[REVIEW] All that Glitters by Liza Treviño

all-that-glitters-coverKoehler Books , 2017

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

Alex is a survivor. This is both a simple statement about the main character of Liza Treviño’s debut novel, All that Glitters (Koehler Books), and a starting point for one of the most unexpected literary powerhouses to come out this year. Ms. Treviño does not just show us that Alex is a survivor, she also asks what circumstances lead her to being one? What does being a survivor mean to her? How does being a survivor help her, but more importantly, how does it hinder her? How does a person navigate through life when their biggest strength and biggest weakness are the same thing?

Asking such questions is what separates this book, a chronicle of a young South Texas woman seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, from so-called “chick lit” and “beach reads” and makes it a literary tour-de-force. The structure of the story could have been a soap opera, as we meet Alex on the night that she becomes the first female and Latina to win both the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The story is set in the 90s, which seems absurd at first, but later proves to be an asset. We see Alex in a limo with a man named Nick, who complements her night of glory by going down on her, a juxtaposition that appears to start the story within a feminine fantasy. Yet, Alex is miserable, anxious, and seemingly quite uncomfortable with this man who appears to be at her beck and call. There are some telling hints that this façade is not all that it seems, and without giving away too much, as the story backtracks to lead us back to this moment, we begin to see this scene in a new light, not as a moment of feminist triumph, but rather of a culmination of sexist power games and self-degradation, in which Alex is on the losing end.

The eighties/nineties time frame may seem like a strange place to set the novel, since racial progress in Hollywood was not a major issue at that time as it would be in the #OscarsSoWhite age, but the time period ends up illuminating a fascinating aspect about modern technology. Today, every offhand thing a person says online is kept in storage for use against them at a later time. How many times have scandals erupted over twenty year old quotes, after all? The fact is, Alex is a celebrity whose manner and behavior would be very hard to conceal in the Twitter/Facebook age. She has a personality that would incite a large number of trolls, although, given her personality, she would likely eat such people alive, she would nonetheless be a gossip magnet. While celebrity gossip has existed even before Hollywood (for some interesting research, look up 19th century gossip on theater actors; it is rather illuminating), the hyper-aware nature of social media would likely consume a person such as Alex, who is unapologetic about how she navigates the sexism of the Hollywood system. Aside from that, many of the relationships in the book hinge on the ability or inability to communicate. Treviño reminds those of us who lived during that time period just how difficult it could be to get a hold of a person, and how we take the instant gratification of our modern technology for granted. Yet this disconnect serves the story astonishingly well, adding tension to moments that nowadays would be resolved almost instantaneously, or adding to the loneliness of a particular character.

While Treviño places Alex and her friend Elly in many situations we have seen before—such as model parties turned sex parties, or directors taking advantage of female staff—her focus is always on further developing Alex’s personality. Alex is a character who, if she were a man, would be applauded for her ambition and confidence, but as a woman, is demonized. Treviño makes the smart decision to show that ambition itself is not Alex’s problem, but rather her need to survive at all costs is. She is a person who may need ambition and drive, but she also needs moral certitude and boundaries. One cannot maintain dignity if they are willing to compromise their deepest selves at a moment’s notice. The battle Alex wages is with herself—how can you be a powerful woman while maintaining your sovereignty and integrity? This is the question that haunts women of all professions. While Alex encounters and becomes the slave to misogynistic, hateful men, they are not as much the problem as her doubt in herself. That internal struggle is one that is too rarely explored, and Treviño pulls no punches in examining the dark side of femininity. Do not let the cover and promotional material for this book fool you, All that Glitters is a serious, complex, and stirring examination of the female soul that is uncompromising and unapologetic, much like its magnetic protagonist.

Literary Los Angeles: Children’s Theater, Family History, and the Hollywood Fringe Festival

It’s that time of year again – the Hollywood Fringe Festival, a ten-day live theater festival compromising more than 800 performances and events held in venues throughout Hollywood.  As someone with (as of four weeks ago) two children, I turned my attention this year to the Fringe Family selections.  I also chatted with writer Rick Balian and his friend Judy Bryant about the Fringe entry “Steal Away,” a children’s history of Bryant’s great-great-grand aunt, Harriet Tubman.

