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:

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, 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?" 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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Senior Moment: Cast Photo

Still shot from one act play in Pittsburgh New Works Festival, 2009.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Darker Side of Light Exhibit at National Gallery of Art

"The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900" which opened at the National Gallery of Art in October will be running until the middle of January. Then it will move to Chicago in February where it will run through June. It had appeared in Los Angeles prior to arriving in Washington, DC. The exhibition highlights prints and drawings emphasizing the idea of privacy both as a subject for art and a model for individual collectors in contrast to the more public focus of the Impressionist aesthetic which arguably dominated the period. The fact that most of the work is in black and white as opposed to the vibrant color characteristic of Impressionism adds another layer of meaning to the adjective "darker."

There is a ten minute video which gives a sweeping overview of the work in the exhibition available at the National Gallery web site. It is also available as a podcast at iTunes. While the narration provided by curator, Peter Parshall, is careful to develop the theme of interiority which is the exhibition's focus, it is not always as informative about the artists or the specific work. Artists are not always indentified, and since many of them are not very well known, some discussion of their lives would have been useful for the less knowledgeable among us. Moreover, he doesn't always identify the genre of the work shown either. What he does provide, and provide very effectively, is a nice explanation of the work's relationship to the theme of the exhibition. His descriptions of the content of the piece are especially helpful for viewers watching on the small iPod screen, where the images are sometimes not as clear as they might be.

The most extensive analysis comes at the end of the video in a discussion of a series of etchings entitled "A Glove" by the German artist, Max Klinger. In the first of the series, a young man (seemingly a self portrait) finds a glove dropped by a woman at a skating rink. The glove then becomes a fetish that appears in various forms in each of the succeeding etchings. Parshall sees the series as a kind of pre-Freudian explication of the force of the fetish. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the series is "a strange parable of a hapless young man and his obsessive involvement with a woman’s elbow-length glove."

Since the video only runs a little over ten minutes, it is hard to carp about the amount of information it gives the viewer, still the kind of analysis devoted to Klinger's work has to leave you wishing that it had been done for some of the other work and some of the other artists as well. Still, something is better than nothing, and there is always the internet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goldstein Strikes Back: An Epistle and A Half

The following was slipped under my door after yesterday's post:

Mr. Jack Goodstein
%A Flasher’s Dozen

Dear Mr. Goodstein:

Your whining diatribe against me in a recent issue of the above publication having come to my attention, I should like to take the opportunity to set the record straight.

You accuse me of appearing from out of thin air to claim credit for your own less than stellar performances in literature, on the stage and lord only knows where else your deranged imagination might fancy, and then somehow vanishing back into that slender ether to avoid confrontation with your righteous wrath. Leaving aside the question of why I, or anyone else for that matter, would want to take credit for your rather paltry productions, I would suggest the very notion of appearing from and disappearing into the cliche thin air is laughable at best, delusional at worst.

I am there, you say.

I am not there, you say.

You, Goodstein, are perhaps indulging in some hallucinatory substance.

What is it, other than your own paranoia, that would explain any sane person spending his life playing Jekyll to your Hyde?

Jealousy? Of what? A performance in a community theatre production of “Fiddler on the” goddamn “Roof?” Inane ramblings posing as fiction in internet journals little noted nor long remembered?


Persecution, you say.

Piffle, I say.

Goldstein is above such things. Goldstein wants no credit for Goodstein garbage; Goldstein takes no credit for Goodstein trash.
The phenomenon to which you allude in your libelous calumny is nothing more than your own attempt to garner credit for my–I repeat–my work, to bask in the glow of the gold of Goldstein.

Who, having seen, excrescences from the pen of Goodstein, could ever confuse them with the gems of Goldstein? Goodstein, your own words belie you. The proof is there for anyone with eyes to see. Read anything of Goodstein and compare it with the work of Goldstein. Could the work of the one have possibly been the work of the other?

I think not.

Now let me turn to the nonsense about your acting career, if unpaid, unnoticed performances in the hinterlands can be called a career. Again, the accusation is ludicrous.

Goldstein, sir, is not, nor ever has been of the thespian persuasion. Moreover, if he were, he, I, would never stoop to step upon any stage the boards of which had been trodden by the likes of you.

I know you Goodstein. Your puny talent has not escaped me. I have had the ill fortune to sit benumbed in the audience while you strutted your painful hour upon the painful stage. Trust me, Goldstein takes more pride in himself than to wish credit for or confusion with any such agonies inflicted on an unsuspecting audience.

You, Goodstein, are a victim of some mental disorder, and if you continue to employ my name in your delusional fantasies, I shall be forced to take legal action.

Yours truly,


P.S. I have attached a copy of the letter I have sent to the editor of the publication (a term I use very loosely) in which your insane rantings were printed. I have also sent him a copy of the above.

