Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Akhnilo" (1981)

Story by James Salter not available online.

James Salter's very short and very strange story operates much like a poem, with seductively beautiful language that invites, if not requires, close parsing. The first point to note is that the title is a made-up word not used in the story, which helps almost not at all, beyond perhaps reminding us that all fiction is "made up" (Saki shows how it's properly done in "Sredni Vashtar," where the made-up words are given meaning). The main character, Fenn, is wakened by noises in the night that might be an intruder. He gets out of bed to investigate. It's hard to know exactly what's going on—which among other things makes it annoying if you're not in the right mood—but the supposition that it's an intruder gradually shifts to the thought that it is some sort of animal activity. Fenn is a carpenter age 34 (so note that he has outlived Jesus by a year), with a degree from Dartmouth in history. By those markers he is both privileged and humble. Having eliminated intruders and animals, he next seems to decide it's some kind of divine sign. He is being called. He leaves the house by leaping out of a second-floor window—well, it's much more cautious than leaping, but it's still unnecessarily dramatic when there are probably stairs in the house. Now Fenn begins to remember his past alcoholism and rehab and he decides this is all about redemption. And maybe it is. But I think it's mostly overdone. It's the kind of story that's written by someone who is very good at writing, but not as good at constructing narrative. And already it feels dated—the privileged white man who became an alcoholic, then a carpenter, cultivating a hobby of carving birds from wood. It's a story that might seem better after an hour or two of chewing it over in a college English class, or writing a paper about it. I might like it more after I finish writing this. But the basic elements—privileged white guy, alcoholic, carpenter—just seem so tired even in conception. Less so in 1981, perhaps. Wikipedia contributes to my dimming sense of this story with points like "widely regarded as one of the most artistic writers of modern American fiction" or quoting Richard Ford: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." I won't dispute the poetic vigor of the language, but I'm really not sure it adds up to anything very impressive.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" (1948)

Story by J.D. Salinger not available online.

Technically, this story by J.D. Salinger belongs with his Glass family stories, though it's a bit of a stretch. The Glass family member making an appearance is Walt, who is dead during the action of this story, and the Glass family name never appears. Instead, it's a type of story we're more used to seeing from John Cheever or John Updike, exploring midcentury Eastern seaboard suburban malaise. For that matter, the word "Connecticut" never appears either, except in the title. So the insights seem a little paltry—you know, like, suburban life and values are so lame, man. Well, at least the insights have the virtue of being mostly true. As for the rest, it's great. It sparkles with Salinger's usual insanely engaging language. I understand that might be a generational, class, or otherwise narrow view, but it does work for me. The story is about one college friend visiting another. They are grown now and in their 30s and this seems to be a recurring if infrequent event. Mary Jane gets lost trying to fine Eloise's place and then they spend the afternoon getting drunk, while the maid minds Eloise's girl, who makes an appearance to charm Mary Jane and we the readers. Salinger might be at his best with children—real children, not adolescents and adults who won't grow up, though he's pretty good with them too. He just seems to understand what makes kids tick, and how we spend the rest of our lives failing to live up to that. It also means, for better or worse, that he goes to some cloying places as well. Their charms may be too precious, and certainly the idealization of them as perfect innocents is overdone. Yet it's also exactly this sense of innocence that he's especially good at—the naturally occurring and amazing kind in real children. It's also a somewhat trite war story. These days the lethal factor would probably be more like an auto accident for the same effect, but in 1948 it was still easiest just to resort to the war. The picture of ennui at the center of plenty may or may not have been radical then, but certainly the view is now mainstream, so there's some tedium to the story in that regard. But it's also Salinger in his prime, so I'm not about to steer anyone away from it.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Walden (1854)

It didn't take me long to remember why I had never been able to make it all the way through Walden before—it's an odd book, with a strange premise, and many boring digressions. "Boring"—there I said it. Henry David Thoreau is arguably America's first hippie, with as many evident connections to Kwai Chang Caine as to the Jacks Kerouac and London, not to mention Ralph Waldo Emerson and Unitarianism. To me Thoreau is one of our most sensible writers, with an important point of view. People should read him. He is eminently quotable, in particular, and without doubt Walden bears most of the best of these nuggets (remembering that Thoreau died young, at 44). Yet a certain sad tale is told by the highlighting in the free kindle version I slogged through recently. Early on, in the first chapter, I saw that 2,707 people had highlighted "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." On the same page, I saw that 1,938 people had highlighted: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to love. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." After that, however, all these many hundreds of people stopped highlighting. Knowing as I do better now how deadly soporific that first chapter is, I suspect the obvious. They stopped reading. As it happens, my own highlighting was fixated on things like the word "flute." At one point, for example, we find Thoreau reminiscing by the side of Walden Pond: "When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water." Yes, so he's sitting there playing a flute. Have you seen episodes of the old Kung Fu TV show lately? I find I have seized on the flute, and some notion of going about barefoot much of the time, as certain hippie totems. But of course there's much more going on beyond the caricatures in Walden. Thoreau's most potent influence—his best idea—was in his profound rejection of the conventional, which in the US has always meant more generally the commercial. Thoreau may be as close as European Americans have had to a soul walking the earth, uncommonly practical, enraptured with capital-N Nature on many levels, and a stone geek on sundry intellectual matters such as biology or Hinduism. His experiment involved many conditions that barely obtain today or that were obscured for the sake of the experiment (some interesting perspective in this New Yorker story from earlier this year). But he was obviously smart, resourceful, and humanitarian. There are many gems of passages in Walden too, though I estimate the proportion at about 30% to the rest. Plan to be patient.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Carlito's Way (1993)

USA, 144 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Edwin Torres, David Koepp
Photography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Patrick Doyle, Brian De Palma Pop Hit Mix
Editors: Kristina Boden, Bill Pankow
Cast: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo, Ingrid Rogers, Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Viggo Mortenson, Paul Mazursky, John Ortiz, Joseph Siravo

Yeah, I thought too late, I probably should have taken another look at director Brian De Palma's Scarface while I was at it, which I have somehow not been able to do since seeing it new. I know its reputation has seen considerable rehabilitation since then. And between putting Al Pacino front and center, coming in long, and working self-consciously within the gangster movie frame, they have a lot in common. If it's ridiculous for Pacino to bury his Marielito head in a pile of cocaine on a desktop in Scarface it's probably equally ridiculous to make him a Puerto Rican gangbanger trying to go straight in Carlito's Way.

But here we are. I've grown fond of Carlito's Way since first seeing it some 10 years ago. It's an exemplary instance of De Palma's ability to craft operatic narrative that is genuinely affecting. It's romantic, absorbing, moving, and often beautiful, even if it is all in the service of overfamiliar clichés. At least Scarface was pushing hard on its limitations, amirite? I'll have to make a point to get to it. We probably shouldn't leave Goodfellas out of this discussion either, as Carlito's Way also adapts some of that movie's surging pseudo-documentary verve. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) narrates in voiceover and the story unfolds with a lot of episodic energy, taking its time to explain certain points fully. It also has a predilection for matching intense scenes with rock songs: "Oye Como Va" by Santana, "You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees, "Lady Marmalade" by Labelle. But the sense of classic tragedy, of noble life and fatal flaws and destiny—that's all De Palma.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Sredni Vashtar" (1911)

Read story by Saki online.

