Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable, by Mark Gilbert

All too often books on economics justify Carlyle's pejorative characterization of the subject as the dismal science. They indulge in dry statistics and arcane formulas. They talk down to their readers often asserting that much of the subjects they are discussing are so complicated that only the experts are able to understand them, indeed one has to wonder if even these so-called experts actually do understand them. They prefer the jargon of the insider to a language more accessible to a larger audience. It is almost as if these writers are purposely obfuscating, as if they are not interested in being understood by the general reader.

Bloomberg News London bureau chief Mark Gilbert's Complicit, a study of the what went wrong with the world credit markets and led to the recession in which we find ourselves currently embroiled, tries to avoid these pitfalls. While there are times he cannot quite manage to escape the snares entirely, and there is after all some excuse for the precision of professional jargon, his prose is usually aimed at the general reader and it usually hits its mark. He is willing to explain the arcane. He is unwilling to rely on the too complicated cop out.

There may be a lot of references to M-LEC's, SIV's and CDO's. There may be discussions of hedge funds and risks and rewards of borrowing short and lending long. There may be fingers pointing at the esoteric machinations of institutions like the central banks and the securities raters. There may be the reliance on some of the economic clich├ęs that have become part of the vocabulary of nearly everyone paying any attention to today's news coverage: moral hazard, liquidity crunches, and market bubbles. This is to be expected. These are after all the flesh and bones of the problem under discussion, and Gilbert does his level best to make all these things intelligible to the layman, without gross oversimplification.

The essential take away from his book would seem to be that there were many to be blamed for taking part in and allowing the risky speculation that became the norm for financial institutions world wide who were supposedly conservative custodians of their client's funds and their stockholder's best interests. This risky gambling with other people's money was not only tolerated, it was encouraged and rewarded. Paper profits earned huge bonuses and Cadillac perks for speculation. Conservative investing earned stones and ashes.

So long as market conditions remained propitious—easy credit, optimistic outlook, minimal regulation—the bubble grew and grew, larger and larger. The assumption was that what had risen would continue to rise. Until, an ill wind blew down what was a house of cards. Supposedly rock solid financial institutions found themselves embroiled in obligations they could not meet with funds on reserve, and unable any longer to find available credit. Trust in financial institutions gave way to panic. One company is allowed to go bankrupt. Mergers are arranged for others. Tax payers all over the world are saddled with the toxic assets of corporate behemoths deemed too big to fail. The results are catastrophic, and they have yet to be fully realized.

While there is little that is new in Gilbert's book, it does have the merit of pulling together all of the divergent strands and tying them together cogently. And he does it with style. His prose is colorful, figurative and allusive. "The alphabet soup cooked up by the derivatives chefs—boil some CDOs, toss in a dash of ABS and a soupcon of CDS, season with CPDOs, and serve with a garnish of overly optimistic ratings—was sufficiently toxic to poison the entire financial system." A little further on, "Music producers joke that the most successful heavy metal records are those in which every instrument is louder than every other instrument. A global capital market in which everything was becoming more expensive than everything else was a market that was cruising for a bruising." Here is his take on the difficulty of making judgments about employees: "Until a trader goes 'ker-ching' or 'ka-boom,' the bank has no clue whether it has hired a star or a turkey." This kind of lively prose style contrasts nicely with the inevitable academic jargon.

The book ends with some suggestions for avoiding repetition of these kinds of crises. Most seem fairly conventional: better regulation, but not to the point of stultifying business; stop speculators from profiting from temporary gains; make sure that when speculative investment goes bad, speculators take their share of the hurt. He even suggests at the very end of the book that perhaps one cause of the crisis may have been the macho character of a financial world dominated by testosterone. It may well be time, he goes on, to see if an injection of a greater female presence in high finance might not have an ameliorative effect. If this is the kind of mess men can get us into, how much worse could the ladies do?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Moonshine War The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Great tale of stills in the hills during prohibition--filled with revenuers, bootleggers,strong silent types and even a prostitute with something approaching a heart of gold.

View all my reviews >>

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mandelbaum on the Radio

“A mute? You want me to put a mute on the radio?”

“Hear me out, will you please? Just listen for--”

“What is there to listen to, you moron. You’re out of your goddamn mind. He wants me to put a friggin’ mute on the radio.”

“Look, Lennie, listen to me. You were the first with the retards, weren’t you? You were the guy with the stutterers, no? The midgets? You can’t see midgets on the radio. You were the first with--”

“And now you want me to be the first with fifteen minutes of dead air? What are you nuts? The guy doesn’t talk. This is friggin’ radio, remember? Sound? How do you interview a guy that doesn’t talk?”

“You can start--”

“Wait let me see if I can figure it out. I can start the next big thing, the new vogue: SILENT friggin’ RADIO, right? I can see it now. ‘Lennie Slotnik: FCC Bad Boy’s New Blow for Freedom of Speech. Silence.’”

“There is some question about whether or not he really can speak or not, you know. Maybe he really isn’t a mute. And if anyone can get him to speak, it would be Lennie Slotnik.. Think about the headlines. Mandelbaum Speaks. Slotnik’s Miracle.”

“Like one of them guys laying on the hands: ‘I can walk–it’s a miracle–I can walk.”

“Like getting one of those guys in the street to move.”

“What are yo talking about, guy in the street, it would be like getting one of those guards at that English palace to break up in hysterics. Like.. . . what the hell am I talking about. You’re making me nuts. The guy doesn’t talk. This is radio and the guy doesn’t talk.”

And that ended the first meeting where Slotnik’s producer, Larry Bellomatti pitched a guest shot for Mandelbaum the mute actor whose breakout performance in “Weekend at Bernies” was the rage of the moment.
A week later, when the news about Mandelbaum starring in a remake of “Gone With the Wind” was all over Entertainment Tonight, Slotnik was, if not quite convinced, at least willing to talk about it.

“This Mandelbaum guy, he talks? Yes or no.”

“I heard from a guy on the set at “Bernies” that he can talk if he wants to. The no talking, it’s just a publicity stunt. This guy tells me that in his trailer--”

“And this is a guy knows what he’s talking about? He’s not blowing smoke?”

“I know him for years. He’s not gonna smoke me. If he says it, it’s gold.”

“And if it’s not?”

“It’s not not. It is.”

“And if it’s not, I’m stuck with fifteen minutes of talking to myself.”

“You’ll think of something. You always do.”

“Right, it’d be nice if somebody else did some thinking around here once in awhile. Why am I surrounded with–. Let me give it some more thought. Meanwhile see if you can get me that one legged stripper from Miami.”

The morning after Mandelbaum appeared on Letterman, Slotnik was sold.

“Get Mandelbaum,” he told Bellomatti.

“What we need is somebody to talk for him, just in case. I mean Letterman is television.”

“You have to tell me that Letterman is television? I don’t know that Letterman is television. Give me a little credit for some brains. You think I’m Lenny Slotnik because I don’t know that Letterman is television.”

“I was only saying--”

“Who cares what you were only saying. I’m saying we got to have a back up just in case.
Someone to--”

“That’s what I was saying.”

“Who gives a shit what you were saying. I’m telling you what we got to have. We’ll get his people to send someone over with him. Like a--”

“Spokesman.”

“Translator. I’ll ask Mandelbaum. If Mandelbaum doesn’t speak. The translator will tell us what he’s saying.”

“Lennie, baby, if anybody can get him to talk, it’s Lennie Slotnik.”

“You have to tell me it’s Lennie Slotnik? Slotnik will get him to talk. . .but just in case.”

And so it was that at six thirty on the morning of January 18, Mandelbaum found himself sitting in the green room of The Lennie Slotnik Show with an intern from studio publicity and his agent’s brother listening intently to production instructions from Larry Bellomatti and nodding his head, perhaps in agreement, perhaps in boredom. For fifteen minutes he had sat listening and nodding. Never once did he say a word.

“You understand,” Larry asked, raising his voice as though Mandelbaum might have trouble hearing.

“He understands,” said the intern.

“Why doesn’t he say it?’

“He understands,” said the agent’s brother.

“Can’t he tell me? Just to be sure.”

“He doesn’t speak,” said the intern.

“He never speaks,” said the agent’s brother. “That’s his shtick.”

“But he can speak? I mean if he wants to he can speak, right.”

“We never heard him at the studio,” said the intern.

“At the agency, he never opens his mouth unless,” the agent’s brother paused for dramatic effect, “it’s to shove in a hot dog. Hot dogs he loves.”

“So how do you know what he wants? He writes?”

“Not on the set.”

“He does that sign language?”

“Who knows sign language?”

“So how do you know?”

“You look at him, you know,” said the agent’s brother.

“That’s it,” said the intern, “you look at him and you know.”

Bellomatti looked at the stub of an actor mashed into a ratty old easy chair. Deep into his eyes, he looked. Lennie’s going to kill me, he thought. Lennie’s going to have a fit.

Lennie will be fine, don’t worry. It was Mandelbaum. He didn’t say it so anyone could hear it, but it was almost like Bellomatti could read his mind. Mandelbaum never said a word, but Bellomatti understood.

“Everything’s ready?” Slotnik asked at the commercial break.

“I explained. He knows.”

“He told you he knows?”

“He didn’t exactly tell me, but he told me.”

“Larry, he told you he knows.”

“It will be alright. He said it will be alright.”

“He didn’t exactly say. But he told me.”

“What the hell are you giving me? He said, but he didn’t say. He told me but he didn’t tell me. Stop with the games, already. This is my ass on the line. This better work out, or. . . .”