Dear Sir:

Any further publication of the bipolar ravings of Jack Goodstein which include references to myself will force me to turn the matter over to my attorneys.

I have enclosed a copy of a letter I have written to said Goodstein. You have my permission to make what use of it you will.

And I may say, in conclusion, You should be ashamed to have your periodical serve as a vehicle for the lunacies of that madman. Your readers deserve better.



Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Doppleganger

Goldstein has haunted me for years. From nowhere he comes. One minute he’s there, the next? Who knows? One minute he’s there, the next? Who knows? I go to a new place, meet new people, and he is there. From nowhere, he appears. People see him; call him by name. “Goldstein,” they say, “a pleasure to meet you.” I look around, nothing. He’s gone. Disappeared. Scrammed. Vanished.

The son of a bitch, I have never seen.

This is how quick he is. Last week, at my audition for–I’m an actor, did I mention? Last week, I walk out on the stage at the Playlab, to do my monologue, and the director says: “Whenever you’re ready Mr. Goldstein.” I turn around, and he’s gone. I look in the wings–right and left, no one.

“Mr. Goldstein?” says the director.

Again, I turn. Again no one. He’s quick, that son of a bitch.

I can’t even remember the first time he showed up. In grade school, teachers would see him sitting in my seat on the first day of class. He’d be standing next to me when we lined up in size places at the side of the room. He would be playing dodge ball in the school yard. In the fourth grade, he took credit for the American Legion essay I wrote, somehow getting his name inserted into the bulletin that announced the winners, instead of mine. At home, I’ve still got a certificate with a gold stamp and the name Jack Goldstein hand lettered where my name should have been.
On the first day of Little League tryouts, he shows up in the outfield to catch pop ups only to disappear when the coach shouts for him to come in and get on deck. Three times the coach calls him, but just like at the audition, he is gone. Finally, the coach, probably upset by Goldstein’s shenanigans, points at me. “You’re waiting for what?” he shouts. “An invitation? Engraved?”

In high school, he never once shows up for baseball practice; I show up every single day–I’m there early and I stay late–and on the list for the varsity team posted in the locker room, there is Goldstein. Goodstein doesn’t even make the second team.

My freshman year in college, when I played Sebastian in the fall production of Twelfth Night, who somehow managed to get his name inserted into the program? Who was it that got his name in the review in the student newspaper? And if this was the first time it certainly wasn’t the last. If I had, for every time, he got credit for one of my performances, fifty cents. . . you get the idea. It was Goldstein who played Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace at the South Hills Community Theatre. It was Goldstein as Happy in the Barebones Players’ production of “Salesman,” Goldstein as Sam Craig in. . . . Goldstein in this; Goldstein in that. Here a Goldstein. There a Goldstein. Everywhere a Goldstein.
Once I read a story, in college probably, I don’t remember the name, but it’s the same thing. A guy tells a story about his own Goldstein. It wasn’t Goldstein of course, it was another name I can’t remember, but everywhere this “Goldstein” also shows up, every time something important happens this “Goldstein” is there ruining everything. In the end, he decides to get rid of him, kill him. What happens, I don’t remember, but I can understand how he feels.

Last week I got the program for the production of my first one act play–I am also a playwright–did I mention–and sure enough, in big bold letters, there he is again.

If I could get my hand on him, if my Goldstein would stick around in one place long enough, I, sure as hell, could be tempted to get rid of the son of a bitch.

Appeared originally in A Flasher's Dozen, eds. KR Mullin and Sandra Seamans, vol.1, no. 1, Autumn, 2005, pp. 10-11.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Any Goodman to Tour in Support of New Book

On the Veterans Day edition of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman announced a speaking tour marking the thirteenth anniversary of the show and in support of her new book, Breaking the Sound Barrier. She begins her tour on November 14 in San Francisco and ends in New York on December 2. A complete list of the tour cites is available on the Democracy Now! web site. Most of the stops are on the west coast in California, Oregon and Washington, but the tour does include stops in Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Minneapolis.

Her book, Breaking the Sound Barrier, is a collection of her syndicated columns for King Features, beginning as early as 2006 and running through the summer of 2009. She writes about the war in Iraq, health care, torture and rendition as well as the failures she sees in the capitalistic economic system. Her intention is to speak with an independent voice as an alternative to the corporative media, which she feels in the pocket of big business. As such she tends to focus her on stories and people that don't always get what she considers their fair share of attention. My review of the book is available below.

She is perhaps most widely known for her arrest at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota when she came to the aid of two of her colleagues who were being manhandled by the police, an incident which she refers to several times in the book.

Among other notables the Democracy Now! web site quotes Stephen Colbert: “I heard you were a firebrand. Well bring it, baby!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Mandelbaum Hoax: a story

Always, Fischel Tannenbaum, had insisted that the idea had been his, no matter what that lying goniff Schmuckler said.