Saki was a Scottish writer, also known as H.H. Munro, who died in battle at the age of 45 in World War I. His literary specialty involved very short stories, usually involving children and animals. They might be classed as horror, because they were often macabre, with surprising cruelties, and many had supernatural elements as well. "Sredni Vashtar" is one of his best known and most widely collected, though perhaps a little short on the entirely fantastic. Conradin is the main character, a boy of 10 with a fatal disease who will die within five years. He is in the legal care of Mrs. De Ropp, his cousin. No word on the whereabouts of his parents (abandoned children are another recurring feature of Saki's stories). Conradin is lonely with only Mrs. De Ropp hovering over him. Consigned to the garden in the backyard, he finds a neglected toolshed in a far corner, and in that shed a hen and a caged polecat-ferret. He dubs the mammal hybrid "Sredni Vashtar" and worships it as a god. The hen he treats as a pet, and loves. Eventually Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed. She misses the polecat-ferret but removes the hen, "sold and taken away overnight." Conradin's sadness is so profound we feel it ourselves. He knows now it's just a matter of time before she gets to the other animal. This is strange stuff, but normal for Saki. Mrs. De Ropp is not wantonly punishing—she may be insensitive but she feels a responsibility for the boy's care. Meanwhile the worship of Sredni Vashtar is only vaguely plausible but wholly typical of Saki. The feverishness of it (along with the brevity of the story) helps make us believe too, if only for as long as we read. Conradin's supplications take a new and darker tone after the hen is gone. "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar," is his repeated prayer. "The thing was not specified," Saki writes as an aside. "As Sredni Vashtar was a god he must be supposed to know." And so it comes to pass that one day Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed further. I'm sure you can guess the twist ending—once you've read enough Saki they're not hard to guess. The real surprise is that he did this stuff at all, thought of crazy monstrous ways to end his stories, and then actually did them. On one level, it's unbelievable cheek—so it's a joke? Yes and no. The ending also speaks unmistakably to Conradin's rage, at the loss of his hen, at the imminent loss of his life, at the emptiness of his life awaiting death. The story is highly implausible like a joke, but the character plight is real and carries all the portent and gravity of this remarkable story.

Sredni Vashtar and Other Stories by Saki

Monday, December 18, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Here's one that comes with a lot of buzz—I've been hearing about it all year, and it's just thick with stars and familiar faces: Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Sam Rockwell, and more, but above all Frances McDormand, with a very big role as Mildred Hayes of Ebbing, Missouri, whose daughter was raped and killed seven months before the action of this movie. The case is still open, the perpetrator still at large, and Mildred suspects the police are not really working it. She takes matters into her own hands and finds a way to buy advertising space on [the title], taunting the chief of police by name for the lack of results. The town, especially the police, do not react well. Three Billboards was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Like the first (I haven't seen the second), Three Billboards comes with a low-grade if somewhat smoother Guy Ritchie affect. Tension is heavy around here. The confrontations are harsh, the violence unexpected and shocking, and plenty of people are just plain reprehensible. You can't always make out what they're saying either, the backwoods accents are so thick. I believe this movie has its heart in the right place, much like Paul Haggis's Crash 13 years ago, but it's unfortunately nearly as simple and easy about dispensing redemption like lotion from a tube. The plot has many unlikely turns, and if it's trying to be a movie for the Trump era—a quick internet search did not turn up when it was actually written and filmed—it's trying too hard. Or it doesn't know what it's talking about. Or both. A lot of these scenes and setups betray only a certain loathing for the caricatures populating the small, rural, impoverished Missouri town—loathing for red-state America, not to put too fine a point on it. Mildred and her ex-husband (Hawkes) are rushed sketches of the economically left-behind white working class who now work on opioid problems and vote DJT, if they vote. The police, especially Dixon (Rockwell), are barely above the level of brutes—real knuckle-draggers. I suspect this movie is infuriating people in Missouri, but in fairness, the people in Missouri have also been infuriating the rest of us for a few years, between Todd Akin and Michael Brown. Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) is the exception—a good old boy but worldly and wise like Yoda, and apparently with definite opinions about Oscar Wilde. So what we end up with is a feel-good movie about American bigotry and divided America that nonetheless is packed with some very sharp scenes and performances. Worth seeing—you might even find it adding up more than me.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Harlot's Ghost (1991)

The last words in Norman Mailer's massive CIA novel are "to be continued." In many ways Harlot's Ghost does feel like just half the tale, covering activities in "the Company" from 1955 to 1963. The main focus is the Kennedy administration, primarily Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and its aftermath. The Kennedy assassination is a convenient milestone on which to end it. But the career of the young narrator—Herrick Hubbard, though he goes by many different names—is just starting as the novel ends. Mailer had certainly figured out big tome dynamics with The Executioner's Song, and Harlot's Ghost is actually a remarkably quick and easy read. It patiently develops the skills of spying, called tradecraft, by showing Hubbard's education and work in action. Slowly, the novel turns and points into history, as the cast grows to include all manner of real people: E. Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, "Jack" Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Fidel Castro, William Harvey. All and more have speaking parts (if only, some of them, gleaned via surveillance transcripts). Hunt probably even qualifies as a semi-major character. By the time they show up, Mailer has established a level of authorial credibility and we accept them as all else. Hubbard goes to school, and then on to assignments in D.C., Berlin, Uruguay for several years, and ultimately (in terms of the novel) Miami and Cuba. The account of the Bay of Pigs mission is detailed and vivid, though from an unexpectedly insulated point of view. In many ways it's fair to call the novel epistolary, built primarily on correspondence and documents. Hubbard is always the author and never pretends to knowing more than he can provide evidence for. But he has lots of evidence to provide. He's often in the right place at the right time (or wrong, depending on your view), but again, Mailer establishes the ground early and well. There's a corny romance and ham-handed philosophical conceits woven inextricably into the narrative, the usual we've come to expect from Mailer in those realms. I don't know how far he made it with a second volume, if anywhere at all, but I wanted to read it right away after I finished Harlot's Ghost. That's a measure of the kind of spell he is able to cast with this great novel.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 15, 2017

On the Town (1949)

USA, 98 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Alice Pearce, Florence Bates, Tom Dugan, Judy Holliday

With my ongoing Movie of the Year project now drifting into the '40s (and the '30s, and yes eventually even into the '20s), I'm finding myself with more catch-up to do—hence the longer periods between write-ups—and also some interesting and even surprising shifts in taste. A lot of movies were made everywhere then, especially in Hollywood, where these are the glory years. Yet except for a designated golden few from each year they are generally harder to track down and see. Netflix—whose DVD service has begun to fail in recent years anyway, and now appears to be shifting into attrition mode as subscribers shrink to minuscule numbers (they've never had anything like the DVD archive on streaming)—simply won't serve any longer as a single primary source. And YouTube may yet emerge as a reliable online repository. I've also developed other new sources such as Amazon Video and Warner Archive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the last year has been a newfound taste for musicals—and film noir, and woman's pictures, and pirate movies, and others. But the biggest change is musicals. I haven't seen that many because in times past I couldn't turn away from them fast enough on TV and it was rare when anyone could talk me into looking at one all the way through. Of course, everyone knows Singin' in the Rain by now, currently the #12 greatest movie of all time according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and safely one of the designated goldens for 1952. Maybe they also know On the Town (and even Take Me Out to the Ball Game, also from 1949). But they're new to me and I still can't resist the absurd comical heights they reach with their calculated fits of joy and tap dancing, these flights of pure physical pleasure. When people talk about the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the former being more athletic, the latter more suave, that's true enough. But that difference is also more directly a function of emotional engagement. While Fred Astaire stays busy brushing lint from his tux, making dry witty remarks, and chuckling uneasily, Gene Kelly made a career out of wearing his stupid old American heart on his sleeve.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

Story by Philip Roth not available online.