Balian was originally commissioned by a theater in New York to write a play about Harriet Tubman that could tour in schools. As part of his research, he met Judy Bryant, one of Tubman’s great-great grandnieces (Tubman had no children of her own).

“When I handed in my outline for the play,” Balian said, “it was as if the artistic director of the theater suddenly realized there were black people in the story. I was told that it was difficult to find black actors because all the good ones were working. The project fell through. But I had all this research! And Harriet was such a big part of my life by then. I wanted to add my voice to hers in order to extend its reach a little. I considered doing a documentary about the Tubman descendants, but then decided that I really wanted to do a play about Harriet.”

Balian approached Melody Brooks, artistic director of New Perspectives Theatre Company, and the play was included in their World Voices program.

I asked Balian what made the story of Harriet Tubman a popular one with children’s media.

“I really don’t know why Harriet’s story is adapted so often for kids,” he says. “It’s certainly got something to do with her perseverance and courage — qualities that parents, teachers, and school boards like to make sure kids get a solid dose of. But Harriet’s life was also filled with violence, abuse, and deprivation. I felt it wouldn’t be honest to overlook those things. And I also wanted to add humor. From what I’ve read, it sure seems that Harriet had a sense of humor.

“The point of this play is not that slavery is wrong. I think that by now we all know that. So I presented other lessons, with slavery as a background. I tried to make Harriet’s struggles relatable to kids. She wasn’t born a superhero. She wasn’t granted special powers by radiation or a yellow sun. She was someone who wanted to make things better. She did what she could. We can all do that.

“My approach to telling Harriet’s story was greatly influenced by talks with my friend Judy Bryant . . . Judy pointed out that no one talks about Harriet’s day-to-day life; that it’s important not to overlook the fact that most of Harriet’s days weren’t spent rescuing people from slavery or doing any of the number of incredible feats that she is famous for. Most of the time, Harriet was helping to provide for her family and loved ones.”

“Steal Away” employs a combination of live actors and puppets, a popular choice in children’s theater.  This allows Balian to expand the number of characters in the play without costly additions to the touring cast, while also softening some of the play’s inherently violent subject matter.

Other than portraying acts of violence on puppets or off-stage, what constraints does a family audience impose?

“The vocabulary has to be adjusted to the age group,” Balian said. But “the biggest challenge now is that there is less entertainment that includes kids and parents. ‘Family entertainment’ is becoming a code word for ‘dropping the kids off to see something while I do something else.’ I feel it’s important to have a shared experience, and that’s something that theater can provide . . . I write for adults and young adults as well as kids. I’ve found that kids and adults often respond to the same things.”

Bryant will be attending some of the Los Angeles performances.  She explains,  “I live in the house where my mother was born. Built around 1901 by her grandfather, Wm H Stewart, Jr. I have many family letters, scrapbooks, documents and photographs which my mother, grandmother and great grandparents had saved. When I moved back in the mid-1980s after living away from home for 30 years, my mother was working on our family tree which she had been doing on and off for years together with other cousins. I became interested and sort of picked up where she left off.

“Nothing that I discovered, but some years later Kate Larson’s research uncovered William Still’s account of the Christmas eve 1854 escape of Tubman’s three brothers who were renamed from Ross to Stewart. Many people never connected the Stewart name to Tubman and assumed she lived alone in Auburn when in fact she was surrounded by family members, including at her death.”

Growing up, Bryant says, “When my mother was a child, she said the family rarely talked about Tubman’s life because it evoked too many painful reminders of a past they were trying to forget. They all succeeded in creating new realities for themselves.”

Those in L.A. can check out “Steal Away” on June 18, 19, 24, and 25; Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For more on the Hollywood Fringe Festival, head here.