The station switchboard began to light up the second Mandelbaum left the studio, and the calls kept coming in until late in the afternoon. There were more the next day. And more the day after that. Mandelbaum had never said a work, yet millions of listeners had heard every word he didn’t say. The called to say how thrilled they were. They called to congratulate. They called to praise. But most of all they called to make sure that Lennie would get Mandelbaum back for another interview.

“See,” Slotnik crowed at the next production meeting, “why can’t any of you come up with something like that! Why do I have to do everything! Why do. . . .”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mini Review: Undiscovered Country

Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country uses Shakespeare's Hamlet as an archetypal template for a modern story about a sixteen year old Minnesota boy whose father seems to have committed suicide, but whose ghost appears to accuse his uncle of murder. The boy, like Hamlet, seeks revenge, but finds it not as easy as it looks. There is a questionable relationship between the uncle and the boy's mother. There is an Ophelia character, with a mean spirited father. There is a visit to a psychiatrist. The novel doesn't have the ending of the play, but you now that from the beginning because the narrative voice is that of the Hamlet figure.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: To Smile in Autumn by Gordon Parks

According to Gordon Parks, the advice that made him the man he was to become came from his mother: "If a white boy can do it, so can you. Don't ever come home telling me you couldn't do this or that because you're black." And the man he was to become was certainly someone quite remarkable: noted professional photographer, novelist, poet, composer, motion picture director, screen writer and producer. He was a black man in a white man's world and in his lifetime, he accomplished as much as any ten white men. Whether his mother actually believed that advice, he says, he really wasn't sure. But whether or not she believed, she managed to drum it into his head so often, she had him convinced.

To Smile in Autumn, Parks' 1979 memoir, now republished by the University of Minnesota Press, continues the story of this man's life of accomplishment begun in A Choice of Weapons, which takes him from his Kansas boyhood to a photographic fellowship with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC in the early forties. He has been working as a correspondent with an all black air force unit when he is stripped of his credentials. The powers that be, he suspects, were not particularly interested in any publicity for the unit. He is off to New York. It is 1943; opportunities for black photographers were not merely limited, they were more than likely not existent.

Yet with a little help from his friends, an undeniable talent with the camera, and the advice from his mother drummed into his head, he became the first black photographer to work for Standard Oil, and even more importantly, the first to work for perhaps the most important photo-journalist magazine of the day, Life. It is one thing to get an opportunity; it is another thing to make something of that opportunity. Gordon Parks made sure that he made the most of his chances.

His memoir is both a monument to his achievements and a record of some of the most significant events of the second half of the twentieth century and the people who were central to them. He documents the non-violent protests of Dr. Martin Luther King and the more radical protests of the SNCC and the Black Panthers. He profiles leaders like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elijah Muhammad, , athletes like Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, and a host of others. It isn't only the great and famous that concerns him. Some of his most effective work and some of the most revealing passages in the book deal are his stories about the less fortunate: Red Jackson, the Harlem gang leader in his piece on New York City gangs, the Fontenelle family who were profiled as surrogates for the suffering black poor.

Although he seems to focus on his work with the African American community, he never saw himself as pigeonholed by his race. He goes to Paris to do high fashion photography. He manages to get himself a scoop with pictures of scandal rocked lovers, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, on the isle of Stromboli. He socializes with Gloria Vanderbilt, gets a cigar from Winston Churchill, and plays tennis with King Farouk. John Cassavetes arranges a meeting for him at Warner Brothers to see if he can get a film made of his novel. He visits Marlon Brando after the assassination of Dr. King. Still he never seems to lose sight of his obligations to the African American community; he never seems to forget where he came from, and that there are too many others who never got the chances he got.
As he says he told his audience in his Spingarn Medal acceptance speech: ". . . true brotherhood had to be earned through fire—as we black people knew fire—until it meant the same as love; it took more than a quick thiumbgrip and a give-me-some-skin handslap, and more than a black face for it to qualify as love. It meant pushing someone up instead of pulling someone down. It meant reaching back for someone after escaping the hell in which we had been spawned."

While the book does go into his personal life—three marriages, children and grandchildren, the death of his son in a plane crash—he goes out of his way to stress the good things over the problems. He is too much of the romantic to demean the women he once loved with mean spirited criticism. His preference is to include the love poems he wrote for them. Indeed, he has very little that is mean spirited to say about any of the people he encountered, even those who may have been less than friendly with him.

A memoir is worth reading either because the life it describes is fascinating enough to keep the reader turning pages, or because it is written with such style and panache that the reader is enthralled by its art. To Smile in Autumn is the former. Although a poet and a novelist, this second of Parks' memoirs is not particularly artful in its composition. Transitions between events are not always smooth. Many of the incidents are not as detailed as the reader would like. Character profiles tend to plane down the rough spots. Still when all is said and done, when a man can tell you about buying Duke Ellington a steak, describe an execution in San Quentin, or explain his confrontation with a bunch of Texas racists who see him kissing a colleague goodbye, that is a man well worth any reader's time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Making Movies in the Hinterland: Extras

The Next Three Days, the Russell Crowe film that has been filming in Pittsburgh and environs for the past few weeks, has just gotten a section of the newly built Route 43 closed to traffic for about twenty four hours while they shoot at one of the toll plazas. The $25,000 fee reportedly negotiated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the use of the road will no doubt be a boon to the depressed Western Pennsylvania economy and in truth not all that much of an inconvenience to locals who tend to avoid the little used toll road. The shoot will also be a boon to an assortment of other locals with aspirations for either a career in Hollywood or simply a close up glimpse of Crowe or his co-stars, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson.

The call for extras went out the other day from the local casting agent. They're looking for police types, highway patrol and such: big men, imposing, authoritative. Me? Even if I were the police type, which I am definitely not: too old, too skinny, too small, l no longer care to do extra work. The hours are long; the pay is minimal. The work is boring, and the film crew tends to treat you like dirt.

My one experience as an extra was several years ago in a commercial for a local chain of super markets. There were about a half a dozen of us, an assortment of ages and sexes. We were told to report to the shoot site, the Washington, Pa. location of the super market at eight o'clock in the evening with ten or so changes of casual clothing and prepare to be there until eight in the morning. Something of an exaggeration, I thought, since what we were shooting was a thirty second commercial.

We met at an employee break room in the back of the store. A production assistant barely out of her teens went through the clothing we brought, and told us what to wear. A little make up and we were out into the market, where we were placed strategically around the produce section. I was told to fondle the grapefruit. Two others were paired and told to walk down the aisle backs to the camera. Another gazed longingly at the egg plants. Then we stood in place as the crew made sure that the lighting worked. Then we waited while the principle in the shot, a young mother type, was given her directions. Then we waited while her make up was freshened. Then we waited while they fine tuned some of the lighting. Then we waited while they struck some offending debris in the back ground. Finally, after almost an hour, they shot the scene. It took perhaps a minute, perhaps not that long. Then they shot it again, just to be safe, and another two times, just to be safer. They moved the camera position, and then the whole process began all over again.

When we finished, we were sent back to the break room where the production assistant, with a judicious eye, prescribed new costumes. Presumably we were now different customers, after all what super market doesn't want to look busy with a crowd of shoppers. Then we were moved out to the meat counter, where, like the steaks, pork chops, and chickens, we waited. We, like the steaks, pork chops, and chickens, were the scenery. Extra work doesn't often call for creativity.
At one in the morning everyone stopped to eat. First the principles were sent to what passed for craft services, then the crew, then when everyone else had passed through, the extras. At eight in the morning, we were handed envelopes and sent on our way. Walking to my car in the parking lot was when I decided extra work wasn't ever going to further my acting career, and it is a decision I've been very happy with since.

Every once in awhile when an opportunity to stand as a piece of scenery in the vicinity of a Russell Crowe seems to be available, I think that maybe I made a mistake, maybe I ought to reconsider. But then I hear the story from one of the actors in the show I am currently rehearsing who did manage to get one of those highway patrolman extra jobs. After he was chosen by the assistant director, he was sent to one of the trailers to get his hair cleaned up. He sat down in the chair and the hair stylist proceeded to shear off the whole left side of his head.

"Wait a minute," he yells, as he tells it, "What are you doing?" I suspect that those were not quite the exact words he used.

"They want something military. You know, like a marine," says the stylist.

"Never again," the actor tells us at rehearsal that night.

"But at least you got to meet Russell Crowe," one of the little actresses in our cast gushes.

"Russell who?" he says.

The only good thing I know that ever came out of extra work was the Ricky Gervais series.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Birdland Turns Sixty

Legendary jazz club, Birdland, celebrates its sixtieth anniversary on December 15. Originally located on Broadway near 52nd Street, the famed club was host to nearly every great jazz musician playing through the second half of the twentieth century. Birdland was the place to be if you wanted to listen to the finest in jazz throughout the fifties . Named in honor of one of the most innovative saxophonists of the era, Charlie 'Bird' Parker, and made famous in George Shearing's classic standard, "Lullaby of Birdland," the club was in Parker's words, "the jazz corner of the world." It was the place for "flying high."

The one time I actually managed to get into that famed corner was in the early sixties—money was tight then, and even a tiny cover charge and a two drink minimum was a bit high for a graduate student on a budget—was to see the Oscar Peterson Trio. I don't know how many times I had longingly passed by that club entrance on Broadway on my way to that other jazz landmark, the Metropole. There you could stand outside the plate glass window for hours if you wanted and listen to the Dixieland on the stage behind the bar. But still it wasn't Birdland. Dixieland was nothing to sneer at, but it wasn't the cutting edge of modern jazz. That was Birdland. Birdland had the mystique. Birdland had the best. And Oscar Peterson, that night, didn't let us down. He was worth every penny, even if the drinks didn't quite match the music.

