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Monday, July 27, 2009

The Next Ann Landers

I was reading the Chicago Tribune's advice column today, and I realized that I might be a perfect fit for that profession, mainly because I am always right.

So if you want your day-to-day problems, relationship issues, or existential crises solved by yours truly, drop me a comment on this post, that way you can do so while protecting your anonymity if you prefer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

I stole a book today.

Well, sort of. Whether or not I committed literary larceny depends on your definition of two terms. The first is "stealing" and the second is "book".

Confused? Today I walked into Borders, picked up the volume pictured above, and read the whole thing before I left.

I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. It's Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author, and the whole thing was only 79 pages of double-spaced type, and there's no way, job or no job, that I'm paying ten dollars for a book that size. I really only picked it up to see what it was all about, but before I knew it I was halfway done, and it just seemed silly not to finish.

God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian isn't much of a book, really, even allowing for its brevity. In 1998 and 1999 Vonnegut did a series of 90-second pieces for radio station WNYC (try to guess where the station is located) in which he pretended that Dr. Kevorkian helped him die "three-quarters of the way" so that he could stand outside the pearly gates and interview dead people. The book is just a printed collection of these pieces, making it a blatant cash grab, but since Vonnegut donated the money to the radio station, I suppose it's at least a noble cash grab, if such a creature can exist.

Some of the pieces are pretty funny, especially when Vonnegut interviews less famous people. Probably the best is one in which he interviews a construction worker who was killed while saving his dog from a pit-bull attack. Vonnegut asks him how it feels to have died to save a schnauzer, and the man responds that it feels better than it would to have died for nothing in the Viet Nam War.

That's Vonnegut's black humor, which is frequently on display in this narrow volume, along with his intense distrust of governments and institutions, and his playful but deadly serious mockery of religion.

Definitely only for committed fans of Vonnegut, but an enjoyable way to cheat Borders out of my money.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite and Our Fractured Media Landscape

I was watching a little bit of MSNBC's coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite, and for a while there they had Dan Rather, who was Cronkite's successor, in the studio and Tom Brokaw on the phone. At one point, Brokaw mentioned the respect he, Rather, and the late Peter Jennings all shared for Cronkite. That got me thinking about how much has changed about the way we get our news.

What's changed the most is that there are no longer widely respected cultural institutions imparting the news to us, but instead a vast and unknown plethora of personalities, often with known biases or unsavory reputations as journalists.

Walter Cronkite's image is synonymous with several of the biggest stories of the 20th century. Taking off his glasses and pausing before breaking the story of JFK's assassination. Telling Americans, in a then rare display of opinion in news, that the Vietnam War was spinning out of control. It was Walter Cronkite that most people watched narrate the events on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

Even when people of my age were younger, there was a sense of this same instituionalism in the network news anchors, except it was more evenly split among Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather. All three were trusted journalists with wide audiences. (In my house we watched Jennings purely because his telecast preceded Jeopardy!)

With the advent of cable news and 24-hour reporting, the prominence of the network anchors took a hit, but the even more disturbing element is the slivercasting going on in news. Slivercasting means broadcasting to appeal to a narrow constituency, and it's obviously common among cable channels, where you have a whole channel devoted to game shows, or what have you. But in news, it means you can tailor your newscast to the people you expect to watch it. This enables people to seek out news that agrees with their own preconceptions, and this is a bad idea plain and simple. I don't care how often you agree with Keith Olbermann, it's not healthy to hear your own ideas regurgitated back to you. Even if you never change your mind, you need to have it challenged every once in a while.

With the fracturing of news, we no longer have a core touchstone of recognized and verified journalists informing us the way we need them to. What does it say that arguably the most powerful person in the media today is a guy who was once the third male lead in Death to Smoochy?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Favorite Authors, Part 3 (The Exciting Conclusion)

Okay, even I'm getting bored with this, so let's try to wrap it quickly.

7. Agatha Christie. See, I'm not sexist, I read books written by women, so come on ladies, date me already. Granted, there isn't much that is feminine in Christie's Golden Age mysteries, not even the ones featuring Miss Marple. In my younger days I was greatly partial to the Poirot stories, but over time I've become nearly equally fond of Marple. At last count I'd read exactly 50 Agatha Christie novels, an astonishing and frankly somewhat embarrassing figure. Even being as big a fan as I am, I am all too willing to admit that the majority are ultimately forgettable and disposable. However, there are quite a few real classics in there that make it worth the investment of time. Christie recycled plots plenty of times, especially in her later years, but some of them were true originals which captivate and surprise even the most experienced mystery reader.