Philip Roth's comic anecdote came early in his career, published when he was 25, with themes and elements that have appeared in most of his work, notably the spectacle of Jews and Christians attempting to live together in New Jersey. It's skillfully done and a pleasure to read—he would get even better at language that is seductively easy to read, but he's already good here. The main charge of the story, however, strikes me as its most dated element now, which is the humiliation of forcing Jews to pray like Christians. Oscar "Ozzie" Freedman, who is 13 or 14, accomplishes this by threatening to jump to his death. It's all tied up with a poem by Andrew Marvell and biblical prophecy. In fact, if I understand things correctly, the parties most likely to be offended are the Catholics (using the term "in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants"), who might be inclined to see the actions of the Jews as mockery, if not indeed profanity. All of this is occasioned by Ozzie feeling the rabbi won't engage with him intellectually when he starts asking the kinds of questions people are always asking about religions. In this case, after the rabbi scoffs at the notion of a virgin birth, Ozzie wants to know why, if God is all-powerful, He couldn't impregnate a woman if He wanted to. The charge of the story is the profanity of the central event, or maybe I mean blasphemy. Threatening to jump from the synagogue roof, Ozzie forces the Jews witnessing the event, including especially the rabbi who won't take his questions seriously, to get on their knees and pray for the love of Jesus the Son of God. Ironically, the story has probably been losing power ever since it was published. It might have some charge to today's evangelicals, who might take it as some sign of formal End Times. I like to think that's an intellectual minority, but I probably have it exactly wrong. Anyway, I'm pretty sure none of them reads Philip Roth, let alone one of his early short stories. Roth is much more a novelist and I'm not even sure he's written that many short stories. So at best I'm going to have to file this under interesting (and entertaining) curiosity.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Top 40

1. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, "I Feel It Coming"
2. Skillet, "Back From the Dead"
3. Rihanna, "Love On the Brain"
4. Future, "Selfish"
5. Kamasi Washington, "Truth"
6. New Pornographers, "Whiteout Conditions"
7. Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
8. Romeo Santos, "Heroe Favorito"
9. Luis Fonsi feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito (Remix)"
10. Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari, "LOVE."
11. Maxwell, "Gods"
12. Future, "Mask Off"
13. Kevin Ross, "Long Song Away"
14. Keith Urban feat. Carrie Underwood, "The Fighter"
15. Tamar Braxton, "My Man"
16. Portugal. The Man, "Feel It Still"
17. Carl Craig, "Rock'n Latex"
18. Tiga, "Nonstop"
19. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
20. Candi Carpenter, "Burn the Bed"
21. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
22. Selena Gomez, "Fetish"
23. Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"
24. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"
25. Playboi Carti, "Magnolia"
26. LP, "Up Against You"
27. Joey Bada$$, "For My People"
28. Hailee Steinfeld, "Most Girls"
29. Strand of Oaks, "Hard Love"
30. Real Estate, "Darling"
31. Cardi B, "Bodak Yellow"
32. Lilly Hiatt, "Trinity Lane"
33. War on Drugs, "Up All Night"
34. Waxahatchee, "No Question"
35. Bleachers, "Don't Take the Money"
36. National, "The System Only Dreams in Darkness"
37. Kesha, "Praying"
38. Smiley, "Rara"
39. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
40. Kesha, "Woman"

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nothing But Murder (1946)

This collection came late in the career of the amateur criminalist and essayist William Roughead, who lived and worked in Scotland as an attorney. Scads of his crime case studies were published for entertainment purposes from 1901 until past his death in 1952. This book came shortly after World War II, but the pieces are older, published for the first time in the US here and intended for an American market. Typically enough they're pretty good. Roughead has an interesting taste for crime, though he indulges a macabre aesthetic that can be too wryly cute by half. So it stumbles out of the gate with the silly overture of an imagined congress of notorious criminals judging one another on just such grounds. It's hollow graveyard laughter, attempting distance from the motivations that drive the project (whatever those motivations are exactly ... I can get a bit coy around the point myself). It's better when he gets down to the details of cases because he picks interesting ones. The first is about a group of stowaway boys who were forced to leave the ship and walk barefoot across an ice sheet back to shore. Two drowned in the process. Roughead's basic strategy is to lay out the facts of the case as brought to trial by the police and used by prosecutors, and then go to the trial transcript. Thus it shifts radically and can take some getting used to, but ultimately it makes these proceedings all the more vivid, reading the words of the witnesses. The longest piece here, "Locusta in Scotland," presents a history of poisoning in Scotland, from the 16th century to the 1920s. The cases become monotonous, but more interesting is the history of the crime, from the earliest determinations that it is indeed a crime through the various advances in detection and understanding symptoms. A separate essay details a case of poisoning in 1613 that peels away layer after layer of court intrigue under King James VI and I (the Bible rewrite guy). Frankly I got lost in that one, but it sounded like a lot of dirty business all the way around. Roughead's work is best approached on literary terms, rather than purely informational, because he has an eccentric vocabulary, he can really take his time getting to the point, and he's capable of paragraphs that run longer than a page (or two). I liked the first half of Nothing But Murder more than the second, but I suspect that's a matter of fatigue as much as anything. He's charming and digressive and often a pleasure. It doesn't matter if the crimes are 20th-century vintage or ancient, it's all still crime—that eternal human impulse. It's weirdly comforting in some way to read these pieces, as if the unflappable Roughead has set out to explain the boogie man once and for all. About time someone did.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sans Soleil (1983)

France, 100 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Chris Marker
With: Alexandra Stewart, Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Deep Purple

I wouldn't exactly call Sans Soleil a difficult picture, but no documentary so preoccupied with memory, veracity, and the general problem of inattentiveness is ever going to be easy. Typically, the documentaries that make it into the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? usually seem to have something a little extreme about them. Man With a Movie Camera is extremely exuberant, and Close-Up is extremely weird (and I think we decided it wasn't a documentary anyway). Shoah is extremely long. Sans Soleil is extremely opaque—or make that gnomic, cryptic, elliptical, or make that just personal, deeply. So personal it's hard to parse, as intended. "Sans soleil" is French for "sunless," meaning darkness, like fading memory. It's a one-man show of a veritable stream of consciousness free associating for 100 minutes, and if you can't make out a point, there's your point: sunless.

That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Once past the expectation of narrative (leaping eagerly at scraps and anecdotes for the through thread), once over impatience to get on with it (very important), once you remember (again) you're looking at a movie, then it can be surprising, beautiful, witty, acerbic, very sharp, in small delicious bites. The one man is filmmaker Chris Marker, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. He even wrote and/or performed much of the soundtrack. Marker traveled the world widely and filmed wherever he went. He had a gifted eye and a formidable intellect. The images are the best part of Sans Soleil, compelling, seductive, random, strained through filters and effects. They almost seem to edit themselves, while the words attempt to keep up. These images include film shot by others, such as a horrific scene of a giraffe being hunted and killed, or scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo (in fact, Marker's critical treatment of Vertigo is one of the best parts in a movie pebbly full of very good very small parts). In short, Sans Soleil is a compressed history of the eye of Chris Marker, as he recalls it, in parts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

"Walking Out" (1980)

Read story by David Quammen online.