A short history of the club with a link to original memorabilia is available at Birdland website. Check out the opening night picture with Lester Young and Charlie Parker on the bandstand. Read the names of the legends who played there: Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey, Erroll Garner and Stan Getz, John Coltrane and Chet Baker. Take a look at the lyrics to Manhattan Transfer's "Birdland."
Sixty years old on the fifteenth—instead of "Happy Birthday: join with Ella Fitzgerald and sing "Lullaby of Birdland. "

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Christmas Carol Opens

Actor's Civic Theater production of "A Christmas Carol" opened last night. No matter how many times people see it, or what version it happens to be, audiences love it.

Dickens managed to create an archetypal myth in the conversion of Scrooge. Senitimental, yes; but then who doesn't like to shed a tear?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mailer on Picasso

I picked up Mailer's book on Picasso at Half Price Books for $3. Half Price Books' clearance section is always good for three or four bargains. Mailer was a steal, if only for all the photos and color plates (although they were probably the best part of the book when push come to shove). Mailer's art criticsm tends toward the fanciful flight school.

As far as the details of the painter's early life are concerned, Mailer does a lot of lengthy quoting from contemporary sources and modern critics. While contemporary accounts are intersting, they aren't always very reliable.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

From the Green Room: Tech Week

Tech week for A Christmas Carol began on Sunday, and I missed the read through for Beauty and the Beast which opens in January at Pittsburgh's Gemini Theater. In fact I won't be able to make any of the rehearsals until next Sunday after out matinee. Directors are sometimes willing to put up with these kinds of conflicts when they've got a role to cast when there's only a small pool of actors available, and nothing limits the actor pool like the Christmas season. This is a time of year when most people (and actors are people—in spite of what some would think) are more likely to want to spend time with present buying and house decorating than with learning lines and rehearsing. Me? The only reason I am willing to do it is on the outside chance that visiting grandchildren will be able to come and see me on stage.

So, one show is getting ready to go up and the other is just getting started.

Tech week is where all the bells and whistles are added to the show. The lighting designer hangs and focuses the lights and orchestrates the cues for each lighting change. The cues are charted for a lighting board which controls all the lights on stage, and the board is run by a lighting tech in a control booth during the run of the show. Each cue is called by the Stage Manager, and entered on the board by the tech. Sound cues are usually added at the same time. If there are a large number of sound effects, there may be a sound tech to run them; otherwise the Stage Manager may run them herself. There are new computer operated systems currently available, but they are usually beyond the budgets of the smaller theatres.

At least one run during tech week is really to rehearse the Stage Manager and her crew and not for the actors at all. In some theatres they don't even run the whole show. They simply move from cue to cue to make sure the right cue is called at the right time, and everything happens the way it's supposed to. For example, just before Marley appears to warn Scrooge of the coming of the three spirits, bells begin to ring. When the ghost appears on stage, the stage darkens. There will also be a small fog machine added for atmosphere. There had been talk of a microphone for an echo effect, but, as is often the case, the talk never turned into action. Actors will start a few lines before the cue for the bells. They will place themselves in their blocked positions on the stage, and they will advance to the cue. The cue will be called, and the director will make sure that everything worked the way it was supposed to. If not, we all go back and do it again. If everything is fine, we move ahead to the next cue.

Scene changes are also run. Ant scenery that needs to be struck, moved or brought on stage has been assigned either to crew members or to actors if the theater is unable to afford a stage crew. Again, we begin a few lines before the end of the scene, and when we get to the end, everything begins to move off stage, on stage, upstage, downstage, and all in the dark. Placement of set pieces will be marked (spiked) on stage with tape. If things have gone smoothly, we go on. If not, we go back.

Gradually through the course of the week props will be added. Many actors have been using surrogate props during the rehearsal, but now the real pieces to be used in the show will begin to appear on the prop tables in the wings. Marley's chains, for example, showed up on Sunday. Feather quills for Scrooge and Bob Cratchit showed up as well, as did a music box for Fan to give to the young Ebenezer. On the other hand, coins and a coin purse for Old Joe are not here yet. They will come, otherwise there are always pockets.

Costumes come late, sometimes because the costume designer is overwhelmed, in this case because the costumes are being rented, and the shorter the time you use them, the cheaper the rental. The only thing we can be sure of is that costumes will be here on Thursday for dress rehearsal. If so, one can only have faith that they will fit. If not, we make do. "Are there no safety pins?" "Are there no needles and thread?" Make up, if any, is usually added at dress rehearsal.

By tech week actors are expected to know their lines. Until then, they are able to call for lines if they are having a problem, a mental lapse. During tech week, actors are expected to work through dropped lines and any other screw ups that might occur, and it's good practice, because in live theater there are going to be screw ups and one had better get used to dealing with them.

Curtain calls are usually blocked the night before dress rehearsal. We run through them a time or two, and make ourselves ready for the standing ovation sure to come on opening night.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Pursuit of the Ideal Christmas Tree

Every year after Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as the first week in December, my wife and I go out to a local Christmas Tree farm in search of the perfect tree, or I should say it is more like I accompany my wife in her search of that perfect tree. My wife, you see, has a picture in her mind, a kind of idea in the Platonic sense of what a Christmas Tree should be—indeed what a Christmas Tree must be. It is a template against which any merely material manifestation must be matched. First of all it must be a Frasier Fir, not a Douglas, not a Spruce, not a Scotch Pine, and only a Frasier Fir. It must be at least seven feet tall, but not too close to eight. It must be slender, but it must have a little heft at the bottom, because we will be standing it in an old antique crock, and the heft at the bottom will keep it upright. It must not, on the other hand, have too much heft at the bottom. It must tapir gradually, with no heavy spots or gaps in the branches.

This is the ideal we pursue each year. Some years we come close; some years we come very close. Some years we settle for something less than she'd like. But in no year does the reality ever completely match the idea of tree. This year was no exception. In fact this year we may have strayed furthest from the ideal of Christmas Tree, than ever before.

The Tree farm is on Route 857 right outside of Fairchance, Pennsylvania on the road to Morgantown, West Virginia. They have trees of all species. They have some already cut down, or, if you prefer, you can trek out onto the farms and hunt between rows and rows of trees of all sizes and shapes, and search to your heart's content for the tree in your mind. When you find it, you tag it, go back to the combination barn/office, and someone will go out with you and cut it down. Lug it back to the barnm shake it, tie it in a tight roll, and lash it to (in our case) the roof of your Jeep. We, of course, always choose to search.

The farm's terrain is hilly, and hiking around the rows of trees, while invigorating at first, can quickly become exhausting especially if you've spent a lot of time reading or watching television. When the weather has been rainy, or if there's been snow, and then a thaw, the ground can become swampy, and pull like quick sand at your insulated boots. When it gets cold, the winds on the hill seem to blow right through your carefully layered clothing. When it's a warm day, you perspire some, but it isn't unpleasant out in the sunshine, at least for the first fifteen minutes. Trouble is there aren't all that many warm, sunny days in Western Pennsylvania at Tree choosing time, besides choosing time is never clocks in at under an hour.

When we got to the farm this year, the weather was neither too cold, nor too warm, and it wouldn't have been bad for a nice little stroll around the trees. But it turned that the weather really didn't matter. It turned out, that when we asked where we might begin out search for the Frasier of the mind, that they really didn't have a very large selection to choose from out on the farm, not of Frasiers, anyway. In fact, most of what they had that was in decent shape was cut down already and hung on chains from hooks in the barn.

I left my wife to look at what was there and parked myself in the Jeep, turned on my iPod, and prepared to wait. My wife likes to deliberate, to look everything over carefully, mull over all the details, match each and every candidate to her ideal image, before she makes any decisive commitment. I watched as she walked slowly down the rows of hanging trees, stopping when she came to one that might do, examining, and then walking on. After awhile, she spoke to one of the men working there; he pointed up to the hillside across the road, and handed her a tag. I turned off the iPod. It seemed we were about to go out to the uncut trees to pursue the quest.

But no, they continued talking. Then she went back to one of the hanging trees, and began checking it out again. I got out of the car and went over to the tree, not so much to give any advice or opinion, since I, of course have not the idea of the tree, as to make ready to move the hunt out to the hillside.

"He says there isn't much out there. All the really nice Frasiers are in here," she was still holding the tag.

"So? What are we doing?" I am not the most patient of people.

"Well, this one isn't too bad," she pointed to the tree she'd been scrutinizing.

"Looks fine to me." But what do I know, I thought. "We go out hunting, this one's liable to be gone by the time we get back. Bird in the hand, and all that."

"Let's just take a quick look, as long as we're here."

Quick look, I thought, right. A half hour later we were back for the tree. They were right; the hillside rows were indeed nearly depleted. The tree is home, sitting in the crock in the living room, waiting for decoration. It's a little too hefty at the bottom. It has a gap or two in the upper branches, and on the whole, it isn't really what you'd call slender. The idea of tree it is not. The idea of tree is still out there, waiting for next Christmas.

Come December 12, on the other hand, I will be lighting the first of the candles in my idea of a menorah, one we don't have to search for every year, but one that will sit on a table right across the room from the almost but never quite ideal of the Christmas Tree.

In Pursuit of the Ideal Christmas Tree

Every year after Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as the first week in December, my wife and I go out to a local Christmas Tree farm in search of the perfect tree, or I should say it is more like I accompany my wife in her search of that perfect tree. My wife, you see, has a picture in her mind, a kind of idea in the Platonic sense of what a Christmas Tree should be—indeed what a Christmas Tree must be. It is a template against which any merely material manifestation must be matched. First of all it must be a Frasier Fir, not a Douglas, not a Spruce, not a Scotch Pine, and only a Frasier Fir. It must be at least seven feet tall, but not too close to eight. It must be slender, but it must have a little heft at the bottom, because we will be standing it in an old antique crock, and the heft at the bottom will keep it upright. It must not, on the other hand, have too much heft at the bottom. It must tapir gradually, with no heavy spots or gaps in the branches.