“I’m a lying thief?” Schmuckler demanded, “I’m a lying . . . I’ll show you who is a lying. . . .” His face would redden and he would wave a fist, too irrate for speech.

“You and what army,” Fischel would cackle.

Schmuckler claimed to the day he died that until the seed was planted in Tannenbaum’s evil garden by this green thumbed gardener, “to wit myself,” he would add to prevent confusion, Tannenbaum had never even heard of the actor who spoke with the voice of silence, “to wit Mandelbaum.”

“Never heard of Mandelbaum,” Fischel chuckled knowingly, “ the creator of the silence of sound. . . .”

“The sound of silence, yuld, idiot.” Schmuckler would grin pointing to his head a twirling finger. “You see?”

“It’s a joke, I’m making a joke. Who doesn’t know from Mandelbaum? I never went to the movies? I didn’t see the Weekend at Ernies.”


“Bernies, I said Bernies. What did I say?”

“You see?”

The way Schmuckler told it the idea came to him while he was watching on the American Movie Channel a documentary on the silent film.

“I like documentaries. I like real things. Fake movies, I don’t watch.”

They were talking about some silent movie star(“who was it, I can’t remember. It’s years ago”) whose career went down the sewer when the sound came because he had this little squeaky voice (“a big he-man with a little pip squeak voice.”).

“So I’m thinking, this hot shot movie star, this Mandelbaum how come it is he never speaks. Maybe he’s got some defect he can’t speak. You know he’s dumb or something. But then maybe he just don’t want to speak, maybe he just don’t want to speak because he’s got also a little pip squeaky voice. You seen him in the movies? A big man. A giant with a little squeaky voice. It could have been? Why not? Of course by this time Mandelbaum had his little disappearing act pulled . Vanished. It was in all the newspapers. You must have read. . . . Anyway, I ask myself, why does a man making millions of dollars in the movies, everybody knows who he is, women throwing at him their room keys and their underwear, why does a man like this out of the dull gray sky suddenly decide to take off into wild gray yonder never to be seen or heard of again. And to myself I answer. . . .well you know what I answer.”

“But the idea to make the film was--” Tannenbaum insists, pounding on the kitchen formica. “I don’t care what that son of a bitch tells you. You believe what you want. I know the truth. He knows the truth. From my mouth to God’s ear, the idea to make the film was--”

“Big macha! He knows from making films.”

“The film I don’t have to make. Metro-Goldwyn-Disney I don’t need to be. All we need is a copy–“

“What we do is get a copy of some of his old movies. They’re all over the place. We’ll take it to this guy I know, he knows all there is Know about this movie business, he used to work for Izzy Lefkowitz when he ran the video store over in Sheepshead Bay. From the movie we’ll cut out a piece, and over it we’ll put in a voice for the actor without a voice. Like in the cartoons. We’ll give him a voice: the great Mandelbaum will speak.”

“The great Mandelbaum will squeak, you mean. We’ll say we found it in an old file when we were cleaning out the office of. . . well somebody’s office, somebody big in the movie business. We’ll say it’s from the movie a take out--”

“Out take! Take out, he says. Take out is sesame chicken you moron.”

“Moron, you are calling me a--”

“No I’m calling a moron your brother, Hymie, you moron.”

“I’ll give you m-m-m,” sputters of rage from Tannenbaum.

“I’m in my pants, shaking,” from Schmuckler. “The decision is we’ll take this film to the big shots in the studios; we’ll say they [“The big shots,” Tannenbaum by way of clarification] cut this out of the movie because by accident Mandelbaum spoke and they couldn’t let everyone–[“The Public,” Tannenbaum interrupts] the public. They couldn’t let the public know that Mandelbaum who all these movies they were selling[“Marketing,” injects Tannenbaum], marketing as the voice of silence. So maybe they would be willing to pay a couple of shekels to keep it quiet. And if not. . . .”

‘If not there was always The National Enquirer or The Star. They were always having stories about Mandelbaum sightings in West--”

“Mandelbaum was the biggest thing since Elvis.”

“For sure at least they would spring for a nice size check. It was an idea, couldn’t miss.”

“Couldn’t miss is right. Unless you are dealing with a moron who--”

“Again with the moron? I’ll show you moron, you ignoramus.”

“Ignoramus? You learned a new word?”

“A new word, I’ll--” Tannenbaum grimaced and clutched his chest.

“Never mind him. He’s a Mandelbaum, you know what I mean, a Mandelbaum?”

Tannenbaum was breathing heavily.

“Enough with the acting. You got to have a heart before you can have a heart attack.”

Tannenbaum smiled: “You see the kind of person I have to deal with. Anyway, a couldn’t miss idea it was.”