David Quammen's remarkable story is another fine entry in the man vs. nature type of adventure story. In fact, it reminds me of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it's a similar premise: a wintry scene in the woods threatens death if the protagonists aren't both smart and careful. Published much later in the century, Quammen's story also has a father-and-son element that is more typical of post-'60s generation gap dynamics. The main character is the 11-year-old boy David who is visiting his father in Montana. The parents are divorced, somewhat acrimoniously we understand from scattered clues, another familiar postwar element. The story is not attempting to invent anything new. It's just using what it has. So the father, who appears to have reinvented himself as a mountain man after the failed marriage, is pitifully needy for his son's approval, even as he overcompensates trying to impress him with his skills. For his part, the boy has little interest in being an outdoorsman. Off they go on a moose hunt, and it is isolated enough that they have to worry about things like bears and getting lost. On the last day of their brief foray into the woods, bad luck strikes. An unseasonal snowfall makes everything treacherous, and then some bad accidents happen. Now, severely injured and possibly bleeding out, they must get out of the woods and find help. Though the story goes to a basically unbelievable place in the end it is riveting all the way there. It's on the long side for a story, and it starts slow, but it holds interest first as a study of a father and son estranged against their will by circumstances, and then, once the snow falls, as a crackling adventure story. The language describing events as they happen is powerful and straightforward, but it's also good on what the boy is going through, and on what he sees his father going through. The point of view is the boy's, fading to omniscience for the details beyond his understanding. We are never inside the head of the father yet we come to know him well—even understanding him better than the boy, through his words and actions. The ending is a little overdetermined, and frankly hard to believe, with mishandled emphases. But you might disagree, and it hardly means getting there isn't worth the ride. This is a good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Monday, December 04, 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

I admit I've been suspicious of Greta Gerwig's long-trending indie queen popularity. She has appeared in movies I count among my favorites, notably Damsels in Distress, where she acquits herself well. Acquits herself well? She's one of the best parts if not practically carrying it. But she has also appeared in movies I'm less inclined to favor, such as Greenberg or Frances Ha, which already have imposing reputations but mostly looked like mannered indie-level exercises to me. She usually seems to be playing a version of the same character—a person slightly off, the kind people say marches to the beat of another drummer. That personality is still felt acutely in Lady Bird, Gerwig's directing debut and third or fourth screenplay. In fact, in many ways, Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Brooklyn)—taking the title role as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson—often seems to be doing a straight-up impersonation of Gerwig to put some of these scenes over. But that's about the end of any carping on my part. This is otherwise a tremendously heartening movie in so many good ways. It's a tender coming-of-age story, with obvious autobiographical details: set in Sacramento, in the early 2000s, Lady Bird's mother is a nurse and her father is a computer programmer struggling to survive in an industry prone to youth movements. Lady Bird, who turns 18 during the six or eight months of this story, is hungry for life and experience, ashamed of her family's modest means, compulsively trying to make it with cool kids, and committing her share of mistakes. At the heart of Lady Bird is a story of a difficult mother/daughter relationship, marked by fierce love and even fiercer alienation. Laurie Metcalf plays her mother, Marion, and she is fine. There's no shortage of quirky situations and hipster affectation on display here—among other things, Gerwig has a rock critic's taste and sense for ironically programming the soundtracks of lives—but what I like best are the scenes between people, between family and friends. They are sharply observed, develop at their own pace, almost always ring true, and they can leave you wrung out more than once in a reasonably short movie. All things considered, this is an exciting directing debut.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In my typical poky way, it took me awhile to get to Naomi Klein's slashing political / economic analysis of global neoliberalism across the second half of the 20th century, and by the time I did it all might have been obviated anyway by a turn toward nativist (I use the term ironically) authoritarianism in the US, a turn that suddenly makes neoliberalism look not so bad. That's one of their tricks, because neoliberalism is actually pretty bad. At some point in the past 50 years our wealthy friends and neighbors appear to have decided Keynesianism was a problem—probably because it worked, in terms of leveling and providing economic opportunity for more folks. Neoliberalism, in its conception, bases most of its hoodoo on the mystical magical wisdom of "The Market," and makes those folks work a lot harder and longer—generations and centuries—before it does much good, if it ever does. But at least The Shock Doctrine is still a good read, if you don't mind getting mad every day.

Maybe the biggest jolt is how Klein keeps finding ways to light up the word "shock." She goes all the way back to the coming of electroshock therapy (EST) after World War II, a treatment regime designed to atomize one personality and replace it with another (subsequently discredited though EST has been somewhat recredited in recent years, as the understanding of its effects has changed). Klein's poetic riffing on the point might even seem fanciful, at least until she starts to lay out the kinds of systematic torture practiced under Augusto Pinochet and other dictators in South America in the '70s. Partly what's so horrifying is that they were all doing the same things—the levels of centralization suggested by that are chilling and, yes, shocking. And much of it involved electricity.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Valiant Woman" (1947)

Story by J.F. Powers not available online.

This story by J.F. Powers is something more than an anecdote, but mostly it feels cute, focused on the relationship between a Catholic priest and his housekeeper. It proceeds from a church-approved view of priests as somewhat bumbling and inept in everyday things, implying they are distracted by their higher callings. It's a precious view of priests, especially the way it plays out in the story. The housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, is a shrewish type in her late 30s or early 40s, who is subtly taking control of Father Firman's social life. The dynamic, of course, is the work husband and wife, two people who work together and, though they are often married to others and not having an affair, behave at work like a married couple. The dynamic between them in this story is well-known among Father Firman's community of priests and church workers. Father Nulty, who visits him on his birthday, teases him by humming "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine." Father Firman and Mrs. Stoner have an unhealthy and unpleasant relationship, but it's played off as comical, which is why I keep coming back to the word "cute." Powers has the dynamic right, I think. They play cards at night after any visitors have left, and it's a painful ritual of passive-aggressive confrontation. On the night of the story, Mrs. Stoner wins—it seems as if she might win more often than not. Father Firman appears powerless to do anything to mitigate her ever-encroaching control. She is young enough that she could well outlive him. This could go on for the rest of his life. He is obviously miserable with it. But the tone of this story is more or less that it's funny—unfortunate, yes, perhaps even deplorable, but ultimately the stuff of laughter. I'm not convinced Powers is able to get past a certain Catholic fatalism because ultimately it seems to champion a kind of unyielding stoicism about circumstance, which I'm not sure often goes to good places, as a general rule. This is Catholicism before Vatican II so it's very old school. For the most part it feels unquestioning of precepts we are very skeptical about now. It's an interesting curiosity, but not much to it beyond that.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Moonwalk" (1992)

Story by Susan Power not available online.