What should you read?: And Then They Were None, though it doesn't feature either of her two famous detectives, is her most famous novel for a reason. It's a compelling story in addition to being a perfectly unsolvable mystery. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is probably the best Poirot novel, and is in addition one of the most controversial mystery novels ever. Other standout titles include The Mysterious Affair at Styles, A Murder is Announced, The Mirror Crack'd, and The ABC Murders. A good rule of thumb at first would be to check the publication date and stick to the earlier novels. Christie really lost it near the end, and tried to stay socially relevant despite not having any idea what younger people were really like.

8. Raymond Chandler. Same genre, vastly different style. Chandler is the apex of the American hard-boiled detective story, and his hero Philip Marlowe is an iconic figure thanks in large part to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in The Big Sleep. Marlowe's wise-cracks, tough-guy veneer and inability to keep himself out of trouble make Chandler's novels an absolute joy to read, even if the complicated plots confused everyone, including the author, who famously couldn't remember "whodunit" when asked for clarification by film people working on The Big Sleep adaptation.

What should you read?: The Big Sleep is one of the best detective novels ever, no question. The Long Goodbye is also very good, and I enjoyed The Little Sister, which seems to be lesser known because it isn't a popular film.

9. Dashiell Hammett. Chandler's equal in popular acclaim is just a notch below on this list. Hammett and Chandler are very similar and people debate the question of who was better, or who came first all the time, but I don't really care about stuff like that. I read Chandler first, and if anything, that's probably the reason he comes out one spot ahead. Interestingly, Hammett's most famous detective was also played by Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. Unlike Chandler, Hammett mixed it up, with multiple detectives, including the nameless Continental Op and the constantly smashed Nick and Nora Charles.

What should you read?: The Maltese Falcon is the obvious choice, but if you've already seen the movie (and you absolutely should) you might check out Red Harvest, an under-appreciated classic. The Thin Man is also a good read.

10. Tie. It's too hard to pick just one author to fill this spot. So here's a list of authors in contention for it, as well as one representative work I'm recommending by each.

William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Rex Stout (And Be a Villain), Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), John Updike (Rabbit Run), E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime), Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Nick Hornby (A Long Way Down) and George Orwell (Animal Farm or any of his essays).

There you have it, truly an exciting moment for all of us, I'm sure.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Favorite Authors, Part 2

4. Philip Roth, the handsome devil pictured above. I've only read seven of Roth's novels, less than a quarter of his remarkable output, but each was a great read. Roth is often chided for the repetitiveness of his storylines, featuring the invariable Jewish protagonist, the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, occasionally repulsive and graphic sexuality, and at times an unabashedly liberal viewpoint. But Roth is capable of such great humor and insight that you don't mind hearing the same backstory over and over again.

What should you read?: American Pastoral is an unassailable masterwork, a portrait of American values and the decline thereof set against the turbulent 1960s. I Married A Communist is an intriguing exploration of McCarthyism, and The Great American Novel is a comic ode to baseball, which any fan will appreciate. If you're prudish, I'd stay the hell away from Portnoy's Complaint, which is incredibly filthy in the most literate way possible.

5. Richard Russo. I've read four of Russo's novels and a collection of his short stories. Russo is adept at spinning a multifaceted narrative full of memorable and yet entirely believable characters. The influence of Dickens is obvious and appreciated in an era when too many books are more interested in style than story. Russo knows small-town Northeast America well, and his novels capture it entirely.

What should you read?: Any of his novels would make a fine starting point, but I can not recommend the short stories to anyone but the most ardent of completists. Russo is best when he is expansive, filling in what many would consider the unnecessary details that make his work so rich. That sense is lost in most of his stories. Empire Falls is the best known of his novels because it won the Pulitzer, which it fully deserves, but I like Nobody's Fool just a bit more. It's the story of an injured and aging laborer dealing with his ex-wife, the married woman he's been seeing for over a decade, the son he practically abandoned and about a thousand other details that combine to make for one raucous and enjoyable ride.

6. John Irving. Another writer who wears his allegiance to Dickens on his sleeve. I've read seven Irving novels, and while they are not without their flaws I have enjoyed six of them very much. Irving is great at constructing elaborate situations and memorable set pieces. He gives his characters unique backgrounds and traits and throws them all together in grand style. Irving is chastised for his over-reliance of quirkiness and sexual deviance (transvestites and other unsavory proclivities recur frequently) but he has found a niche that works for him, and his stories are usually pretty damn entertaining.