This is the ideal we pursue each year. Some years we come close; some years we come very close. Some years we settle for something less than she'd like. But in no year does the reality ever completely match the idea of tree. This year was no exception. In fact this year we may have strayed furthest from the ideal of Christmas Tree, than ever before.

The Tree farm is on Route 857 right outside of Fairchance, Pennsylvania on the road to Morgantown, West Virginia. They have trees of all species. They have some already cut down, or, if you prefer, you can trek out onto the farms and hunt between rows and rows of trees of all sizes and shapes, and search to your heart's content for the tree in your mind. When you find it, you tag it, go back to the combination barn/office, and someone will go out with you and cut it down. Lug it back to the barnm shake it, tie it in a tight roll, and lash it to (in our case) the roof of your Jeep. We, of course, always choose to search.

The farm's terrain is hilly, and hiking around the rows of trees, while invigorating at first, can quickly become exhausting especially if you've spent a lot of time reading or watching television. When the weather has been rainy, or if there's been snow, and then a thaw, the ground can become swampy, and pull like quick sand at your insulated boots. When it gets cold, the winds on the hill seem to blow right through your carefully layered clothing. When it's a warm day, you perspire some, but it isn't unpleasant out in the sunshine, at least for the first fifteen minutes. Trouble is there aren't all that many warm, sunny days in Western Pennsylvania at Tree choosing time, besides choosing time is never clocks in at under an hour.

When we got to the farm this year, the weather was neither too cold, nor too warm, and it wouldn't have been bad for a nice little stroll around the trees. But it turned that the weather really didn't matter. It turned out, that when we asked where we might begin out search for the Frasier of the mind, that they really didn't have a very large selection to choose from out on the farm, not of Frasiers, anyway. In fact, most of what they had that was in decent shape was cut down already and hung on chains from hooks in the barn.

I left my wife to look at what was there and parked myself in the Jeep, turned on my iPod, and prepared to wait. My wife likes to deliberate, to look everything over carefully, mull over all the details, match each and every candidate to her ideal image, before she makes any decisive commitment. I watched as she walked slowly down the rows of hanging trees, stopping when she came to one that might do, examining, and then walking on. After awhile, she spoke to one of the men working there; he pointed up to the hillside across the road, and handed her a tag. I turned off the iPod. It seemed we were about to go out to the uncut trees to pursue the quest.

But no, they continued talking. Then she went back to one of the hanging trees, and began checking it out again. I got out of the car and went over to the tree, not so much to give any advice or opinion, since I, of course have not the idea of the tree, as to make ready to move the hunt out to the hillside.

"He says there isn't much out there. All the really nice Frasiers are in here," she was still holding the tag.

"So? What are we doing?" I am not the most patient of people.

"Well, this one isn't too bad," she pointed to the tree she'd been scrutinizing.

"Looks fine to me." But what do I know, I thought. "We go out hunting, this one's liable to be gone by the time we get back. Bird in the hand, and all that."

"Let's just take a quick look, as long as we're here."

Quick look, I thought, right. A half hour later we were back for the tree. They were right; the hillside rows were indeed nearly depleted. The tree is home, sitting in the crock in the living room, waiting for decoration. It's a little too hefty at the bottom. It has a gap or two in the upper branches, and on the whole, it isn't really what you'd call slender. The idea of tree it is not. The idea of tree is still out there, waiting for next Christmas.

Come December 12, on the other hand, I will be lighting the first of the candles in my idea of a menorah, one we don't have to search for every year, but one that will sit on a table right across the room from the almost but never quite ideal of the Christmas Tree.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Intentions: Good and Otherwise

A week ago I wrote an essay, "A Most Modest Proposal," intended to be, note the allusion in the title, satire, and I thought when I had finished, that it actually was satire, in fact very good satire, indeed. The article suggested that one good solution to the brouhaha over same sex marriage would be to get rid of the word marriage: that the problem was simply a question of semantics and could be easily solved linguistically. The editor's response when he looked at was that he felt the proposal was indeed modest and perhaps even serious. Moreover, he didn't find the piece particularly funny. Leaving aside the problem of whether there is some necessary relationship between humor and satire as well as the question of who finds what funny, I decided that although I may have intended to write satire, if my reader didn't see satire, there was a problem. In the end, I decided to change my satire to opinion and let readers decide what they were reading.

The article was published and several comments were posted. One commenter questioned the allusion in the title, after another comment had (perhaps tongue in cheek) suggested that the proposal might well have been a good idea. I responded—perhaps inconsistently given the point I am going to try to make in what follows—that I, in fact had intended satire, but had acceded to an editorial suggestion. Then, the other day another comment, wanted to know what it was I intended to satirize. Clearly, if this reader couldn't tell where the satire was directed, there was a problem, and I should have kept my big mouth shut.

However, since some tricks are never learned by old dogs, once more into the breach.

Back in the middle of the last century, when the dominant critical stance informing the study of literature was something called New Criticism, it was fashionable to assert that the only thing that should concern the critic as well as the reader of a work of literature, indeed any piece of writing, was the work itself. This in reaction to a lengthy period in which criticism was concerned with such things as the time in which the work was written, the impressions the readers reaped form the work, and indeed most important to the present discussion, everything one could gather about the author of the work, his life, his psychological make-up, all of the other things he's written. The New Critics pointed out that none of these concerns, although they may have been interesting topics of investigation in and of themselves, were really relevant to understanding the work of literature or making judgments about it. The only relevant concern war the analysis of the work, itself.

One of the classic and most influential essays of this period was William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy." Essentially, the thesis of the essay is that despite what an author may have intended in a given piece of writing, the only important thing is what he did. A writer may well have intended one thing and actually accomplished something quite different. A lack of skill may have subverted his intention. I may intend to paint a horse, but, given my drawing abilities it is not likely that anyone would recognize anything I could draw as anything remotely resembling Citation. He may have intended to do one thing and done other things as well. Henry James said of The Turn of the Screw that he was trying to write the best ghost story ever written; many readers have found that while he may well have done that, he also managed to do something else, something perhaps even more important and more interesting.

A writer's subconscious may affect what he produces. Again an example from art: Norman Mailer in his book on Picasso quotes the artist as saying: "The picture comes to me from far away. Who can say how far away? I have guessed it, seen it, done it, and yet the next day I myself cannot see what I've done. How can one. . . grasp what I may have put in in spite of my own will." I think it was Robert Browning who said when I wrote that only God and I knew what it meant; now only God knows.

In effect, Wimsatt and Beardsley make a very convincing case for the idea that the writer may well be the best judge of what he intended to do, he is not necessarily the best judge of what he has actually done. After all, knowing what he meant to do may well color significantly what he sees in the final product. People do tend to see what they want to see. The writer is not in any sense the most objective of observers.

In the end, it is the work, the New Critics conclude, that must speak for itself; the text on the page is the author's intention made manifest. It must speak for itself; the author cannot speak for it. And though modern literary theory has gone in new directions, and the New Critics are no longer held in the highest repute, to those of us geezers who studied back in the dark ages, they still have their appeal. So then, back to my 'satire' on same sex marriage: while I know full well what I intended, the comments of those who took the trouble to read it suggest, I may not have had the foggiest notion of what I produced.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary

Perhaps it is not always wise to read the diaries or journals of luminaries past and present. Too often these diaries and such dim and darken those shining lights and (to mix metaphors) expose the feet of clay beneath the fine leather boots unshod.

Simone de Beauvoir’s “Wartime Diary” is a case in point. The picture of this twentieth century intellectual giant and feminist icon cavorting with an assortment of her young female students running cavalierly from one bed to another all the while professing her love for both Sartre and Bost, both away at the front, is not particularly flattering, even if one gives her credit for revolting against middle class sexual values. After all, it is 1939. Germany is on the march. The threat of invasion is imminent, even if there is a lull after the first panic. One would think a woman of substance would have something more significant to record in her diary than the complex record of her kisses, quarrels and caresses, something more than her struggle to keep her student girl friends happily supplied with the favor of her company. Couple this with her often dismissive comments on these various lovers [”Vedrine came by; she was neither bothersome nor interesting . . . . we discussed science and politics—there wasn’t anything in it for me, her intelligence being moderate and inferior to mine. I felt bored with her. (p.236). Nathalie Sorokine meets her at a milk bar: “. . . she was sulking, and I let her know it annoyed me.” Later she shows up again “full of hate, but unable to resist the need to see me.” (p.235)] and the picture is even less flattering.

The diary begins in September of 1939. Hitler and the invasion of Poland are on everyone’s mind. She describes the general fear, insecurity and uncertainty of the time. There are the blackouts, the food shortages, but most importantly for de Beauvoir there is her own personal cross, the departure of Sartre for the front. Still the nice thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t last. As the threat of invasion seems to lessen, life gradually becomes calmer, more normal. September 13: “Though gloomy the day was much calmer—one gets used to anything, even to this uncertainty.” (p.60). September 14: “Paris I reopening its movie houses, and even the bars and dance halls are open until eleven o’clock at night. Everything is returning to normal.” (p. 61). Life goes on.

Most of the diary prior to the invasion details her daily life during these early months. She eats in cafes. She goes to movies (“Snow White” which she doesn’t care for and “The Petrified Forest” which she does). She visits friends and lovers. She reads (very eclectically: everything from Jack London and Agatha Christie to Dostoyevsky and Kafka). She goes to concerts and night clubs. She writes letter after letter. But more often than not what seems to concern her is juggling her amours and pining away for Sartre.