I thought this story by Susan Power had a lot of nice elements but somehow came out to less than the sum of them. Margaret Many Wounds is on her deathbed and her two daughters, Evie and Lydia, are attending her. Evie left the Indian reservation that is their home many years before this story and has traveled from Minneapolis to be with her (though it's never named, the reservation seems likely to be Pine Ridge). The story is mostly told from the point of view of Evie, who has always felt she is the least favorite of her mother. The father died five years earlier, at which time Lydia stopped speaking. All of this is taking place in July 1969, as astronauts reach the surface of the moon for the first time in history. It's a nice touch, at least in theory, but also seems like the last straw in terms of piling on, especially when Margaret's spirit, shortly after she dies in bed, appears on the moon on TV, dancing, and only her 5-year-old grandson notices. The story is strongest when it simply observes the deathwatch, the way that families squabble, laugh, and carry on the way they do as much when they're in crisis as not. The shadow of death passes over the living, but the living can't help being what they are. There was some sense of resolution, especially between Margaret and Evie, but too often this story goes vague when it most needs to be concrete and specific. So overall it doesn't work for me, but in its parts it comes so close. I wanted to know a lot more about the dynamics between these principals, the mother and her two daughters, but all we get are broad strokes. Evie's resentment and flight, Lydia's decision to be mute, and especially who and what Margaret was to them. We get some sense but it often feels familiar and almost trite, or predictable. The spirit dance on the lunar surface is likely intended to remedy some of that. But that merely seems fanciful, the kind of thing even the best writers can only occasionally manage. Wish this were better—the death scene particularly offers many possibilities not lived up to here.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Friday, November 24, 2017

Fearless (1993)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Rafael Yglesias
Photography: Allen Daviau
Music: Maurice Jarre, Henryk Gorecki
Editors: William M. Anderson, Armen Minasian, Lee Smith
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez, Tom Hulce, John Turturro, Benicio Del Toro, Deirdre O'Connell, John de Lancie

(Earlier version for the Facebook countdown here.)

A couple weeks ago I was talking about Jaws and how the movie doesn't work for me partly because I'm unmoved by its central phobia. The case of Fearless is similar but more complicated. In the first place, I'm crazy about this movie. It's one of my favorites. I have been amazed by it since the first time it laid me flat in a theater and I have never gone more than a few years since without looking at it again. It's not because I'm afraid of air flight crashes, another popular phobia I don't share. But Fearless is not really a movie about air flight crashes, even though one of them is what drives all the action. Because Fearless is such a careful, beautiful, and nuanced picture, it was even more unfortunate that another movie about air flight crashes, Alive, was released the same year. Together they became, oh yeah, those two movies about air flight crashes, I always get them mixed up, which one has cannibalism?

The other one. It's the other one that has cannibalism—or so I understand, as I haven't seen it. I also haven't seen We Are Marshall, Flight, Con Air, Passenger 57, or a single one of the Airport movies. But I have seen the star-studded NPR-inflected Oscar-bait Hollywood project Fearless enough times to know things by heart. Look, Fearless has its problems. It's arguably touchy-feely to a fault, set in the Bay Area with sensitive liberals and psychotherapy culture as far as the eye can see. Its central preoccupation—getting saved, with all the multiplicities of what that can mean—is at once vague and trite. Indeed, the whole thing turns on two key lines of dialogue: "This is it. This is the moment of my death" and "I need you to save me." How many movies are named Fearless anyway? I see a couple handfuls at least, including a new TV series and a Jet Li project.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Flowering Judas" (1930)


Katherine Anne Porter's story is set in Mexico during revolutionary times. It's a murky but cosmopolitan scene. Our main character, Laura, is Anglo. A vaguely menacing character, Braggioni, is Italian. And there are Indians, Poles, Romanians, others. Already I get a hit of the surreal sense of Latin American literature, or culture, a kind of acceptance of the absurd that requires no discussion. Laura is frequently described in nun-like terms, and she dresses and behaves modestly. Braggioni is interested in her—courting her, even, but not in any way that she appears able to decline. She's in a situation, somehow, where her best choice may be to go along with it for the time being. Her occupation is described as teaching Indian children. Braggioni serenades her, singing and playing a guitar. "She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention." Braggioni was some kind of commanding soldier in the revolution, grounded in carnal realities and equations of power. Despite Laura's modest manner and reserve, or perhaps because of them, Braggioni lusts for her: "he wishes to impress this simple girl who covers her great round breasts with thick dark cloth, and who hides long, invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt." Laura is more than a teacher—she obviously has a stake and specific personal reasons to be there, attending union meetings and visiting political prisoners. Even if she were interested in a relationship she probably wouldn't have time—but, again, she appears to have limited choice, beyond those for any Anglo woman in that time and place. As we come to learn, she is also somehow involved in subversive activity. There's a strong but fleeting suggestion that she may have provided the means for a political prisoner to commit suicide. There are many layers to reality in this story, and tearing one layer away also can have the effect of resetting reality to a new ground. Laura is afraid of Braggioni's vindictiveness, which could leave her even more vulnerable in a situation she seems more committed to than ever. The story ends with a bad dream Laura has after going to bed. There's a sense there are many days and nights like this still ahead of her—and many already behind her. The language and images are precision-fitted, and altogether it's a pretty good story.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I tried to go into Blade Runner 2049 with an open mind, even though I'm inclined to be suspicious of all sequels, reboots, and the like, I'm really not convinced of anything yet about director Denis Villeneuve, I had gleaned enough about the response to know it's already considered a disappointment and commercial flop, and last but not least I knew it was nearly three hours going in. Four strikes, you're out, man. And there were more red flags too, one each for Ridley Scott, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford, each a problem for different reasons. I'm officially tired of Ford's farewell tour of his career greatest hits, after the Star Wars reboot, another Indiana Jones on the way, and who knows what else. Philip K. Dick's name comes after all of the above in the credits, which is probably as it should be because the whole thing is not very Dickian at all anymore. It is Ridley Scottian, and Harrison Fordian, and maybe even young Ryan Goslingian before it is Dickian. But Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuvian more than anything by way of his indulgence for high concept and tricksy plot developments, previously seen in Incendies and Arrival (at least). Sicario is the best and most exciting I've seen by him so far, looking for its complexities in the intricate levels of power in the cross-border drug trade, with everything else straightforward and somehow achieving a unique lucidity. Blade Runner, of course, is all concept and nothing straightforward, as received, and with the franchise now openly abandoning Dick and developing in other ways. It lifts a page from the Battlestar Galactica playbook and turns our tale of corporatism and human simulacrums into a story about robots interbreeding and giving birth, as opposed to being manufactured. This, you see—being born—is the dividing line between having a soul and not having one. It is all very busy building to a Big Reveal, which I admit seemed to play fair by all the rules I understand in these games of narrative peekaboo (and note that I'm not giving anything away). Yet it amounted to nothing—much like the reveal in Arrival, something garbled about perception and time and sadness. Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels every minute. Everything good about it is better in any one of the three or four cuts Ridley Scott already took at the original. At least it's beautiful. This franchise is a mess. Philip Dick wept.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sacred Fount (1901)

