead, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Valerie Steele, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs' Olivier Saillard—opine on the legendary collaborations between LV's creative director, Marc Jacobs, and the artists, photographers, architects, and designers he admires. Refreshingly, these commentators don't shy away from the ever present question “Is fashion art?” But regardless of where you stand in that debate, the lush images in this tome will remind you of the other tactile accessory that's always tucked into a Speedy: a glossy magazine. A-

(SFS Media)
“Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound,” wrote Mahler of his colossal Eighth Symphony. He engaged 1,029 musicians for the work's 1910 premiere, tempting his prom­oter to dub it “Symphony of a Thousand.” While Michael Tilson Thomas didn't command that many players at the S.F. Symphony's four performances of Mahler's piece last fall, the cumulative impact of a huge orchestra, eight vocal soloists, and several choruses is tremendous in this demonstration-class live album. After a no-holds-barred arrange­ment of “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” MTT settles back to paint the mystical landscape that opens part two. You immediately feel immersed in the setting, thanks to the conductor's consummate ability to maintain coherence through­out the symphony's multiple climaxes. Except for bass-baritone James Morris, whose once great instrument has aged into a growl, the soloists are superb. Sopranos Erin Wall and Elza van den Heever seem unlimited, while tenor Anthony Dean Griffey's almost feminine approach to masculine reverence is a heart-opening alternative to stentorian declamation. After listening to the searing adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth, whose cry of pain feels like the polar oppo­site of the Eighth's ecstasy, turn up the volume and prepare for liftoff. A

(Simon & Schuster)
The romantic tropes in Erick Setiawan's marvelous first novel will thrill fans of magical realism: Embittered lovers yearn like the men and women of early Márquez, a haunted house echoes Allende, and an architecturally impos­sible staircase winds its way straight out of a Rushdie reverie. The story is set in an unnamed town that could be anywhere, at any time, as befits any good fairytale. But Setiawan—who was born in Indonesia and moved to the Bay Area in 1993—gives his characters distinctly contemporary psychological depths, even neur­oses. His fable's true power comes from neither its admittedly impressive lyricism nor its sympathetic heroine, an indomitable beauty named Meridia. The real star here is Meridia's seductive mother-in-law, Eva, a near witch who commands a hive of angry bees, a murderous white cockatoo, and, most impressive of all, the hearts and will of her three hapless children. Eva is a multidimensional and ultimately tragic villain. If she takes her rightful place among the ranks of terrifying imaginary mothers, I'd like to see some fan fiction pitting her against mob matriarch Livia Soprano. My money is on the newcomer—Livia's got New Jersey, but Eva has the bees. A


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