The most significant event of this period is undoubtedly her clandestine visit to see Sartre stationed in Brumath, something of an adventure since women were not allowed to visit their husbands let alone their lovers at the front. She left Paris on October 31 by train and they managed to spend about a week together. While the visit seems momentous to her, there is little in the description of their time together to justify her feelings. They eat a few meals together. They spend some time looking for places to stay when he is free. They do a lot of skulking around. Her reticence here is suggestive in the light of her openness about her relations with her lady friends. There is no question but that this time with Sartre is something special.

In general, the reader expects a bit more introspection and self analysis from someone with de Beauvoir’s reputation. It is not really until the very end that there is anything that comes up to these expectations: “I have become conscious again of my individuality and of the metaphysical being that is opposed to this historical infinity where Hegel optimistically dilutes all things. Anguish. I have finally realized the state that I nostalgically longed for last year: solitude, as complete as when facing death. . . . The hope of maintaining one’s very being is the only reason for which I think it is worth accepting death. It’s not a matter of life, but of something more than that. To make oneself an ant among ants, or a free consciousness facing other consciousnesses. Metaphysical solidarity that I newly discovered, I who was a solipsist. I cannot be consciousness, spirit among ants. I understand what was wanting in our antihumanism. To admire man as given (a beautiful intelligent animal etc.) is idiotic—but there is no other reality than human reality—all values are founded on it. And that ‘toward which it transcends itself’ is what has always moved us and orients the destiny of each one of us.” (pp.319-320). A few more passages such as this would have been welcome.
As far as the description of the flight from Paris after the inv
asion is concerned, de Beauvoir is less than compelling. For my money there is a much more effective narration of these events in Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, “Suite Francaise.”

A word about this particular edition of the diary: the translation is very readable. It certainly makes de Beauvoir accessible. The notes, on the other hand, are not always very helpful. There are both footnotes and end notes and one cannot always tell why the distinction. Sometimes the reader has to wonder why the editors even bothered. They love to identify the streets on which the various cafes de Beauvoir mentions are located. Why? They do identify passages in the diary that are reused in her other work and this is certainly useful for scholars, if not necessarily the general reader.

What the diary provides for the reader is a real insight into the character of de Beauvoir and her relationships with Sartre and others, if it is not always illuminating in regard to her ideas.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flash Fiction: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Here's a link to an old essay I wrote on flash fiction:

http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/apr02/goodstein.htm. It's been reprinted on several other sites.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My iPod Addiction Meets My Book Addiction

A week or so ago I published a news brief on the demise of The Washington Post 's Book Worldpodcast. It was a podcast I had been listening to religiously almost from the day I got my first iPod. The books and literature section of the iTunes podcast directory was the first set of pages I visited, and what I found there was a veritable cornucopia of delight for any book lover with ear pods. This, before I even had a chance to get a look at the audio books pages. I began subscribing to everything that was there: The Guardian Books Podcast, Authors on Tour—Live, The Classic Tales Podcast , and on, and on.

Some of them I unceremoniously dumped after a few weeks. Book Lust With Nancy Pearl never quite delivered the titillation its title promised. KCRW's Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt was much too impressed with his own voice that more often than not his questions seemed to go on longer than the poor author's answers. Podcasts from Yale University were aimed at scholars with different priorities.

Some of them I kept around a little longer, the BBC's Book Reviews With Simon Mayo for example, and this despite the facts that for some reason he regularly had his panel of reviewers take the time to describe in detail the book jackets under discussion but even more importantly that they hardly ever found anything to dislike in any of the books they were talking about. Some like Book World disappeared of their own accord. The CBC's Talking Books, a feisty irreverent review show unfortunately called it quits after eleven years.

There were, thankfully, always replacements waiting on the bench to take their place. The serialized novel reading podcast Between the Covers replaced when it seemed obvious we were getting abridgements was succeeded by Magdalena Ball's Compulsive Reader by way of Australia courtesy of Blog Talk Radio. The overly erudite Harvard Press: Author Off The Page gave way to the BBC's World Book Club.

Now as I take the time to search for a replacement for the late lamented Book World, I count nineteen separate podcasts devoted to books and literature. This includes readings of poetry, short stories and novels, author interviews, book club discussions, and reviewers. It doesn't include theatrical podcasts, although to omit Shakespeare from the category of literature seems something of blunder, to say the least. It doesn't include podcasts that regularly feature authors and literary reviews in their more eclectic formats—podcasts of shows like NPR's Fresh Air and the BBC's Arts and Ideas. Nineteen despite the fact that often when a new book comes out, its author becomes ubiquitous. When Richard Price was on the road touting Lush Life, it was almost impossible to escape him. Recently, it's been Michael Chabon and Paul Rudnick making the rounds for their newly published essays. Repetition is one price of addiction.

As I look for number twenty, I try to define some criteria for the many candidates still out there. I look to those podcasts that have stood the test of time for models. Number one: I want a host who loves books, knows something about them, but is willing to allow the author the spotlight. I want someone like Terry Gross, whose guests are always taking the time to tell her how wonderful her questions are. I want someone like Eleanor Wachtel, the hostess of Writers and Company who seems to have read everything everyone of her weekly guests has written, yet never seems to pompously pontificate a la the Bookworm.

I want to hear what literate readers think about what they have read. The Slate book club discussions are always lively and informative whether they're talking about Tolstoy or Evelyn Waugh. The World Book Club opens up the discussion to ordinary readers, ordinary but perceptive, and allows them to ask questions of authors they admire. This is a scenario sure to appeal to any book lover.

Intelligent, dynamic readers, like those on PRI's Selected Shorts, with the capacity to bring life to the printed page, would be welcome. There is something exciting about hearing the poetry of Robert Burns in the native dialect that overwhelms the fact that the American ear might not always understand what is being said. There is something to be learned from hearing an author read her own work. One thinks of a writer like Dickens enthralling audiences with his readings Bill Sykes'death and Scrooge's transformation. Podcasts that give us the opportunity to hear modern day Dickenses are something to be cherished.

Finally, I want a podcast that is adventurous, that is willing to take its listeners beyond the tried and true, the popular novel that everyone is reading—not that I don't want that too. I want a show to make me aware of the writer I haven't heard about, the book that has gone under the radar, the new voice. I want to hear about the Dickens they'll be talking about in ten years.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Scrooge for a Buck

,Talk about monetizing. Talk about commercializing the Christmas season. Here comes Canadian actor Greg Wagland and he's put out a podcast of his reading of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol just in time for the holiday season. There are five staves; you can download four for free, and the fifth for the nominal fee of one dollar.

Wagland's website gives you all the information you need to download or play the four free episodes, as well as how to get him his dollar through PayPal. It also makes clear that at a dollar, any and all downloaders should recognize that they are indeed getting themselves one hell of a bargain. Dripping with self deprecating irony, he says: "$1 seems to be pitching it about right. You wouldn’t expect Patrick Stewart for less than $6, Kermit for sub $10. Me, the duvet, a poor microphone and free white noise is just about what the market can stand; go on, treat yourself, it’s Christmas."

I am not one to argue the point. For the money one is getting nearly five hours of entertainment. Wagland is a professional and reads very well. There should be no real objection to professional being paid for what they do. Besides he says he's giving half of what he gets to charity. (Are there no workhouses? Come to think of it, I guess not.) Moreover, he is up front about it. He doesn't try to suck you in with a free come on and then slam you over the head for a fortune to find out what on earth happens to old Scrooge.

The iTunes site however is a different story. It is entirely possible to come to this site if you haven't visited the actor's site and start downloading without ever knowing that there is a charge to get the end. In fact, the lone reviewer complains that the podcast is missing the end of the story. What happens to Tiny Tim? Does he die? What happens to Ebenezer? Here is a poor downloader who may never find out; indeed he may never even know that if he pays his dollar through his friends at PayPal the answers are waiting.

So while we may not begrudge Wagland his 'business,' iTunes is another story. iTunes is the Grinch in this Christmas story.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Podcast of Meyerhoff Exhibition in DC

A three minute podcast of highlights of the opening of the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Exhibition which opened at the National Gallery of Art in October is now available on iTunes and can be linked to at the Meyerhoff Exhibition page on the National Gallery website. Although short, the podcast provides a tempting enticement for any art lover. The camera pans through the exhibit spotlighting work in a variety of genres by some of the most notable names in the pantheon of American modern art: "Racing Thoughts," a Jasper Johns oil from 1984, "Courtroom," a 1970 Philip Guston oil, Frank Stella's 1969 "Film Flon IV" polymer paint on canvas. There is also work by Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Franz Kline among others. The podcast includes short comments on some of the work by some of the artists attending the opening as well as a few remarks by Robert Meyerhoff.

There is also a selection of pieces from the exhibit on view at the Gallery website, along with a brief description of the ten themes around which they are organized. One of the themes, "Concentricity," for example includes work by Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg; another, "Drip," includes Pollock, Kline, and Bruce Marden. Among the other themes are "Line," "Figure or Ground," and "Picture the Frame."

Although critic Blake Gopnik's review of the exhibit in The Washington Post's is somewhat less than glowing, his short reference to the exhibit in a later article on the fall features at the Gallery while somewhat condescending (he calls it a "'Thank You' show"), still acknowledges that it is "a fine, if miscellaneous, assortment of postwar American art."