What should you read?: Everyone should read The World According to Garp, which is a truly great novel that even Irving's foremost critics recognize as such. The Hotel New Hampshire is a fun book, although it contains one of the more unfortunate passages in literary history, and The Cider House Rules is good so long as you don't mind a book taking an unapologetic pro-choice stance. The only Irving novel I didn't enjoy was A Son of the Circus, which is over-long, and fails to convince the reader that Irving actually knows anything about India.

Okay, four more to go, but I'll have to finish this in part three. Stay tuned, because I know you're all eagerly awaiting the exciting conclusion. Right?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Are My Favorite Authors, You Ask?

"You" in this case being a fictitious creation of my own design: a fawning and dedicated reader of this blog with an unending desire to know more about me and my thoughts, needs, desires, and opinions (and who looks like Mary-Louise Parker, only younger.)

So young Mary-Louise, in light of the question brought up by my statement in the post below this one that Cormac McCarthy may not be one of my favorite authors, I have decided to see if that is truly the case, by preparing a list of my 10 favorite novelists.

Some ground rules, before we get started. a. In order to be considered, I must have read more than one work by the author. No matter how much you may like a book, if it hasn't caused you to seek out more of that author's work, than how good could it have been really? I suppose a reasonable exception could be made for folks like Harper Lee and John Kennedy Toole, who both have only one novel (not counting the money grab that is The Neon Bible, a work Toole did not feel was worth publishing.) While I enjoyed both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, these exceptions will not be needed in my list.

b. As a corollary, number of books read will not be used as an inflexible measure of comparison. (This is due to differences of length and style which make reading four books by one author the equivalent of reading fourteen by another.) That is to say, the fact that I've read two or twenty of a certain author's works will only work for or against them when I decide it will. If this seems arbitrary, that's because it is.

That seems like all that is necessary in the way of ground rules, so let's get started.

1. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The picture is there for a reason. I've read all 14 of Vonnegut's novels as well as a collection of his short stories and two of his other collections of writings. He is the only author about whom I've felt compelled to read everything he wrote. When Vonnegut died it affected me more than may seem reasonable. When I heard the news I ran to the campus library and checked out all the books of his that I hadn't yet read, even though finals were approaching. When I finished Galapagos last year, meaning that I would never again read a Vonnegut novel for the first time, it was a bittersweet moment.

What should you read?: I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every single one of his works, but newcomers should obviously not start with the collections of essays and opinions. I started with Slaughterhouse-Five and I think that works as an introduction to Vonnegut. I would not suggest starting with his first novel, an admittedly mediocre sci-fi called Player Piano. Other works you should consider: Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions, Hocus Pocus, and Bluebeard are all great reads. The others are good also, but are more easily appreciated by someone familiar with Vonnegut and his style.

2. Mark Twain.
Vonnegut's personal hero is also one of mine. I have read six of Twain's novels and an incalculable amount of his short stories and other writings. Twain is perhaps as famous for his sayings as he is for his books, and I enjoy his quotes as well, especially his frequent disparaging of Jane Austen (A library without any books at all would be improved by the absence of Jane Austen.) Twain is violently funny, fearlessly skeptical, and tormented by the vanities and foolishness of human beings.

What should you read?: It's heard to pick a good starting point for Twain. Tom Sawyer's chief appeal is to young readers, especially boys, because of the book's focus on adventure and childhood. It's a book which may strike older readers as immature or not worthy of their attention. But I think it is an absolute precondition to reading and appreciating the much greater Huckleberry Finn. Though Huck Finn as a sequel is not so dependent on the plot of its predecessor, the failings of Tom Sawyer are what ultimately drove Twain to make slavery and the real world of evil more present in Huck Finn. Other works I recommend: Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Mysterious Stranger, short stories (esp. The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg) and any of his criticism (esp. Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.)

3. Charles Dickens
I've only read four of Dickens' novels, and really only loved three of them, but he belongs on this list and high on it due to the influence he has had on several other favorite authors of mine (more on them later.) Dickens spins stories of incredible complexity, filled with memorable characters and brought together by plots which feature the utmost tragedy and the most uproarious comedy. There is so much life in what Dickens does that it transcends the page and makes you grateful to him for having decided to share the story with you. Dickens is a true genius, and despite the prohibitive length of most of his novels I am going to be making a concerted effort to get to as many of them as I can.

What should you read?: Easy, David Copperfield. This book might be the most impressive I have ever read. It is filled to the brim with that which makes Dickens great. A full year after reading it, there is so much I remember fondly about the experience. From Wilkins Micawber, the man always looking for "something to turn up" to the "'umble" and utterly detestable Uriah Heep, Dickens' characters will stay with you long after the novel ends. I also strongly recommend Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. I was not such a big fan of Great Expectations, but I think this may have been a question of mood and plan to revisit the novel at a later date.