“Was? Still is? So what the big shot wouldn’t go for it.”

“They laughed at us. Somebody will believe this, they said.”

“At you they laughed. You would have let me talk. They would have laughed out of the other side of their--”

“Somebody could stop you from talking? I’d like to see the day. At the Enquirer, they would have taken it--”

“The story.”

“Of course the story, what do you think I’m talking about, the bar mitzvah of the Prince of Wales?”

“Chicken feed, they offered us. Ich hab em in dred. You know what this means. They should go to. . . . ah, so what. We still got it, the tape.”

“We could put it the VCR.”

“If you like, you could hear. You could tell the world how you were the one to hear Mandelbaum speak.”

“Maybe, you’ll make a buck.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Memorial Service for Mary Travers

A four hour memorial service for folk icon Mary Travers, who had died of complications from chemotherapy she had received for a bone marrow transplant after she developed leukemia in September, was held at historic Riverside Church in Manhattan on Monday evening, November 9. Noted for her social consciousness, she was always ready to raise her voice in support of the progressive causes she believed in, and many of those who had joined with her were at the church to honor her memory. There were the folk singers like Pete Seeger and Judy Collins. There were the politicians, John Kerry and George McGovern. And of course, there were her cohorts, Peter and Paul.
Their trio was responsible for interpreting many of the songs that defined their generation: "Blowing in the Wind," "Puff, the Magic Dragon," "If I had a Hammer," and of course her own show piece, "Leaving on a Jet Plane." They were all noted for their social activism. Pictures of the three of them at the head of protest marchers and on stage at rallies are legion. According to the account in the New York Times, Whoopi Goldberg said of the group: "They said: 'This belongs to you. This land is your land. If you don’t like what’s going on, get up and say something. Get up and sing. Get up and march.'"
A video of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and a stage filled with other singers and friends singing the Woody Guthrie anthem,'This Land is Your Land," is available on You Tube.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remainders From the Strand

Here's a link to an essay I wrote on scavanging for used books in NYC a few years back and was published in Eclectica: "Remainders From the Strand."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Rebecca Stout's The Coral Thief

It is 1815. Napoleon is on his way to exile on Saint Helena. Paris is filled with victorious foreigners—Brits, Prussians, Austrians. Looted booty from the Napoleonic conquests—art works, fossils, scientific specimens--is being squirreled away against claims for return. New scientific speculation is challenging orthodox theology. Lamarck is teaching new evolutionary theory. Cuvier is busily studying comparative anatomy. It is a world in flux, socially, intellectually, politically. It is the world of Rebecca Stott’s new historical novel, The Coral Thief.

Into this world she introduces twenty one year old Daniel Conner, an Edinburgh medical student come to study at the Jardin des Plantes under Cuvier. He comes with a letter of introduction and gifts for the great man from his mentor in Edinburgh. But on the coach to Paris, he is entranced by a fellow passenger, a mysterious older female who seems to know a good deal about the new scientific ideas and a good deal about the world as well. After some stimulating conversation they both fall asleep, and when Daniel wakes up, he finds that the woman is gone and so are his letters of introduction and gifts. So, begins Stott’s novel.

It is a book that combines the historical romance with the jewel heist thriller, an intriguing combination that would seem to offer some promise. Unfortunately, it is a promise that is not quite kept. While Stott does manage to create a nicely researched picture of Paris in this post-Napoleonic era, it is more a miniature than it is a mural. Perhaps because most of the story is narrated by the youthful inexperienced Daniel, the historical framework often lacks depth. He is too wide eyed and self absorbed to give the reader the kind of context a more seasoned observer might provide. While this may be appropriate from the point of view of character, it is somewhat disappointing from that of the reader. Stott does try what she has called an “anchoring of Daniel’s story to history” by interspersing short clips of third person narrative describing Napoleon’s passage aboard the HMS Bellerophon and eventual arrival on Saint Helena, yet more often than not these passages read as an intrusions. The novel never really captures the turbulence of the period.

The thriller plot which involves a gaggle of master thieves and a corrupt policeman weaving a tangled web around the young love struck hero is farfetched and lacks the kind of blow by blow details one has come to expect from these kinds of narratives. For example there is a description of the opening of an intricate cabinet in which a diamond has been hidden which really gives the reader very little information about what is actually going on. There is a chase through the underground quarries of Paris that never creates any suspense. There is even a scene in which a soporific drug is administered to a whole party of dignitaries gathered to honor a Dutch emissary which might make sense in satire, but is clearly absurd in a thriller. Indeed the whole heist plan seems to be unnecessarily elaborate.