The exhibit runs until May 2, 2010. The podcast is well worth your three minutes, maybe even four.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde


Jasper Fforde, creator of some of the quirkiest fiction being written today, is at it again. First there was Thursday Next, literary detective, romping through an assortment of literary masterpieces from Jane Eyre to Hamlet as she attempts to maintain the integrity of the fictional world against forces that would destroy it. Then there was Jack Spratt, investigator in the Division of Nursery Crimes, and his partner, Mary Mary, in The Big Overeasy, and then on the trail of the vicious Gingerbread Man. Here were two series that not only spoofed detective genre fiction, both hard and soft boiled, with imaginative aplomb, but created mind bending worlds combining multiple levels of reality with consummate wit. The books are a treasure trove of literary puns and allusions sure to keep delighted readers chuckling page after page, or at least smirking at the author's chutzpah.

Now comes Shades of Grey, the first in a new series set in a futuristic society called Chromatica. It is a world whose inhabitants are divided into a rigid caste system based on their ability to distinguish a specific color. Eddie Russett, the novel's hero, for example, is a red. At age twenty one all citizens are tested. The stronger his ability to see red, the higher is his status in that particular class. Those that have the highest levels of color perception for each individual color become the rulers in each village or city. There is a hierarchy of colors as well: purple at the top, grey at the bottom.

Despite its emphasis on color, it is a society that functions on a simplistic black and white level. Rules are rigidly enforced even when they make no sense. Spoons, for example, are no longer allowed to be manufactured, so those that are still around have become quite valuable. Complementary colors are not allowed to marry. Everyone is required to attend a communal lunch. Failure to comply with rules results in demerits; excessive demerits get one sent to Reboot. Questions are frowned upon. Why, for example, spoons can no longer be manufacture is not subject to debate. It must simply be accepted.

It is a society that privileges stasis and deplores novelty. Russett finds himself in trouble because he has suggested a more efficient queuing pattern. He is given the task of conducting a chair census in one of the outer settlements as a lesson in developing humility. Indeed, not only does the society discourage novelty, it continually abandons older innovations through what they call "Great Leapbacks" (Fforde is always ready with the ironic allusion).

It is a society that follows the precepts of a prophet named Munsell set down in a vast number of volumes that have become over the years holy books. Written after a cataclysmic event known only as "Something That Happened," the books detail rules to live by as well as moral principles. Examples are used as epigraphs to each chapter. "9.3.88.32.025: The cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable." Or this from The Munsell Book of Wisdom: "Imaginative thought is to be discouraged. No good ever comes of it—don't."

In the main Shades of Grey, is in the tradition of the great dystopian fiction, novels which create a kind of nightmare vision of what a society might become, usually as a warning against some perceived threat to the social order. One thinks of books like Samuel Butler's Erewhon, George Orwell's 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New Worlds. While Fforde's Cassandra may be a bit more open to the one liner and the pun than these others, there is no question but that the book makes a serious point about the dangers to society of unquestioning conformity. It raises significant questions about how far a society should go to maintain the status quo. As the poet says: "the old order changeth, yielding place to new."

And it is the costuming of this serious message in jokes and charming word play that is the true delight of Fforde's novel. There are the invented words: "Loopholery:" institutional rule evasions; "Beigemarket:" color challenged blackmarket; "Chromogentsia:" color snobs. There are the puns; musical plays like "Ochrelahoma" and "Repaint Your Wagon." There are the euphuistic circumlocutions for sexual activity: "you know" and "dance the lambada." Character names are always associated with their color: Violet de Mauve, Bunty McMustard. Never mind that two of the Greys are named Jane and Zane. There is the pithy title given to a Caravaggio painting: Frowny Girl Removing Beardy's Head. This is the kind of foolery that characterized all of Fforde's other novels. It is the kind of thing we loved there, and it’s the kind of thing that we will love here as well.

Shades of Grey is vintage Fforde. If indeed, this is the first of a new series. For those of us who love Fforde's work, all I can say is keep them coming.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stockwood on Dickens1: a satire

Charles Dickens did not write fiction.

I begin categorically with the conclusion I have reached after many long years of study, the ongoing perusal of the work itself, the intensive investigation of the personal record–epistles private and epistles public, diaries, journals, account books, memoirs, drafts rough and drafts polished, editorial annotations, as well as the exhaustive examination of dusty periodical archives and journalistic ephemera, not to mention the many anecdotes and mots bon and otherwise, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not handed down orally from generation to generation.

Charles Dickens did not write fiction.

If fiction is invention out of slender air,2 if fiction is that which has never existed but in the imagination of its author, if fiction is that pleasant falsehood which beguiles its readers into the suspension of their skeptical reluctance to believe,3 then I say, with complete and uncompromising confidence in my assertion–Fiction, Charles Dickens did not write.

It is not so much a question of the actual occurrence of the events he describes, or even he actual existence of those–the Pickwicks, the Copperfields,4 or even the Chuzzlewits–who people these events, historical record demonstrates with authority that these are indeed events that never happened to people that never were. Never was a Pickwick imprisoned for breach of promise, indeed never was Pickwick. Never did a Copperfield meet a Murdstone. No Chuzzlewit foot ever touched American shore.

Yet if there weren’t ever a Dorrit bundled off to the Marshallsea, a Magwitch hidden among the gravestones, a Gradgrind bound in chains of fact, if, in fact, they never were, it is demonstrable to any and all thinking readers, that they have, despite that fact, become. They are. Incontrovertibly and without the slightest of doubt, they are. Who is there who is not aware of their being? Who is it who has not heard the words of the orphan Twist asking for more, smelled the reek of Fagin’s lair, cringed with terror at Bill Sykes? Who is it who does not know of Scrooge surnamed Ebenezer visited upon a Christmas Eve by that trio of spirits as real in their unreality as the man himself? And is this man’s Christmas song5 etched so finely into the collection of consciousnesses that define the modern psyche in the modern world to be dismissed as mere spanish castle simply because it was birthed on a page and suckled at the breast of the muse rather than the midwife.6

If this Scrooge be not reality, are we to conclude then that reality lies in some long forgotten Ebenezer Somebody–some Ebenezer Doe–who ate his Christmas turkey surrounded by whatever family and friends he had managed to accumulate over his years, are we to conclude that reality lies with this Ebenezer Somebody, of whom we have never heard, of whom we know nothing whatever, of whom we are certain that if indeed he ever were, he might just as well never have been. Ebenezer Somebody is fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge is.

There are worlds of Ebenezer Somebodies. People who were, but are no longer; gone and forgotten, it is they who are the stuff of fiction. Puffs of smoke, it is they who have no reality. Truth is that which lasts. Truth is not here today and gone tomorrow. Truth is what remains when the ephemera is washed away. Ebenezer Somebodies are fictions written by God. They along with their works are writ in water.7

Moreover, the lives that Dickens creates beget the life of the world in which they live: Boffin begets dust heaps. Mrs. Jellyby begets telescopic charity. Mr. Bumble begets the workhouse. The Infant Phenomenon begets the theatre.

Without Dickens the nineteenth century in England would exist on a forgotten back shelf in the stacks of some little used library.

There would be no Yorkshire schools for the twenty first century were there no Nicholas Nickleby; no poor laws, were it not for Oliver Twist. There would be no Court of Cancery were it not for Jarndyce and Jarndyce; no dying brickmakers and stricken crossing sweeps, were it not for Esther Summerson. Old Krook’s spontaneous combustion is no more a fact to be debated than the opening of the Crystal Palace, and surely an event with a wider currency.

Again, Charles Dickens did not write fiction. Charles Dickens birthed living beings, living then and living now.

------------

1Being the transcript of a lecture delivered by Professor Sumner Stockwood of the University of New Thermopylae to the annual meeting of the Associated Dickensians of Eden in 2004, with annotations by Dr. Farber L Fenwick. Adjunct Instructor, Coketown Community College.

2The reader must forgive Professor Stockwood’s less effective attempts at humor (ed.)

3I here paraphrase the comments of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 letter to Dorothy, the sister of his erstwhile colleague in that year’s publication of the Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth. [Since as of this date, no such letter has come to light, conjecture has it that Professor Stockwood may well have in mind the more famous statement about “suspension of disbelief” in Coleridge’s Biographia Litteraria (ed.)

4Some scholars may quarrel with this assertion with reference to such events as young Copperfield’s sojourn in the boot blacking factory. Such quibbles would seem to be mere matters of semantics (ed.)

5See note 2 (ed.).

6The reader will forgive my use of what some may consider a cliche metaphor for the production of art, but in the light of my contention, it does seem fitting.

7Stockwood’s reference is to the inscription on the grave of the young Romantic poet.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

From the Green Room: Speaking Like Brits

We are three weeks into rehearsal for the Actor's Civic Theater's production of A Christmas Carol, and I am taking a break from the British accent CD I should be attending to. At last night's rehearsal, a dialect coach appeared and gave us some helpful hints on how to speak like nineteenth century English gentry; tonight he'll be back to help those of us who are going to attack Cockney. I have the good fortune to be dealing with both. In the first act of this production I play Marley's ghost, an upper class ghost in this production. In the second act, I turn into Old Joe, the rag man who buys the stolen property from Scrooge's death bed, and he is about as slimy as can be, and sliminess in Englishmen is, as often as not, signified by a heavy Cockney accent.

Now, while my attempt at a British accent needs some fine tuning, it can pass. The Cockney, on the other hand, is a complete joke. I seem to be all over the place. I can drop my 'aitches' like a veritable Eliza Doolittle; I can even get rid of the "t's" in words like better and button, substituting some sort of glottal grunt. Some of the words, however, torture me: sugar tongs, blankets, teaspoons. But even more importantly, when the words are all strung together sometimes they come out Cockney, sometimes something that smacks of Southern Baptist, sometimes hybrid Brooklyn (my natural accent, Brooklyn born and bred) Scotch with a smidgeon of nasal Eastern European. The rhythms of the line are all wrong. I can't seem to wrap my tongue around the phrasing. Besides whenever it seems to be going well, if that ever happens, no one can understand a word of what I'm saying. My Cockney accent is a joke.