Okay, this is turning into a longer project than I envisioned, young Mary-Louise. If you don't mind, maybe we could continue this discussion later. I promise I'll finish the full Top 10, don't worry.

All the Pretty Horses

I find that it is difficult to state for certain my opinion on Cormac McCarthy and his novels, of which All the Pretty Horses is the third that I have read. McCarthy's novels are strongly influenced by some of the true greats of 20th century literature: Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway. The problem is that this results in an occasionally chaotic and frightening jumble of styles, such as when he uses the arcana of Joyce, the obfuscation and esoterica of Faulkner and the choppy uber-manly dialogue of Papa Ernest.

There is also, and this is a more personal objection, a disconnect in terms of subject. As you might be able to guess this novel features horses in a central role, in a manner which is often exclusionary to those of us who aren't cowboys or ranchers, often to the point of being tedious and sleep-inducing. (There is a span of about 30 pages in the first-half of this novel which deal in the majority with the simple training and riding of horses and which nearly caused me to quit this novel due to worries that my snoring would disturb others.)

McCarthy's style can also be so rugged at times to be comical. Sometimes, as in No Country for Old Men, this is intentional, as Llewellyn Moss's defiance of peril is meant to be darkly absurd. Here however it often seems like McCarthy is shoe-horning in philosophical opinions into the novel through the poorly-chose mouthpieces of his characters. Young ranchers John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins seemingly can not sit by a fire without having a terse but loaded discussion about God and the nature of man. Hearing complicated questions put aside in five words or less with salt-of-the-earth diction gets a little overwrought after a while.

All those objections aside, when McCarthy is good, he's one of the best around. All the Pretty Horses features a spare but well-constructed plot. After his grandfather dies and his mother, fed-up with the lifestyle, sells the family ranch, John Grady Cole splits for Mexico, convincing his friend Lacey to go with him. On their way they encounter a young boy riding a horse much too fine to be his, and packing a six-shooter he is uncomfortably good with. The exploits and troubles the boy leads Cole and Rawlins into are deadly and have long-lasting consequences.

All the Pretty Horses also features a surprisingly well-written forbidden romance between Cole and the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher and a memorable and chilling set-piece of life in a Mexican jail. In these scenes McCarthy's prose reads like Faulkner's prose filtered through the sieve of Hemingway, and draws the reader onward, compelling attention and dazzling with his command over the situation.

I'm still not sure if McCarthy will ever be one of my favorite authors, but I have great respect for his talent, if not always for the way he uses it. All the Pretty Horses is a good read with some notable exceptions, and it gets 7.2 out of 10.

Thoughts on Billy Wilder and The Apartment

If, for the rest of your life, you could only watch one director's films, who would you choose? Spielberg, so you could keep the Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park and others? Scorsese for Goodfellas et al? Hitchcock for all the great suspense?

I think I have to go with Billy Wilder. Listen to this line-up: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, One Two Three!, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, and Stalag 17. Every one of those films is an undisputed masterpiece, and they run the full gamut from stylish film noir (Double Indemnity) to raucous farce (Some Like it Hot) and touch on every note in between. It's truly a resume to marvel at.

I first thought about this when I stumbled across One Two Three last month, a movie I discussed at length in the "Screwball Comedy" post. Wilder's position at the forefront was cemented with my re-viewing of The Apartment tonight. A surprise Best Picture winner in 1960, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as a office worker who gets ahead by loaning out his bachelor pad to his philandering superiors, including the top man, Fred MacMurray.

(MacMurray may have the greatest disparity between memorable roles of any actor in history. He is utterly convincing as the loving dad in My Three Sons and endearing as The Absent-Minded Professor, but equally believable as the murderous Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and here as an unpardonable heel, stringing along mistresses, and thinking of no one but himself.)

The Apartment may well be the culmination of all of Wilder's talent. If not necessarily his best film (there are many possibilities to pick from) it is the one which incorporates the most elements and the most life. The Apartment is generally labeled a comedy but also features compelling drama, tragedy, and one of the most touching and yet realistic and mature romances I've ever seen in a movie. It is unerring in it's attempt to portray a complete human drama. The characters are remarkably well-drawn, giving further testament to Wilder's acumen as a screenwriter.

Much of the success of The Apartment is due to the performances of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon is perfect as the sweet, well-meaning but still flawed C.C. Baxter. Lemmon is so good that he can make you root for a character that pathetically plays up an unfounded reputation as a playboy and spends much of the movie scheming to get ahead. MacLaine is also phenomenal in a role that could all too easily have turned melodramatic in the wrong hands. As the love-crossed Fran Kubilek, MacLaine plays a woman conflicted by her disastrous romantic past, unwilling or unable to keep from falling in love with the wrong man.

Wilder's script is well-plotted and very tight, with everything occurring for a reason and no wasted moments. His ability to use dialogue to explore characters is unmatched. Lemmon's repeated use of the unnecessary suffix -wise ("That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise")is humorous and revelatory, as is MacLaine's adoption of it halfway through the movie.

All in all, The Apartment is a centerpiece in Billy Wilder's remarkable canon. 9.6 out of 10.

Friday, July 3, 2009


There may not be a problem with Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex so much as there is a problem with that nebulous creature we call "literary fiction" or more specifically, the coming-of-age story. If you've read any of this type before, you'll notice that for all it's markings of supposed oddity and outrageousness, Middlesex is really a very conventional and straightforward text. Eugenides does not do enough to distinguish his work from that of other practitioners of the bildungsroman such as Michael Chabon, Salman Rushdie, John Irving, or reaching further back, Mark Twain.

Like all coming-of-age stories, Middlesex provides us with a background to draw us into the characters. However, unlike more readable and successful novels, the background overwhelms the novel's main story, in this case the story of an Intersex American named Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides. Cal's birth opens the novel, but from there we are whisked back to Smyrna, in 1922, to get Eugenides' laborious and uncomfortable introduction of incest amid disaster. It is hundreds of pages before we get back to Cal's birth, and our only glimpses of the narrator are in sputtering, useless scenes of his present life as a cultural attache in Berlin. These infrequent interludes are boring, and what's worse, are sometimes used merely for infuriating artifice, i.e. delaying big reveals in the plot, chopping up the timeline and so on. In short, they are a finger in the eye from the author, reminding us that he is in charge of the story.

Contemporary literary fiction is beset by unlikely and increasingly silly situations. I am thinking of such novels as Chabon's "Kavalier and Klay" where Josef Kavalier spends World War II in Antarctica as the sole survivor at a distant naval station, or Midnight's Children, where Saleem Sinai joins the Pakistan Army as a scent-sniffing dog. In the right hands these interludes can be revelatory not just of the characters, but of the place and time when they are set. Chabon is particularly capable in this regard. Other authors are masters at creating set pieces of memorable levity and wit, such as John Irving or Richard Russo. Unfortunately for Middlesex, Mr. Eugenides is not in either of these sets. His farcical situations are entirely too dry, too inexplicable, and too detached from the overall plot of the novel to do much besides inflate the number of pages. A section of the novel which sees Cal's grandmother Desdemona go to work for the Nation of Islam is especially egregious in this regard.

In a similar light, Mr. Eugenides is so eager to include the historical markers of his and Cal's lifespan that the effect is rather more of a shoehorn of names and events a la Forrest Gump instead of an exploration or consideration of any of them. The Detroit race riots take place early in Cal's life, but aside from some vague and cryptic statements, there is no attempt to reconcile the fear of white landowners with the destructive anger of the looting protesters. Without taking a side, or at least exploring the sides, this monumental event is reduced to a mere vehicle for the plot of the story (as Cal's father's insurance enables him to open a chain of restaurants and move to the suburbs.)

When the novel finally does get to Calliope, or Cal, it is too late. Mr. Eugenides does not invest enough of his time in creating a real life behind his central character. Instead he/she emerges as an unrealistic, and unrealistically well-informed, chronicler of things untold, of conversations and events outside her possible knowledge, and as an oddly convincing man or woman, and unidentifiable as any kind of third column, as it were. The novel ends more or less with Cal as a 15-year-old, only shortly after the decision to live as a man, and denies the reader any look at how Cal developed into the man narrating the story from the present day. One suspects this was more a product of a lack of imaginative prowess than any artistic consideration.

Middlesex is a novel short on memorable images, on eye-catching sentences, and short on likeable characters (Desdemona in particular is a maddening stereotype, the overly superstitious and pious immigrant who refuses to assimilate.) It gives the reader too much of a story they don't need, without bothering to tell the story that would be of infinitely more interest. Mr. Eugenides has a fair gift for dreaming up wildly implausible scenarios, but there is little else to recommend about this over-lauded novel. 3.5 out of 10.

Next? Well, I'm waiting to discover our Book Club pick for August, but I have All the Pretty Horses sitting on my shelf if I get the urge to pick it up.