Add to this the fact that, most of the characters are stock figures from the great collective unconscious of fictions past. There is the earnest innocent thrust into a world he is not quite prepared for. There is the world weary older woman, Lucienne Bernard, more than willing to teach him what life is really like. There is the unrelenting detective with as much of the crook about him as the law man. There is the faithful servant, more friend than retainer, the fun loving boon companion, the silent devoted henchman. All in all, the novel is peopled with a collection of characters that are drawn to type, and provoke little interest as individuals.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the attempt to say something about the blossoming conflict between religion and new scientific thinking in the period just before Darwin. Daniel Conner, although presumably trained in science, has been taught in a system that has not yet been touched by the new ideas. It is a system that is still reconcilable with contemporary theological thought. He is on his way to Paris to work with George Cuvier, a comparative anatomist concerned with the study of the particular facts. The answers, he says, are in the bones. Cuvier is set in opposition to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck, an early evolutionist, was committed to a more speculative approach to science. The more Conner becomes acquainted with the new ideas, especially as they are developed by his free thinking inamorata, the more he begins to question if not always Cuvier’s way of thinking, certainly the religious ideas with which he was raised. Although these questions are not necessarily resolved, Stott does present the beginnings of the intellectual controversies that were to dominate the nineteenth century, and reverberate even today.

I must confess that while I was reading The Coral Thief, I was also rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The idealistic Conner reminded me of the idealistic Lydgate. The freethinking Lucienne made me think of the kind of woman Dorothea would have liked to be. Cuvier as portrayed by Stott seemed much of a kind with the mummified Rev. Casaubon. Not that such comparisons are bad in themselves, but when you start comparing a historical novel to Middlemarch, you are setting what may well be an impossibly high standard.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, by Donald McRae

Before the twentieth century was three decades old there had already been at least three trials of the century, and Clarence Darrow was the lead attorney for the defense in all three of them: the thrill kill trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the Scopes’ ‘monkey trial,’ and perhaps the less well known trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet and others for murder in a Detroit racial incident. These are the three trials that make up the bulk of Donald McRae’s The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, and this fact is both the book’s strength and its weakness. While it is true that the detailed stories of the each of the trials make for fascinating reading in and of themselves, it is also true that each one has been written about numerous times. There is little that is new to say about them.

Indeed there are recent excellent books on all of them. John Theodore’s Evil Summer: Babe Leopold, Dickie Loeb, and the Kidnap-Murder of Bobby Franks is a comprehensive study of that case. Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997) is an exhaustive study of the Scopes trial. Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004) provides an intensive look at the Sweet case. McRae’s book goes over most of the same ground in much less detail while focusing his attention on Darrow’s role. It is not that the other books fail to do recognize Darrow’s importance, they certainly do; it is more that they do not make it the central concern of their narrative. They are all as much interested in the social and intellectual contexts of the trials as they are with the details of the cases. For McRae, it too often seems that the trials are more about Clarence Darrow than anything else. For readers unfamiliar with the three trials, McRae provides most of the significant information; for readers who want a more exhaustive account the other books would be more likely to suit their needs.

The Leopold and Loeb case is one of the earliest examples of what has come to be called a “thrill kill” murder. The two young men, both from wealthy, socially prominent Chicago family, cold bloodedly chose a victim for kidnapping and murder simply to put into practice their deluded understanding of the ideas of Frederich Nietzsche. They were caught red handed and Darrow was hired to save them from hanging. The Scopes trial is of course the famous case in which Darrow defended the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The Sweet case involved a black doctor and his family who purchased a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit. When they, and a small group of relatives and friends, were threatened by an angry mob of whites on their second night in the house, a shot was fired and a member of the mob was killed. Darrow was hired to help with the NAACP.

What McRae does might best be described as ‘pop’ history. He uses his source material as a novelist might, rather than as one would expect from a scholarly historian. Hardly a page goes by where he doesn’t characterize people’s thoughts and feelings, based on accounts they later gave or stories in the news. A juror gives a verdict in “a ragged cry.” A psychiatrist speaks “with a semblance of awe.” An attorney rises to his feet “angrily.” This sort of emotional characterization may attract some readers, but it does lend itself to melodrama. Indeed, McRae does tend to indulge himself in the melodramatic. After the Scopes trial, for example, Darrow “was about to be plunged, one last time, into the depth of an American nightmare.” At the end of the Leopold-Loeb trial, Darrow closes his fist “in triumph. He had won. Compassion had overcome vengeance. Leopold and Loeb had escaped death. He had won.” McRae is fond of the rhetorical flourish.