Literary Los Angeles: Children's Theater, Family History, and the Hollywood Fringe Festival

It’s that time of year again – the Hollywood Fringe Festival, a ten-day live theater festival compromising more than 800 performances and events held in venues throughout Hollywood.  As someone with (as of four weeks ago) two children, I turned my attention this year to the Fringe Family selections.  I also chatted with writer Rick Balian and his friend Judy Bryant about the Fringe entry “Steal Away,” a children’s history of Bryant’s great-great-grand aunt, Harriet Tubman.

Balian was originally commissioned by a theater in New York to write a play about Harriet Tubman that could tour in schools. As part of his research, he met Judy Bryant, one of Tubman’s great-great grandnieces (Tubman had no children of her own).

“When I handed in my outline for the play,” Balian said, “it was as if the artistic director of the theater suddenly realized there were black people in the story. I was told that it was difficult to find black actors because all the good ones were working. The project fell through. But I had all this research! And Harriet was such a big part of my life by then. I wanted to add my voice to hers in order to extend its reach a little. I considered doing a documentary about the Tubman descendants, but then decided that I really wanted to do a play about Harriet.”

Balian approached Melody Brooks, artistic director of New Perspectives Theatre Company, and the play was included in their World Voices program.

I asked Balian what made the story of Harriet Tubman a popular one with children’s media.

“I really don’t know why Harriet’s story is adapted so often for kids,” he says. “It’s certainly got something to do with her perseverance and courage — qualities that parents, teachers, and school boards like to make sure kids get a solid dose of. But Harriet’s life was also filled with violence, abuse, and deprivation. I felt it wouldn’t be honest to overlook those things. And I also wanted to add humor. From what I’ve read, it sure seems that Harriet had a sense of humor.

“The point of this play is not that slavery is wrong. I think that by now we all know that. So I presented other lessons, with slavery as a background. I tried to make Harriet’s struggles relatable to kids. She wasn’t born a superhero. She wasn’t granted special powers by radiation or a yellow sun. She was someone who wanted to make things better. She did what she could. We can all do that.

“My approach to telling Harriet’s story was greatly influenced by talks with my friend Judy Bryant . . . Judy pointed out that no one talks about Harriet’s day-to-day life; that it’s important not to overlook the fact that most of Harriet’s days weren’t spent rescuing people from slavery or doing any of the number of incredible feats that she is famous for. Most of the time, Harriet was helping to provide for her family and loved ones.”

“Steal Away” employs a combination of live actors and puppets, a popular choice in children’s theater.  This allows Balian to expand the number of characters in the play without costly additions to the touring cast, while also softening some of the play’s inherently violent subject matter.

Other than portraying acts of violence on puppets or off-stage, what constraints does a family audience impose?

“The vocabulary has to be adjusted to the age group,” Balian said. But “the biggest challenge now is that there is less entertainment that includes kids and parents. ‘Family entertainment’ is becoming a code word for ‘dropping the kids off to see something while I do something else.’ I feel it’s important to have a shared experience, and that’s something that theater can provide . . . I write for adults and young adults as well as kids. I’ve found that kids and adults often respond to the same things.”

Bryant will be attending some of the Los Angeles performances.  She explains,  “I live in the house where my mother was born. Built around 1901 by her grandfather, Wm H Stewart, Jr. I have many family letters, scrapbooks, documents and photographs which my mother, grandmother and great grandparents had saved. When I moved back in the mid-1980s after living away from home for 30 years, my mother was working on our family tree which she had been doing on and off for years together with other cousins. I became interested and sort of picked up where she left off.

“Nothing that I discovered, but some years later Kate Larson’s research uncovered William Still’s account of the Christmas eve 1854 escape of Tubman’s three brothers who were renamed from Ross to Stewart. Many people never connected the Stewart name to Tubman and assumed she lived alone in Auburn when in fact she was surrounded by family members, including at her death.”

Growing up, Bryant says, “When my mother was a child, she said the family rarely talked about Tubman’s life because it evoked too many painful reminders of a past they were trying to forget. They all succeeded in creating new realities for themselves.”

Those in L.A. can check out “Steal Away” on June 18, 19, 24, and 25; Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For more on the Hollywood Fringe Festival, head here.