Henry James apparently disavowed this short but interminable novel, declining to include it in a comprehensive 1908 collection of his work. Whatever else it is, The Sacred Fount is difficult and annoying, that's for sure. Even the typically anodyne Wikipedia has a note of impatience in its summary: "[A]fter a while, the narrator's theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts." Yes, and what's more, as usual, finding the antecedents to the pronouns is the hard part, with generous portions of "that to which he had earlier referred" and the like. The consensus appears to be that this nuanced narrator is overly interested in various sexual affairs going on behind the scenes at a weekend gathering in the country, and that might indeed be what this novel is about. I'm struck, however, that the basic clue appears to be who has aged among the weekend attendees, and who, improbably, has grown more youthful. Some of these people are 40 and look 25, that is, but their descriptions are rendered in such excruciating detail that I'm halfway willing to believe they actually are younger, and this is some kind of science fiction twist (after all, we've seen that James likes detective and horror stylings). "The sacred fount" is not sex, as most take it, but literally the thing Ponce de Leon was looking for. These richies have a line on it. Although that doesn't explain some of the unnatural aging of some of the other characters, so fuck that. The novel is probably short enough it could be mistaken for a Dick Francis in mass market paperback, but don't let that fool you. You're going to want to hurl this one across the room frequently, and you can take that as a recommendation underlining James's own instinct to avoid it—I read it so you don't have to—or perhaps you can take it as a personal challenge. After all, it's so short. It does have a kind of spooky Twilight Zone air somehow, as if the narrator is the only one truly alive there and the others come to life only when he engages them in conversation. Otherwise they are like murmuring extras in party and dinner scenes in movies like Last Year at Marienbad. If you're going to read The Sacred Fount, see if you don't agree with me that there really is some kind of potion or elixir these wealthy privileged characters are sharing with (and/or denying to) one another. They are visibly becoming younger even over the course of the weekend. In another week they might be teenagers. What the point of that could possibly be, I admit, is not a question I'm ready to answer yet. One theory that occurred to me is that James read Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and it made him mad with jealousy. Following this came arguably his greatest period of work.

"interlocutor" count = 14 / 172 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

87th Precinct directory

87th Precinct: 11 books to read first
Tricks (1987)
The Con Man (1957)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971)
Killer's Choice (1957)
So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976)
King's Ransom (1959)
Poison (1987)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
Fuzz (1968)
Cop Hater (1956)

List of reviews in series order after the jump.

Fiddlers (2005)

I don't know for sure that Ed McBain knew this would be the last novel in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, but he probably knew at least that it was approximately the 55th. McBain was also known as Evan Hunter, but his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino and he was a pro to the end. The case here turns on a series of murders that are linked by the gun and method used—a Glock and two shots to the face. The title returns to one of his characteristic titling strategies, a single word played various ways. One of the victims here plays violin professionally, and the killer complains that all his victims fiddled with his life. It's decently constructed if a little rickety. There's a great joke here when Meyer Meyer confronts the killer. McBain certainly seems to be making a point of including everyone (and, interestingly, mentioning many of their ages). So Genero is here, and Eileen Burke, and even Nellie Brand, the prosecuting attorney who often showed up conducting formal interviews at the ends of his books. It's a little bit like the last episode of Seinfeld that way. I was distracted by some of the details about age that were disclosed. For example, Steve Carella's twin children, Mark and April, are fixed at 13 years old. They were born in the second of three novels McBain published in 1959 ('Til Death). Similarly, Bert Kling is identified as being 33 and we first saw him promoted as a raw rookie in the second of three novels McBain published in 1956 (The Mugger). He wasn't 17—I remember him being more like 23 or 24, or perhaps 21—so it's evident that time streams across the whole series are somewhat flexible from character to character. I can't say it's a surprise, as the amazing floating ages of Mark and April alone have always led to certain dislocations of perception. Kling also takes one more relationship pratfall in this one, with troubling aspects of his personality revealed again. But he's also made out to be a martyr, with his age specified. In a way, a sad way, his whole life turns out to be a joke. But Fiddlers involves a lot of wistful sadness anyway, some on McBain's part and some on my own, as I felt the ending of the whole thing close in. Is it flawed? Of course. In fact, as I've worked on putting together a short list of the best from the series, I've been dogged by the lack of consistency even within single novels. And the larger project in turn is brought down a little by a sense of dead ends and missed opportunities. Sure, he could have done more. Like Oskar Schindler, we all could. But 54 (or 55) books, any one of which will fly fine on an airplane, is not bad. Not bad at all.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)

Like most of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch is loose and uneven, with some aspects given more thoughtful attention than others. McBain concocts a plot based on Lewis Carroll and hip-hop. Most of the energy is spent on the first very long chapter, which details a sensational kidnapping that happens to be captured by a TV crew. A new performing talent, Tamar Valparaiso, is about to release a debut album, a concept album which riffs on Carroll's "Jabberwocky." (I'm not sure whether McBain knew it, but there was a '60s psychedelic rock band from San Francisco called the Frumious Bandersnatch, whose members went on to play with Steve Miller and/or Journey.) At the launch party for the album, on a boat in the harbor, Valparaiso is kidnapped in a daring, brazen, etc., and we're off and running. The jurisdiction of the crime falls to the 87th, but because it's a kidnapping the FBI is involved. Our usual hero Steve Carella is dispatched to work with them. But there are tensions because the FBI has no respect for local cops. Inevitably Carella shows them how wrong they are. Once again, Fat Ollie Weeks is here because McBain likes writing about him. He has some unconnected scenes as he starts to date a uniform officer, Patricia Gomez. Because she's Hispanic, Fat Ollie has to confront his own bigotry. It's pretty much predictable but there's a surprising moment at the end of one of their dates. Meanwhile, the main case takes an ugly turn at the end—McBain actually finds a new way to be cruel with the fate of the singer. Overall the Carroll element is weak, most of it built into the singer and her album. But McBain randomly inserts Carrollisms all the way, to keep the concept freshened and perhaps out of appreciation for the always strangely lyrical nonsense syllables. Otherwise it's all familiar elements present and accounted for, e.g., the late humanizing of Fat Ollie. Bert Kling and his African-American surgeon girlfriend Dr. Sharyn Cooke get some scenes. McBain's voice is still engaging, but he's less energetic, more prone to dated ways of thinking. Not bad if you're getting to all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fat Ollie's Book (2002)

I've been through nearly all of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain now, and it is finally just dawning on me that Fat Ollie Weeks is McBain's favorite character in the whole thing after only Steve Carella. Which, in turn, raises interesting questions about McBain's own Jekyll and Hyde personality tendencies. Carella is a boy scout practically as good as it's possible for a human being to be. And Fat Ollie is nearly the opposite. He's fat, he's a slob, he doesn't go by the book, and he's a bigot. The only thing they have in common is they're both good detectives. But heck, Fat Olllie doesn't even work for the 87th Precinct. He's always been part of the neighboring 88th. He came along in the '70s and then just never went away. It was confusing not least because there was already one outspoken racist turd, Andy Parker, who was always part of the series. He's even in this one. Unlike Parker, Fat Ollie is smart and entertaining, though he tends to be despicable before anything else. But McBain evidently saw something redeemable in him, made him slightly more vulnerable in places, and set him loose. This book is his great moment, more or less. He's hot on his own big case, the murder of a politician, and incidentally trying to recover the manuscript of a novel he has written, Report to the Commissioner, which was stolen with his briefcase. It's the only copy he has so he's a little desperate. Fortunately, the thief is also a character in the case, so that means we get to see sections of it. It is actually funny, which means McBain accomplished the feat of writing funny too, no easy thing. What he did not accomplish, however, was writing funny and writing a decent mystery story, let alone police procedural. This is all for the laughs, and they are there, but it also feels like a wasted 87th Precinct story. It's late in the series, when McBain was getting sentimental, injecting more reminders of past cases, and outright reminiscing. Fat Ollie's Book just kind of lays there, until the excerpts from Fat Ollie's book come along, and they are entertaining. Some of that is because it's such paper-thin recasting of reality in the 87th Precinct world, such as Fat Ollie hiding his identity by making his first-person narrator / detective a woman named Olivia Wesley Watts (as opposed to Oliver Wendell Weeks). Some of it is because he's trying to skate by his own grammatical ignorance. After asking a rhetorical question, for example, Fat Ollie's narrator goes on: "I guess you know better than me, [Mr. Commissioner]. Or perhaps even better than I." And some of it is just because it's all so absurd. On the other hand, I'm not sure Fat Ollie's Book would be funny at all to someone not familiar with the series. Even if you are, it's still not one to hurry to get to.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nocturne (1997)