I should no doubt have my ear glued to the dialect CD. I should be practicing getting the sounds from the back of mouth where, according to our dialect coach Cockney lives. Unfortunately, Cockney doesn't seem to live in the back of the particular mouth which happens to reside on the front of my face, or if it does, it is clearly on life support. All I can think of are all the critical reviews I've read about actors, sometimes very good actors, butchering British accents. I can hear the snickering now.

"Keep at it; keep practicing," I can hear the soothing voice of the dialect coach, a nice, gentle sort of man. "You're getting better. I can hear the difference, already." "You'll be fine," adds the director, a believer in positive reinforcement. The trouble is I can also hear what I sound like, and it isn't pretty. All I keep thinking is Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Perhaps it's begging the question, but wouldn't it be better to get rid of the accent altogether, rather than make fools of ourselves (I am not the only one struggling) in the vain attempt to sound like Robert Hoskins.

Why do nineteenth century Englishmen have to sound like Englishmen? While it seems absurd to even ask this question, hold on for a minute. Think about it. The nineteenth century French men in the highly acclaimed Les Miz, don't speak in French accents. In fact they speak is beautiful British accents, and the master of the 'ouse has a Cockney "to die for." I remember reviewers of Tom Cruise's Valkyrie pointing out that his American accent was less jarring than other actors playing Germans with their British accents. Surely a good accent is valuable, if nothing else it helps in the creation of verisimilitude. But clearly, a bad accent does nothing but destroy.

The obvious answer here is to cast actors who can do the accents, if the accents are in fact essential. While that may well solve the problem in any particular production, it doesn't really deal with what may be the more central aesthetic question. To accent, or not to accent: that is the question. I recently was in a play about some older Italian immigrants for the third time; we didn't use Italian accents. The first time I did the play we all used Italian accents. The second time, none of us used them. None of the audiences seemed to care. None of the audiences seemed to notice. How should the actors in Othello speak? Romeo and Juliet? What if you were producing Moliere or Cyrano de Bergerac? I don't know that Jose Ferrer would have been any better if he sounded like Peter Sellers doing Jacques Clouseau. It is certainly something to think about.
On the other hand, it may just be the sour grapes of someone simply trying to avoid going back to the dialect CD. Repeat after me: "The rain in . . . ." Where is Stewie Griffin when you need him?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: Ginevra's Story

The portrait of Ginevra de'Benci that hangs in the National Gallery of Art is one of only three portraits of women painted by the Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. It is the earliest of the three and was painted when the artist was still a young man studying in the studio of Verrocchio. The other two portraits were painted at fifteen year intervals and illustrate the artist's technical development over time.

The second portrait, "Lady with an Ermine," is of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludivico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, with whom da Vinci was trying to curry favor. The third is, of course, the famed "Mona Lisa," a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. All three portraits are cited by art critics and historians as examples of what they like to call psychological portraiture, paintings which go beyond the surface of the subject and get at the inner workings of their consciousness, the sub-text. Indeed, according to one critic, the Ginevra portrait, since it is the earliest, and since da Vinci is the first to do it, may well be the first example of this kind of psychological infusion.

The history of this remarkable painting and its eventual trip to its current home in the National Gallery of Art is the subject of a documentary newly released on DVD. It is a two sided disc, one side in English narrated by Meryl Streep, the other in Italian, narrated by Isabella Rossellini. It begins by providing some information about the sixteen year old subject of the painting, and tries to explain how the young novice painter was awarded the commission. It explains how the painting was authenticated as a da Vinci, before it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1967 from the Prince of Liechtenstein for five million dollars, a record for that time. The description of the secrecy involved in the bidding for the painting and then getting it shipped to the United States is the stuff of spy fiction, complete with secret codes, special valises, and FBI agents.

There are also excellent explanations of the processes involved in the 1991 restoration of the painting, as well as a quite remarkable discussion of the attempt to produce a possible reconstruction of a missing portion of the bottom of the panel on which the portrait is painted. Computer artists used a da Vinci drawing of hands housed at Windsor Castle to complete the portrait, on the theory that the drawing may well have been a sketch meant for use in the painting as well as the critical judgment that hands were a very important expressive element in the artist's other work. There is also some interesting newsreel footage of the painting's arrival in the country and well as of the opening of its exhibit on St. Patrick's Day and the later visit of the Mona Lisa to the States.

While the film concentrates on the three portraits of women, especially that of Ginevra, there is also some attempt to provide insight into the artist's other work. There is some discussion of "The Annunciation," an early painting just before the portrait of Ginevra, and "The Last Supper." Da Vinci's mechanical and scientific pursuits are also discussed and his technical drawings illustrated.
Of course, the film's central aim is to explain what it is that accounts for the portrait's greatness, and unfortunately, as with many discussions of art, the explanations are couched in the kind of impressionistic language which leaves the viewer with little in the way of solid criteria. What we have here objectively is a picture of a very pale young lady who may be sad orperhaps pensive set against a background of a juniper bush painted on one side of a small wood panel. On the back of the panel, an emblem made up of wreath of laurel and palm framing another juniper plant with a Latin motto scrolled over it. The motto can be translated "beauty adorns virtue," which is the emblem of Ginevra's family. The juniper bush is a visual pun on the Italian word for the plant which echoes the young subject's name.

The one attempt to define the painting's greatness that resonates with some semblance of authority comes from art historian, Martin Kemp of Oxford University. Kemp asserts that in each of the three portraits da Vinci manages to create not only an individual, but an archetypal figure as well, a figure that compares with the greatest characters created by Shakespeare, for example. One might argue that this may well be true for the Mona Lisa, whether it as clearly applies to Ginevra is perhaps open to question.

Whether or not its greatness can be adequately explained analytically, however, is in some sense beside the point. For many the name da Vinci is signification enough of greatness. One of the talking heads in the film asserts that to the ordinary citizen on the strand there are three great names in painting—Van Gogh, Picasso, and da Vinci. Now while, one may quarrel with this list, there is no argument that they are all legitimate candidates for and top three list, and the painter of the Mona Lisa and "The Last Supper" is probably the likeliest for the top spot. One has to wonder, however, if the Ginevra portrait has necessarily helped to put him there.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

Some novelists preach and pontificate about life and art. They speak directly and with assurance. Some novelists explore and imply. They speak indirectly. They speak through metaphor and suggestion. As the poet Robert Browning says, they "do the thing shall breed the thought." How to Paint a Dead Man is a novel that does the thing that breeds the thought. It is a complex book that teases the reader from page to page with the promise of great truths, and when it delivers those truths, it does so with the ambiguity to which all great thought should be entitled.

Sarah Hall weaves together what at first appear to be four very separate stories. They seem to have very little to do with one another. They are narrated through different points of view. They take place in two different countries, England and Italy. Each of the four is set in a different time period. Only gradually, is the reader made aware of connections between the stories. The speaker in one turns out to be the daughter of another. An Italian still life painter who narrates one story tutors a grade school class in painting, and the central figure in another is one of his students. In the end it turns out that there are relations between the characters in all of the stories.

More importantly, all the central figures are, in one way or another, artists. An interviewer questioning the author about the fact that two of the characters were artists provoked her to protest that, in fact, all of the central figures were artists. Two of them, the interviewer's artists, are painters, one, Giorgio, of still lives; the other Peter Caldicutt, a landscape painter. But Hall admonishes, of the other two, Susan Caldicutt is a photographer, and Annette Tambroni is a flower arranger.

"The Mirror Crisis," which begins the novel is narrated in the second person, an unusual point of view to say the least, and in the voice of Susan Caldicutt. She is a fraternal twin, and she has just learned that her brother has been killed in a traffic accident. Besides, being a promising photographer, she is also a curator working in a London art gallery. Her brother's death is devastating, not only as one would expect any death of a family member to be, but because they have as twins been two parts of whole. His death in some sense destroys her as well. One might be forgiven for thinking of Madeline and Roderick Usher.

"Translated From the Bottle Journals" is a first person account of Giorgio an Italian painter modeled on the painter Giorgio Morandi. He is dying of cancer as he tries to complete a last painting, a still life arrangement of bottles. He is very much concerned with explaining the relationship between his art and life, to make clear that still life, is still life—keeping in mind that still has more than one meaning. "The Fool on the Hill" is told in the third person from the point of view of landscape painter, Peter Caldicutt, Susan's father. He comes from a working class background and is fond of inventing a Bohemian past for himself, especially for his children. He couple this with a continuing flaunting of convention.

The last of the four interwoven threads is "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni." It is narrated in the third person in the voice of Annette, a young blind girl who lives with her mother, two brothers, and an uncle and sells flowers in the village market. Although sightless, her other senses have developed to the point where she is quite capable of "seeing," seeing especially that which may not be visible to those with sight. This is no doubt the divinity of her vision. One is invited to remember all Annette's literary forbears who found in blindness the ability to see.

These characters and their stories are the bones of the novel. The heart is in their thoughts and emotions as they struggle to understand themselves and their relation to the other, to deal with the essential isolation of each individual: "Inside solitude people see the many compartments of unhappiness, like the comb of a pomegranate." Indeed, objects speak more clearly to these people than do other people. Giorgio maintains that only when he can make Peter understand "the timeless gifts of nature morte," will he begin to understand "living art." Examples of nature morte" are the objects in still life paintings. Peter finds that the rocks on the mountains are alive; he wonders if they are out to get him. Objects begin to speak to the blind Annette.