Running through his accounts of the trials, there is interspersed the story of Darrow’s relationship with Mary Field Parton. Parton was something of a writer and journalist. She and Darrow had been intimate in Los Angeles when he had been practicing labor law and she had helped him when he was put on trial for jury tampering, one of the darkest periods of his life. When she understood that he was never likely to leave his wife, she married and had a child. But just before the Leopold-Loeb trial, he asked her to come to Chicago and they remained in contact through the rest of his life. McRae is able to add a good bit of new information about their relationship based on Parton’s letters and journals, a relationship which he feels is much more important than has been previously recognized. However since we are really only shown one side of the story, it is really very difficult to come to any conclusion about the accuracy of that conclusion. How certain can a reader be about Darrow’s feelings? He was perhaps, a womanizer. McRae points out that he often made passes at the pretty women attracted by his celebrity. Still, for whatever reason, he didn’t leave his wife. Mary did marry. Even according to McRae, she did love her husband. One has to wonder.

If he doesn’t really break new ground, if he does overdo the prose every once in awhile, McRae does write an eminently readable book about one of the most fascinating personalities of the last century, a man who spent his life battling for many of the liberal causes that are still being fought over today.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Book Review: Breaking the Sound Barrier, by Amy Goodman

There are the ladies on the right: Laura Ingraham, Anne Coulter. There are the ladies on the left: Rachel Maddow, Laura Flanders. Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Network's Democracy Now!, is just about as left as they come; she's the kind of liberal Rush Limbaugh loves to hate; she could be the model for his portrait of the lunatic left. Moreover, she would probably welcome his bloviating attack. There could be no better sign of a person's righteousness and basic humanity than to be the object of the Limbaugh ire.

Breaking the Sound Barrier her latest book is a collection of her weekly syndicated columns for King Features from 2006 through the summer of 2009. She speaks out on nearly all of the hot button issues of the period—the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigration, illegal wiretapping. Columns are organized by topical sections ( War, Health Care, Media, etc.), and within each section they follow chronologically. You name it, if it was in the news, she has something to say about it, and it is usually something at the very least thought provoking. And more often than not it expresses a point of view and focuses on information you are not likely to find in the mainstream media, the mainstream media which she likes to castigate as the "corporate" media.

It is ironic that, flaming liberal that she is, she has as little use for the mainstream media, as the right wing zealots do. "It is," she says, "the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is, to seek out news and people who are ignored, to accurately and clearly report on the issues—issues that the corporate, for-profit media often distort, if they cover them at all." If this is her mission, she does it well. Whether she is making a case for why minor candidates should be included in the presidential debates, or criticizing the American Psychological Association for its failure to demand that its members take no part in the government's torture programs, she expresses a point of view not often heard on the major networks or in the pages of News Corp's various organs.

Where else were you going to hear about Tim De Christopher, an economics student at the University of Utah who bid on the gas and mineral rights at a federal land auction as an act of civil disobedience? Where else would you learn about the distraught father of a marine who accidently set himself on fire when he was told about the death of his son in Iraq? Where else would you find out that Donald Rumsfeld was living in Mount Misery, an estate formerly used to torture recalcitrant slaves and get them to behave (indeed, where else would you find it out twice)?
The problem with a book like this, however, is that too much of it seems like old news. Many of the battles she is fighting seem to be over. A good deal seems to be old news. True many of the problems she calls attention to are endemic to the political system as we know it, but the specifics have changed. There are new concerns, new contexts, and it is too easy to use the old news to line some bird cage or wrap some fish.

The torture debate, for example, is something that has never been resolved. There are still those, like Ms. Goodman, who feel that those who authorized it should be tried and punished. There are still those who feel that it was criminal, and that the fact that we continue to ignore it is a blot on our national honor. On the other hand, I'm not sure that republishing the arguments presented a year ago that didn't seem to do the job is the best way to get it done. I guess what I'm saying is that recycling may be a good thing if you're talking about paper and glass; I'm not sure how valuable recycling is when it comes to political essays.

It would be one thing if her prose were in some sense memorable. But while there is nothing really wrong with it, it is simply the kind of pragmatic argumentation that attempts to persuade by the force of its logic, rather than the beauty of its style. It is important for what it purport to say, not for the way it says it. This is fine for the daily newspaper. This is fine for the first time. Is it really something we need to read again?

I find very little to disagree with in Amy Goodman's book. I might quibble about her attitude towards Israel. I might find her analysis of Ralph Nader's effect on the election of Bush questionable; indeed I might question her attitude towards Nader in general. I might object to her misgivings about the current president, feeling that faced with significant problems, he needs to be given a chance. On the whole, however, I find that much of what she says needed to be said, and I commend her for saying it.

She is at her best when she is dealing with the specific, with the individual story, whether it be that of Major General Batiste who loses his job on CBS as a military analyst when he speaks out against the Bush war strategy, or the presentation of the rendition and torture of Mohamed Bashmilah. She is at her best defending the underdog, the voiceless, which of course is what she intends to do. She is at her best when she runs to the aid of her colleagues who are being manhandled by the police and arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota. She is at her best when standing up to the powerful with the courage of her convictions.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Podcast Review: Today in the Past

Although more than likely John Hodgman's Today in the Past is meant as an advertisement for his book More Information Than You Require, it is nonetheless an entertaining advertisement, and neither overt nor high powered. Indeed, if you don't bother to read the introductory blurb on iTunes, you might not even know that these were readings from his book. You might not even know that there was a book to have readings from. There is, and Hodgman's readings from it may well whet your appetite enough to get you to grab a copy.

Today in the Past is a daily calendar of faux facts supposedly occurring on that day in history. According to the post on his web page, it is a page a day calendar "without those annoying pages. So for October 30, 1938: Orson Welles produces a radio dramatization of Leaves of Grass after the success of his War of the Worlds, and again gets people believing it is true. October 31 provides a dissertation on the origins of Halloween. Oct 29, 1999: John Glenn becomes the oldest man to ever take a fake space flight, which reminds him of his first fake space flight. November 2, 1948: Dewey beats Truman. None of the podcasts takes longer than a minute. One is as short as twelve seconds. There seems to be just enough time to chuckle, if you are so inclined, and then it's over. No doubt this is a positive if you're not amused, if, on the other hand, you find this sort of thing to your taste, you may well be left feeling unsatisfied (like some of those portions at a fancy French restaurant. Still the price is right, so why complain.

His work on The Dailey Show and the CBC's Wiretap, as well as his Apple commercials, have made him a household name. He has proved himself a master of the low key dead pan and his delivery of these invented events on Today in the Past is spot on. This is a man who knows what he does best, and sticks to what he knows. He has made a career of writing and performing this kind of understated satire, and his work on Today in the Past illustrates why he has been so successful.

This kind of mini-comic moment seems to have proliferated on the net. The Onion's audio podcasts rarely last more than a minute, and even their videos run only a few minutes. Youtube videos tend to be relatively short. Dilbert cartoons and the New Yorker cartoons are only a few seconds in length. Indeed the Audible Books advertisements that frame them are always longer than the cartoons themselves, which is somewhat annoying to say the least.

It is not only comedy. There are quite a number of these mini-moments in all areas. They range from readings of classical poems songs of the day to scientific reports and individual news stories. There would definitely seem to be an audience for the short spurt, whether it be a spurt of information, or a spurt of laughter. In a busy world, it seems a minute here and a minute there is just about all we have time for.

By the way, you may want to check out his web site for figure 79: "A Typical Seventeenth Century Maleman, Shown Wearing Worm Scale Armor Likely Made With His Own Claws."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Flaubert and Seinfeld, The Art of Nothingness

Flaubert and Seinfeld, The Art of Nothingness

Some thoughts on art somewhat revised in collaboration with the Technorati editor.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Egeus: Thoughts on Some Shakespearian Fathers and Daughters

It is the first rehearsal for an outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Pittsburgh’s South Park. Theseus is on stage going on about the celebration of his nuptials. Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and I are off stage right, ready to make our entrance. I, of course, am Egeus, the vexed and complaining father, ready to rant about his disobedient daughter and his trampled rights. I grab Hermia by the arm, thinking to drag her onto the stage, but the actress stops me.
“This is a comedy,” she says.

And she is right, a comedy it is, but it is a comedy with a father who would rather have his daughter dead than disobedient. Very funny: one might well want to question Shakespeare’s sense of humor. The last thing Shakespearian fathers seem to want is to have their daughters’ obedience turned “to stubborn harshness.” Disobedience it would seem is the worst of sins. A daughter with a mind of her own must be “bewitched.’ Her heart must have been “filched.” The “impression of her fantasy” must have been stolen. Of necessity something unnatural must have occurred.

It is not only “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Think of Baptista in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Docile Bianca is the model of feminine behavior; headstrong Kate is an aberration. Think of Duke Frederick in “As You Like It.” He banishes Rosalind a surrogate daughter, and Celia, his actual daughter who runs off with her. Celia tells him she cannot live without Rosalind, and he calls her a fool and banishes her anyway. Now while disobedient daughters in these plays manage to get away with it, after all these are, to paraphrase my actress friend, comedies, disobedience on the part of young girls does not always end so well. It is then that you have something approaching tragedy, and maybe even the real thing.

Lord Capulet rants and raves about Juliet’s refusal of Paris in a speech that could very well have been spoken by Egeus. And we all know how that ends.
An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets. . . .
That the father’s unreasonableness may well have something to do with the result is in some sense beside the point. If in the comedies, a daughter can ultimately get away with disobedience, whoever is at fault, in the tragedies it doesn’t quite work that way.

In “Othello,” Brabantio, complaining to Duke about Desdemona’s marriage to the Moor, demands of Desdemona to whom she owes obedience. She answers that she perceives a “divided duty.” Of course since she is now married, this is no doubt true, still to have run off and married without her father’s permission, let alone his blessing augers no good. Brabantio’s parting words to Othello make this clear:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
It is a warning with disastrous results, and perhaps illustrates what happens when independent young females refuse to pay attention to their fathers.

“King Lear” is of course the most notable example of father with a disobedient daughter, and for this disobedience, it is both father and daughter who suffer. Like Desdemona, Cordelia has a “divided duty:” to her father and to the truth. Like Desdemona, there will be husband to whom obedience will be due:
. . . when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

To both their regret, this is a truth Lear cannot recognize, and so he disowns her in favor of her hypocritical sisters.

In the end fathers must give up their authority voluntarily, or they must be made to give it up. Theseus must “overbear” Egeus. Petruchiio must come along and tame the shrew. Duke Frederick must have a change of heart, even if it happens offstage. That is when you have comedy. Father’s who sulk and give up their authority gracelessly or not at all are dooming their daughters as well as themselves. This is not to say that daughters in Shakespeare’s plays are in control. There always seems to be man somewhere: husband, father, duke, always a man in control. It is to say that in a paternalistic society, the father at some point must give way to some other man.

Shakespeare is, after all, a man of his age. Women going off on their own eschewing the male of the species are losing love’s labor.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: "Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son", by Michael Chabon

For those of us who looked forward to and were somewhat disappointed with "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", Michael Chabon's follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", his latest book, "Manhood for Amateurs," is more like it. "Manhood for Amateurs" is a collection of personal essays investigating what it means to be a man, a husband and a father raising a family at the start of the twenty first century. Taken together the essays form a kind of autobiographical memoir explaining how Chabon became the man he feels he has become and perhaps more importantly how he can become the man he would like to be. He is a product of a world that in some sense no longer exists, and while much that has changed has changed for the best, there has been change to regret. "Manhood for Amateurs" looks to reclaim some of the best of those past values, to see if there is not still a place for them in this changed world.
He writes about his childhood, about the freedom he had to roam the 'wilderness' behind his home in Maryland, about his fascination with comic books and super heroes, about playing "Planet of the Apes" at the Megginsons' disorderly house. It was a freedom which encouraged exploration and creativity; it was a freedom to use his imagination. One has to wonder if it is not just this kind of freedom that is the essential element in the creation of writer.
On the other hand, he talks about his parents' divorce, his mother's boyfriends, his father's move to Pittsburgh. He admits of a fetish for collecting father figures. He writes about his early sexual experiences and his own marriages and divorce. He describes his dalliance with pot. He talks about his own children and his role as a parent.
Every so often he gets into more public kinds of topics: his short acquaintance with David Foster Wallace at a John Kerry rally, his feelings about Jose Conseco after the revelations about steroids, his feelings about self centered artists like Henry Miller. He considers the changing roles of men in the rearing of children. He comments on the value of creative writing programs. He talks about religion and having his children take part in a Nativity play; he describes his daughter's "bat mitzvah".
But most importantly, whatever he writes about, he writes about with wit and style. He is fond of using the ordinary occurrence, the everyday situation as a metaphor. In the essay, "Subterranean" he uses the terrified excitement he feels in his grandfather's basement as a metaphor for his life as a writer. Rummaging and snooping in that basement helped form, he says, the basis for his "life as a writer," made him "a denizen of the basement of my soul." A child's inability to draw a picture of a woman becomes a figure for the writer's inability to create realistic female characters. An old fashioned set of Lego building blocks is a signifier of creativity, while the proscriptive model kits that fill the shelves of Toys 'R Us today, are creative dead ends.
He is fond of the aphoristic statement: "The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage. . . ." "A wallet is a man's totem, his distillation. It pockets his soul as surely as he pockets it." Occasionally, he indulges himself in the outrageous conceit: a man's purse "Is basically a vagina with a strap." He is inventive in his use of language: his mother was never a "Santa Clause of physical affection." She dates a "zoo's worth" of men after her divorce. There is a "cyclopean television" in his father-in-law's den. A staircase is described as lengthening "Alice-in-Wonderlandishly." He scavenges through high culture and even more so popular culture for the clarifying allusion. One is as apt to find reference to Larry Talbot, Jeff Beck, the Huxtables, as to Shakespeare.
Chabon has created a distinctive voice, a contemporary voice for a contemporary world. Not only does he speak in a modern idiom, he speaks with all of the baggage that comes with that voice. He talks about the male need to fake confidence, as he drives his family through a blizzard, to seem always in control. He over indulges in the minutia of pop culture, glorifying a kind of nerdiness. He acknowledges his inertia in the art of living. He is often self- deprecating. Still, none of this stops him from speaking. Here is the contradiction inherent in the contemporary voice: while acknowledging its own inadequacies, it is not willing to be reticent. In this way, Chabon speaks for many of us.