Nocturne may not feel as tired as other late entries in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—as tired, I say. It's still tired compared to titles before about 1980. The mystery story is complicated too, and gets hard to follow. One of McBain's favorite jokes here—he goes to it at least three times—involves people talking about that movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote called The Birds. Then other characters say they don't think Hitchcock wrote it. In fact, of course, McBain wrote it 35 years earlier under his Evan Hunter pseudonym. Another running joke starts with the death of the primary victim, gunned down point-blank with two shots to the heart. Most times this comes up someone says they saw that movie, and someone else says they don't think that's what it was called. It sounds like the reference is to One From the Heart, which was 15 years old at the time, but who knows? Happens in passing and never explained. The main case involves an old woman who is shot to death along with her cat. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes are on the case, and yes, once again, Fat Ollie Weeks shows up working a case that might be related. He's not that offensive this time. Mostly he just works his case. The old woman was formerly a celebrated concert pianist brought low by arthritis and nagging hearing problems. Her granddaughter is also a pianist, but not as talented and more in the cocktail lounge style. The more I summarize the plot points the more contrived it looks. Cruel high school football players—or psychotic, really—are also on the town, preying on the vulnerable, though it's mostly played for laughs. That's the case Fat Ollie is working. Step away from McBain's storytelling voice and the jokes are not funny at all. Maybe that's a continuing problem, especially with these later ones. What once seemed dark and sardonic humor inflecting the action has turned steadily into easy cynicism, with exaggerations. People are bad enough. You don't have to exaggerate that. Save this for later, or read the series in order. Either way, this one can wait.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mischief (1993)

Though it's another Deaf Man episode, this police procedural in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain was more competent and engaging than I expected. It has numerous cases besides the Deaf Man story, and is also one of the very biggest entries by page count. The balance helps. More than anything, however, Mischief is an attempt at a statement on race in the wake of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riot which unfortunately falls short. There is a rap group here, Spit Shine—to start with, that strikes me as a terrible name. McBain's understanding of hip-hop is essentially stillborn. But at least he's trying? I liked the detective pairings in this one and how McBain used them to explore the chemistry of the characters. With McBain actively addressing both racial tension and political correctness, inevitably there will be wincing. Steve Carella, of course, gets the Deaf Man case, with Arthur Brown, the chronically underutilized African-American detective, here rotated more toward the front. Bert Kling and Andy Parker work an unlikely case of a serial killer. Someone is murdering graffiti artists (which McBain calls graffiti "writers"—I don't think I've ever heard that term). Parker used to be the chief designated racist in the series until Fat Ollie Weeks came along, but McBain still reaches for him as needed for the extra helping of obnoxious bigotry. Parker is always a reliable source of wincing, both for his sake and McBain's. Parker and his escapades are bad enough (very bad) so next to him Kling gets to play the good cop role, though he's often not a good cop. Mischief is also where Kling first meets a later love interest, Sharyn Cooke, an African-American forensics physician and surgeon. In many ways, the case that Kling and Parker are working is the A story here, though ultimately the Deaf Man is reserved for the finish—another elaborate crime with taunting clues as we go. In the social realism department, Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are investigating seniors with dementia who are being dumped around the city. They have no ID and don't know who they are. If Mischief is dated and painful at least it is dated and painful in intriguing little ways, incidentally offering a profile of a white man with all the best intentions attempting to understand racial issues, and failing. I sympathize a little, because I'm sure I make my own mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. At least it's a decent police procedural.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fuzz (1968)

I got to this entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain late, partly because it's another odd bird as commercial product. Is this some matter of unusual holders of publishing rights? Even the kindle version is more expensive than most, which is the kind of problem seen more often in the 87th Precinct novels from the '90s and later. Fuzz was made into a movie in 1972, set in Boston and starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, which might explain it. McBain wrote the screenplay using his Evan Hunter pseudonym. I haven't seen the movie. One of the plot lines is about teenagers who are hunting homeless people and setting them on fire, and shortly after the movie was released a number of copycat incidents occurred in Boston and Miami, for which the picture was blamed. That might explain it too, as similar problems followed release of A Clockwork Orange a year earlier and that movie was banned in London as a result. At any rate I'm glad it took a little while to get to it because Fuzz is actually a pretty good one, much better than the later titles I've been getting around to lately. It's short, barely 200 pages, but juggling three separate stories. The main case is another Deaf Man episode, with heavy emphasis on the masterful criminal masterminding, conducted with great mastery. As always, his antics are exaggerated to superheroic proportions. Here he is killing Isola city officials (with the greatest of ease) and demanding increasingly high extortion amounts to stop doing it. So it's a mixed bag—the Deaf Man episodes are always comic book jive, though Fuzz is not as bad as some of the others (notably his perfectly unbelievable introduction in The Heckler). The other two cases—the arson assaults on the homeless, and a weird stick-up plot that's there mainly to service the Deaf Man resolution—are more or less weak sauce, but McBain's writing is more vivid and freewheeling even than usual. Basically, it feels like he had more fun writing it. Whether it's worth paying the collectible premium is another matter, but you can easily enough get your hands on it for $10 or less.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Doll (1965)

The 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain comes with a few mysteries of its own outside the covers of the book. Though copies are easily enough obtained, it takes a little extra work because presently it is out of print and there is no kindle edition. Doll is unusually violent, even for McBain, but not so much you'd think it would be just abandoned this way. The paperback I tracked down was printed in the US, but obviously edited for UK readers, at least in terms of its quotation marks, if not the variant spellings. Who knows? Anyone? It opens on a woman being slashed to death while her toddler daughter plays in the next room. The woman is divorced and a successful model, but with a dark secret to hide. It's an early use of a single-word title worked all different ways across the story. The dead woman is a model, or "doll," and her daughter plays with a doll during the murder, the doll that eventually breaks the case open. Other strange things: the much more grim tone than normal—very little of the light-hearted banter. Another would-be death of Steve Carella. A still grieving and totally broken-down Bert Kling, who is becoming the kind of bad cop everyone recognizes as such (compared with later in the series, when his lapses seem to be intended more on the order of overzealous bad form). In fact, it's so bad with Kling that he is booted off the squad. Temporarily, obviously—I'm throwing spoiler warnings to the wind here because Doll is just such an unusual entry in the series. Looking up fan reviews on Goodreads, I see that many consider it one of the best. The bad things are very bad here—heroin addiction and torture are more elements in play. But it does not feel like McBain is having much fun. He's not straining for effect here. It's just dark. But it makes me wonder about the circumstances of writing and publishing it. Is it really the high level of depravity that's keeping it out of print and off the kindle reading programs? I thought that stuff was more the norm these days. Did McBain himself have some say (or some specific lack of it) in suppressing it? Is it even fair to say suppressed? They feel like the real mysteries here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jaws (1975)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Photography: Bill Butler
Music: John Williams
Editor: Verna Fields
Cast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

A few weeks ago, catching up on horror backlog during the Halloween season, I got a chance to see Frozen (from 2010, not to be confused with the Disney animation from 2013), which is pretty nifty and actually much better than I expected. Two particular things I noticed: the name of one of the production companies involved is A Bigger Boat, and in an interview director and writer Adam Green declared—tongue no doubt in cheek, but still—that he wanted to make a movie that would do for chairlifts at ski resorts what Jaws did for sharks at summer beaches. This in turn impressed two more things on me: the enduring impact of Jaws, and my basic immunity to its premise.