Truth is in the object. When people talk, too often truth disappears in the noise, so that even when they mean to tell the truth no one can hear it. Peter has told so many tall tales of his younger days, that when he tries to give Susan one of Giorgio's bottles, she won't believe it is really his. When he needs help, no one can hear his cries. Annette's mother cannot protect her with constant admonishments to be careful. Annette finds it impossible to explain her fears about the beast she feels around her.

On the other hand: "The kestrel achieves perfection in stillness."

Still, one may not want to lay such a heavy burden on art and the artist. This is perhaps the significance of the novel's title. How to Paint a Dead Man comes from The Craftsman's Handbook by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini where he gives the aspiring artist instructions on how to paint a dead man. Giorgio parses this passage: "I have often wondered if the condition of death is perhaps less grave to the human anatomy than physical injuries. For in death there is release from suffering. Sadly, the master craftsman is unable to instruct us in the healing of wounds."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Deconstructing Mandelbaum

Here's a link to one of the older Mandelbaum pieces:

http://www.eclectica.org/v7n2/goodstein.html

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Language: Begging the Question


Some years ago I was listening to a sports call in radio show in Pittsburgh when the host, a particularly obnoxious know-it-all fond of putting down his listeners with his ten dollar vocabulary, pontificated that the previous day's blown save by a Pirate reliever begged the question: why hadn't the manager left in the starter who after all had been pitching very well. This was the first time that I had ever heard the phrase, 'begging the question,' used in this sense, the first time I heard it used to mean, in effect, to raise the question. As far as I was concerned, to beg the question meant to avoid the question, to make a point that had nothing to do with the question.

So, for example, if someone had suggested that had the Pirates gotten more runs, the lead wouldn't have been blown. While this may well be true, it begs the question. The Pirates had the lead. The relief pitcher blew the lead. The idea that more runs might have helped is simply beside the point; it begs the question. Secure in my knowledge of the meaning of the phrase, I smirked and felt smugly superior to the blowhard radio voice, and went my merry way.
Turns out we both were wrong.

Since that first sighting, the use of the phrase to mean raising the question has grown like a viral video. On inventorpot.com, Steve Levenstein talking about a female robot invented by Tomotaka Takahashi, says:"Takahashi believes that 'half of all robots will be 'female' in the near future, which begs the question... top half or bottom half?" Blogcomposters.com asks with regard to the Eco Pen: "Now, this begs to question, is a biodegradable pen that costs $2 preferable to the old fashioned Bics that run about 9¢ a piece?" I could go on, but you get the idea. Everybody and his brother use it in this sense, and fewer and fewer users, if any, seem to be aware of my own 'more accurate,' 'correct' explanation of its meaning. Google the phrase and it quickly becomes clear that while neither I, nor the talk show host have the most acceptable meaning, he may well have the more common meaning as used today, while I may have a definition somewhat closer to the more traditional, if not quite on the button.

Traditionally begging the question refers to the logical fallacy of petitio principii, sometimes called circular argument. This basic sense of the term goes back to Aristotle. In a formal context, such as debate, it occurs when the conclusion is one of the premises of the argument. Thus for example this passage from Richard Whately quoted on Wikipedia: "To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments." In effect, what is being said here is that freedom of speech is good for the state because freedom of speech is good for the state. Examples can get more complicated, but this is the general idea.

Now then the question is, are those people, perhaps the majority of the people, who use the phrase to mean "raise the question" wrong? Language, some linguists would argue, is always changing, what was wrong yesterday, ain't necessarily wrong today. There is no right or wrong; there is simply what people do. These are the descriptive linguists. On the other hand, there are those who argue there are rules, and failure to follow the rules is wrong. These are the prescriptive linguists; the grey haired ladies who taught you grammar in the fifth grade. It comes down to a question of what is right: what is? Or, what should be?

If people commonly use the phrase beg the question to mean raise the question, then beg the question means raise the question. On the other hand, doesn't that beg the question? It may well beg the question, but does that make it wrong? When I heard that pompous talk show host 'misuse' the phrase, I was sure he was wrong. I felt smugly superior. The trouble is that at the time I had no idea what the phrase actually meant, and if my idea seems to me a lot closer to the original definition, it's still not strictly correct. Is there really only the one correct meaning?

Correct seems to be in the eye of the beholder. One man's correct is another man's split infinitive. The history of language is a history of change. Words and phrases change. New meanings attach themselves to old words. Old meanings get lost in the minutia of the Oxford English Dictionary. Linguistic change is happening as we speak, and unfortunately that begs the question what, if anything, can we do about it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book World Podcast Axed

After announcing that it's Book World podcast would need to attract more subscribers if it were to continue production, the Washington Post announced its cancelation on the November 13th podcast. During the opening section where the hosts discuss the literary news of the week, fiction editor, Ron Charles announced that this would be Book World's last podcast. No reason was given for the cancelation. Although Charles had been quoted, previously, as indicating that there had been a mandate for the paper to focus its efforts on those "projects that are actually attracting an audience.” According to one account, the managing editor, Raju Narisetti had earlier issued a memo discussing the need to rid the paper's web site of blogs that failed to attract a significant audience in order to make best use of the paper's resources. The announcement of the need to attract more subscribers followed by the podcast's cancelation would seem to echo that philosophy, although the cancelation was somewhat abrupt.

The podcast, which usually ran close to thirty minutes, usually consisted of two author interviews, a general literary news introduction, and an announcement of the week's literary events in the Washington, DC area. There had been a closing poetry section for a long time, but this had been dropped earlier. The last show contained interviews with Barbara Ehrenreich on her book about the dangers of positive thinking and Bruce Feller on Moses as the American prophet.

The cancelation of the podcast forces one to ask if this is just another sign of the decline of print journalism, with revenues no longer able to support less profitable cost centers, even those in opportunities in the new media. The fact that it is the books and authors podcast that gets the axe may well be an indication of similar problems haunting the publishing industry. After all it was not long ago that the Post decided to stop publishing Book World as a separate section.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

DVD Review: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein



Kenneth Branagh's 1994 remake of the James Whale 1931 horror classic, Frankenstein, could have been a remarkable film. It has a fine cast of top shelf actors, led by Branagh himself as the obsessive creator and Robert De Niro as the monster. Helena Bonham Carter plays, Elizabeth, the deluded scientist's beloved. Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese and Aidan Quinn round out the cast. It has the laudable aim of producing an adaptation that comes closer to the novel that Mary Shelley actually wrote than does the Whale film. It has access to a whole new world of special effects and screen make up. It some beautiful scenery shot in gorgeous Technicolor. Above all it has a modern mythic tale of science gone wild going for it.

Yet with all this, the film never really delivers the goods. It's not that it's bad. It has its good moments, some good performances, a memorable touch or two. But as a whole, it falls short. It is a horror film that never really delivers on the fright. Perhaps because the story is so well known, perhaps because the monster has become a kind of benign icon who sells cereal and does the soft shoe, perhaps. . . .Well, whatever the reason, if you're looking for thrills and chills, you're not likely to find it in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. De Niro's monster is scarred and repellent, but he is still recognizably human. His murderous acts are not always depicted, and the one act that is shown on screen isn't really defined until it is over. Indeed the scenes of the birth of his brother are perhaps more detailed, perhaps more horrifying.

Some of this is owed to the attempt to get back to the novel. The monster in Mary Shelley's book is in some sense more sinned against than sinning, at least at the start. He looks so horrible because his creator was careless in his creation; Frankenstein is an imperfect artist/scientist. He is betrayed by his creator. Victor is repulsed by him when he sees life begin to awaken in him. The monster seeks companionship, but no one can stand to look at him. He wants Frankenstein to create a female for him so that he will have someone like himself, but Frankenstein can't bring himself to complete the task. Much of this is mirrored in the film in one way or another, and it does have the effect of mitigating the audience reaction to the monster, as indeed it does in the book.

Branagh doesn't stick to everything in Shelley's book. The whole episode of the creation of the female, for example, is developed differently. In the film, Elizabeth, Victor's wife, is killed by the monster, and Victor tries to resurrect her for himself. Then, the monster challenges him for the creation. The resurrected Elizabeth then kills herself in disgust at what she has now become. In the book, the monster kills Elizabeth as revenge after Frankenstein destroys the female he is creating to be the monster's consort.

Also, Branagh's elaborate scenario for the making of the monster owes a great deal more to James Whale than it does to Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley has very little to say about how the monster was made and life created, possibly because she hadn't the slightest idea how to present a convincing explanation. All the thunder and lightning and electricity that animates Branagh's creation scene comes right out of the Whale tradition. He adds a touch of acupuncture to put his own signature on it, but whatever it is it's not Mary Shelley.

Of course, it is wrong to quibble over the fact that the movie differs from the novel, even though coming closer to the novel is obviously one of its aims. After all a movie is not a novel. It couldn't possible do everything the novel does. Besides, it does include much of the novel's frame as Frankenstein tells his story to Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn), the obsessed explorer who is a foil character to the scientist in the book. It does include the whole episode of Justine and the death of Frankenstein's little brother. It even makes sure that Frankenstein has the right first name. How much can one ask for?

The real problem with the film is the acting. Most of the actors chew the scenery without mercy. Branagh, himself, is the main offender. His performance is pure camp; there isn't a melodramatic string he isn't willing to pull. And the rest of the cast takes its cue from him. In fact the only major performance that doesn't go over the top is the one where it would be most justified: De Niro's monster. More often than not, De Niro plays in a minor key. His monster is almost subdued, especially set against the turmoil of Branagh and Bonham Carter. John Cleese in the role of Professor Waldman, Frankenstein's mentor, is like De Niro somewhat less melodramatic.

If Mary Shelley's 1818 novel needed another adaptation to the screen, this wasn't it.