I mean that I'm not afraid of sharks, never have been, and never give them a thought. (Ditto chairlifts.) It's not like they're zombies or evil spirits or something. But I've watched people seized by the delicious agonies of the fear of them nearly all my life. That's just one more long-term effect of Jaws—adding sharks to the pantheon of classic movie monsters and/or gnawing human phobias (piranha too for that matter). The creature from Black Lagoon has nothing on these beasts, except similarly beautiful underwater footage. Over 40 years later we have a ridiculous Sharknado franchise going and some pretty good movies like The Shallows too. And they're all about sharks, which actually pose less danger to us individually than radical Islamic terrorists, tipping furniture, slips in the bathtub, or air flight crashes—probably combined.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Read story by Edgar Allan Poe online.

Edgar Allan Poe's dank tale of revenge, murder, and appalling cruelty is just about the perfect short story—a dark horror play with a twist ending and all elements laid in to support it. I'm about to give it away any minute so go read it if you haven't because of course that's where it is told best. In Italy, during carnival time, the first-person narrator Montresor lures a friend he has come to despise down to the wine cellar of his palazzo, offering to share a very good new wine he says he has acquired at a good price, an amontillado. Montresor's friend, Fortunato (O irony), is already half-drunk from the revels, wearing a jester's costume. The story, though it is dark and cruel, is also funny in many ways. Montresor's rage about Fortunato's unspecified "thousand injuries" and "insult," with his description of the rules for administering revenge, are as comical as they are mad. At one point, Fortunato challenges Montresor's claim to belong to the masons by asking him for the secret sign. Montresor reaches into his cloak and produces a trowel. On first reading, we don't know the significance of this any more than Fortunato and the gesture is more strange than explanatory. Later, when we know better, it is somehow even more funny—something about the mystique of the masons, perhaps, juxtaposed with the homely construction tool, momentarily like a scene from Laurel and Hardy. The setting in the catacombs of a palazzo is perfect—evocative of the 19th-century American view of Europe as a moldering graveyard, decaying and debased. Montresor's crime is impossibly perfect. He plays Fortunato with precision, luring him deeper and deeper into the catacombs. "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," Montrosor notes early, later confirming that his crime is still unpunished after 50 years. In fact, it's all a bit too perfect. It might just be an impotent daydream after all. But it's a remarkable feat indeed to lull us as readers enough that we take sympathetic satisfaction from the crime as it goes down, relishing the pleasure of it with Montresor, though we have no idea what Fortunato did to deserve it. We see some ambiguous, potentially dismissive attitude by Fortunato toward Montresor, but not much. Mostly we are caught up in the seething rage and clinical precision of Montresor's monstrous deed. "[The wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong," Montresor also mentions as preface, and later he sees to that as well. Fortunato knows what is happening to him and, most importantly, by whom. "The Cask of Amontillado" might even be better than some of the revenge fantasies I've played in my own head. Don't miss those jingling bells on Fortunato's carnival cap.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

This is the longest of the slave narratives gathered up in the Library of America volume, just over 200 printed pages. It's also from the 18th century, published in 1789. It has nothing to say about the American Revolution, but then Equiano's experiences in the North American colonies were limited and among his worst, in a life full of misfortune. He identified more as a European and lived his slavery years in the West Indies. I say his life was full of misfortune, but compared with many he had a good life. He chronicles some of the depravities he sees—he has particular revulsion for manufactured articles such as iron muzzles and thumbscrews. But what's more often shocking to me is the utter lack of value of Africans in society, except as property, in terms of money. For example, a black man's testimony couldn't be taken against a white man. It was against the law. Against the law. Thus, when Equiano is robbed and swindled, as he often is, he has no legal recourse whatsoever. I know it's arguably still like that now with the way many police departments operate, but at least there's the fig leaf of formal laws. At that time, in that place, it's as if Equiano's existence were simply negated. Another interesting theme I hadn't anticipated, but could have, is a continuing preoccupation with kidnapping. For obvious reasons it is actually the central fact of his life and many African lives, often occurring, as in Equiano's case, in childhood. He was 11 when he was kidnapped with his older sister, separated from her, and heartbreakingly reunited with her briefly. Then he never sees or hears of her again, nor indeed any of his family. As with the previous slave narrative, by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Equiano also focuses on his Christian awakening and/or rebirth. It's certainly easier to see the appeal of religion in the context of 18th-century slavery. What I like about both of these first two memoirs is the sunny disposition of their authors. They are enduring levels of pain, privation, and danger I can barely imagine. They see a great many terrible things, and they are affected profoundly. But somehow they carry on. If it's from belief in the goodness of Christ, well, all right. I'll take those morals if a person really lives them. Equiano lived them, there's no question of it. There are always questions when it comes to text. I understand that. Even though it's the longest one here, it feels compressed and "edited for space." He lived a long, full, aware, and, yes, interesting life, and he left us this account of it as well. Wonderful stuff.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Home" (1978)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

Jayne Anne Phillips tells another story, which like "The Heavenly Animal" is also from her third collection of stories, Black Tickets, about fractured relationships in a modern media world. The first-person narrator, who goes unnamed, is 23 years old and recently returned home to live with her mother for an unspecified time. "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I came home to my mother," is how she explains the situation. They watch the evening news most nights and worry about the general health of Walter Cronkite. Her mother is a professional, an "educational administrator," who works during the day and comes home and knits in front of the TV at night. They watch a lot of TV and attempt in various ways to connect. And they do connect, but they are also separated by the daughter's interest in exploring her sexuality. It looks—and not only to her mother—as if she is sinking into a life of serial monogamy, forever bewildered by an inability to forge something lasting. For the mother, it's alarming and depressing to see her daughter going that direction. The daughter, for her part, thinks her mother is just an old square. Her mother and father are divorced and there's some sense the father is dead now—a ne'er-do-well at best, as there is also a vague and ambiguous suggestion of sexual abuse. The narrative basically turns on the daughter inviting an old boyfriend for a visit. For the sake of the mother they stay in separate rooms, but they meet later for sex, which wakens and distresses the mother. The visiting ex-boyfriend is obviously a terrible relationship for the daughter—he's in another relationship and just taking advantage of an opportunity, though he's also sympathetic in other ways. I'm tempted to call the story dated because in many ways it could only take place in the '70s, but there's something broader and more universal about it than just that. It's a great example of a major direction for the short story after the '60s, with stories of broken families in American suburbs and a certain spiritual malaise (not actually Jimmy Carter's turn of phrase, but close enough), which lingered into the Reagan years and well beyond: divorce, TV, meaningless sex, temporary living conditions, and a grinding generation gap are typical elements. Phillips makes a pretty good job of it here, much better I think than "The Heavenly Animal."

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff