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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movie Trivia: 3 Acting Oscars

At this past year's Academy Awards, The Fighter took home two Oscars for acting, with Melissa Leo and Christian Bale winning for their Supporting Roles. This is not all that uncommon, as plenty of movies have featured two Oscar-winning roles, including Hannah and Her Sisters (Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher), As Good as it Gets (Nicholson and Helen Hunt) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins).

However, only two movies have ever featured three performances which won Academy Awards. Even more remarkably, neither film won the Best Picture Oscar. Can you name these films, and the six actors who took home Oscars?

Answers tomorrow.

Baseball Trivia: Answer

Here's the answer to yesterday's Baseball Trivia question: Can you name the six current MLB teams besides the Milwaukee Brewers who have never played the Yankees in a playoff series?


Colorado Rockies
Houston Astros
Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Chicago White Sox

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Baseball Trivia: Yankees' Playoff Opponents

Interleague play always leads to thoughts of World Series matchups. Indeed, the current series between the Red Sox and Phillies is being touted by many as a World Series preview despite the fact that the team from Beantown is in second place.

Anyway, the Yankees are playing the Brewers now, and they've never met in the World Series*, but they also never met in the playoffs while the Brewers were in the American League either.

*The Yankees played the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series in both 1957 and 1958.

The Yankees have an illustrious postseason history, and have therefore faced a lot of different teams in either the AL playoffs or World Series, but do you know just how many? In fact, there are only seven (7) MLB teams that the Yankees have never played in the playoffs, including the Milwaukee Brewers. Can you name the other six?

Correct answer will be posted tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

“It is impossible to say just what I mean” was the lament of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, but for Steven Millhauser it seems to function as an excuse for all sorts of frustrating narrative devices. I thought about going back and totaling up the number of chapters which end with a character starting to say something before choosing not to, but the thought of revisiting those parts of the novel was too painful to bear.

Martin Dressler, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in what may with extreme charity be called a curious decision, is an aggravating read. So many of the choices Millhauser makes in the novel are mystifying. For instance, though the novel is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time period plays a very little role in the plot aside from several references to the as-yet unconstructed subway system. Or why tell the story largely through narrative summary, eschewing for the most part dialogue and set pieces? This technique has the effect, perhaps intended but no less annoying, of distancing the events of the story from reality, and draining what little life the characters may have had right out of them.

The plot of Martin Dressler is simple. Martin is a young man with boundless ambition who is never satisfied with what he has, even as he becomes a wealthier and more powerful magnate. Martin starts out as a bellboy in an old-fashioned (even for the 1890s) hotel, and through initiative and ingenuity winds up owning a chain of lunchrooms and eventually his own hotels. Along the way he marries an utterly unsuitable wife and becomes business partners with his wife’s sister. Martin’s stupidity in not recognizing his incompatibility with his wife Caroline leads the reader to have little sympathy for his plight, such as it is. Caroline is also painted with broad strokes, rendering her inauthentic in a cloying fashion.

So much of the novel’s early plot is stolen straight from better works of literature that it boggles the mind. I for one am extremely tired of male protagonists who lose their virginity to apparently benevolent and lonely older women. Every time I read this kind of scene it feels uncomfortably like wish fulfillment on the part of the author. And Martin’s whole marriage is but a faint shadow of that between David Copperfield and Dora, which was far more artistically rendered and sympathetically handled.

Near its abrupt end, Millhauser’s novel achieves a brief flash of liveliness, when Martin’s largest and last construction, which is designed to be not a hotel, but a replica of the world itself, indeed even an improvement upon it, is described in vivid detail by the author. The string of impossibilities described within The Great Cosmo at least grabs the reader’s attention and holds onto it for a while, but that tiny amount of goodwill is willfully squandered as the novel ends on yet another muted, barely expressed down note.

I guess I just don’t understand why you would write a novel like this. I suppose part of is it is the challenge of it, but that kind of thinking seems anathema to entertaining and meaningful fiction. If you’ve got something to say, damn it, come right out and say it.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed labors to live up to its subtitle, but nevertheless provides an entertaining look at the culture and politics of 1959. Though history buffs might find the book a little light the average reader will probably be thankful for the book's concise and agile prose.

The book is divided into 25 chapters each profiling an event, advancement, invention or other noteworthy happening of 1959. The arrangement is a little unwieldy. There are a lot of cultural chapters stacked up in the beginning of the story, covering Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Miles Davis. The profiles on the writers will basically just make you think all novelists are monomaniacal assholes (Burroughs "accidentally" shot his first wife, Kerouac helped a friend cover up a murder, Mailer stabbed his wife at a party) while the chapters on Jazz left me, a reader with no understanding of musicology, in the dust.

Later on Kaplan returned to culture with profiles of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and the free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. 1959 was also the year the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim opened.

The science and space chapters were less compelling, and I'm not really certain what the chapter about searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence had to do with anything else. The space race is more interesting in the politcal sector, where it informs so much of the story behind Khrushchev's visit in the summer of 1959.

Perhaps the most relevant of the science articles was the one about Margaret Sanger and the FDA hearing for Enovid, the first birth control pill. Here Kaplan does a better job than anywhere else tying the history into real life, both before and after the pill.

Bottom line, this is the kind of book that if you already know a lot about history, at least features a lot of little anecdotes that you can try to sprinkle into your next conversation about Soviet history or non-representational art. If you don't know anything about the era, the book is a serviceably enjoyable introduction. At 245pages, it also won't weigh you down too much.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The 45th President

For a while there earlier this year it seemed like the national media weren’t making that big a deal out of the race for the presidential nomination of the GOP. Certainly the clamor and din were no match for what occurred in 2007, as the coverage of the race took up significant space even before it had truly formed into a coherent story. A lot of that obviously had to with the fact that the 2008 election would be to replace a terribly unpopular (especially within the media) two-term president, and the fact that neither party had an obvious standard-bearer.

Obviously, barring the horrifically tragic or the immensely scandalous, one party’s nomination is set. To some extent, that seems to limit the fun. So let’s open it up a bit. The question here is not, who will win the 2012 presidential election, but rather, who will be the President of the United States after Barack Obama? It could be a Republican winning next November, or knocking off the Democratic candidate in 2016, or it could be a Democratic successor to Obama. Who’s your money on? Below is a list of some credible candidates, people of both parties with national name recognition and the ambition to someday be president, and the odds, in my estimation, that they will be the next president. Will one of these people be the 45th POTUS? And if so, who? And more importantly, how much money could you make by being right?

Potential Republican Candidates for 2012

Mitt Romney 2-1
Tim Pawlenty 5-1
Jon Huntsman 7-1
Rick Perry 9-1
Sarah Palin 10-1
Ron Paul 18-1
Newt Gingrich 27-1
Michele Bachmann 35-1
Herman Cain 99-1

Potential 2016 Republican Candidates
Chris Chirstie 14-1
Marco Rubio 19-1
Paul Ryan 22-1
Bobby Jindal 31-1
Bob McDonnell 40-1
Mitch Daniels 49-1
David Petraeus 50-1
John Thune 55-1
Mike Huckabee 75-1

Potential Democratic Candidates and Successors
Joe Biden 7-1 (only this low due to proximity)
Hilary Clinton 6-1 (never rule out a Clinton)
Al Gore 20-1 (he’s stayed in public spotlight)
Andrew Cuomo 14-1 (it’s early, but he’s popular and successful)
Rahm Emanuel 50-1
Mark Warner 60-1
Deval Patrick 80-1
Brian Schweitzer 85-1
Kay Hagan 85-1
Claire McCaskill 90-1
Debbie Wasserman-Schulz 110-1
Cory Booker 125-1

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deadwood: Season One

A retired U.S. Marshal and his trusted friend, an Austrian Jew. A widow quite literally sitting on a goldmine. A contemptible, rodent-like hotel proprietor. A loquacious newspaper editor. A courageous and temperamental doctor. An Old West legend, gone to seed. And two saloon keepers, one genteel and mannerly and the other surly and vulgar, both filled with violent disregard for the lives of people who get in their way.

On the surface, this group, complemented by a bevy of whores and small-time operators, seems like an inauspicious group for the foundation of a society. But that’s exactly what Season 1 of Deadwood treats its audience to. Series creator David Milch explores the structure of so-called polite society by taking us back to the most recent area bereft of its protection. The historical Deadwood was an unauthorized settlement on Indian land, disconnected from the territory of the United States and thus completely lawless. It is the show’s most provocative message that the law and order we rely on was just as scary and disorienting to Deadwood as its chaos would be to us.

The man most in control of the chaos is Al Swearengen (Ian MacShane), owner of the Gem Saloon and landlord of the greater part of Deadwood. Al has gotten where he is through sheer force of will, and of course, has resorted to violence when expedient. Al is a fascinating character. He’s a realist who accepts that law and society are inevitably coming to his corner of the world, but is trying like hell to hold on to his empire as they do. His disquisitions on his personal and business philosophies are memorable outbursts, including one in the penultimate episode delivered while he avails himself to the services of one of the whores he keeps in his saloon.

Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock is a thoroughly honest man, but capable of righteous anger. He comes to Deadwood weary of his experiences as a Marshal in Montana. He and Sol Star (John Hawkes) are opening a hardware store. Early in the season they befriend legendary gambler and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and his companions, Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane.

The first season depicts the people of Deadwood confronted with various crises which combine to force a sense of order on the chaos that many inhabitants sought by coming to the territory. A cold-blooded murder necessitates a trial, which in turn necessitates the creation of laws. A smallpox outbreak necessitates the formation of public services. And a treaty with the Indians threatens to throw Deadwood’s status into uncertainty.

I’ve only scratched the surface in listing the appealing attributes of Deadwood: Season One. There are outstanding performances throughout the cast. Brad Dourif is phenomenal as the camp’s doctor, whose moral outrage is unfazed by Swearengen or anyone else. Ray McKinnin is wonderful as a zealously faithful preacher, and Powers Boothe does a slow burn to anger as well as anyone can, as Cy Tolliver, owner of the Bella Union saloon and Al’s chief business rival.

Deadwood is a fascinating look at how the building blocks of society are themselves built, showcasing the human flaws that inform the imperfections of society. It’s also just a rip-roarin’ good time filled with a delightful amount of swears. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Don't Love Me Yet

Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 novel is a slight and ultimately unsatisfying story of an indie-rock band which finds itself unexpectedly on the brink of success.

The novel focuses primarily on the experiences of bassist Lucinda Hoekke as she recovers from a break-up with her band’s lead singer. Lucinda takes a job with a performance artist, answering the phones at his conceptual complaint line. Against the artist’s rules, she meets and begins an intense love affair with a frequent caller. The caller’s abstruse musings on contemporary life and its frustrations strike Lucinda as good material for rock songs. Later her relationship with the chronic complainer will threaten her relationship with her bandmates.

That’s really it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of the traditional Lethem weirdness, but they all seem so superfluous that to include them in a plot summary seems superfluous. For instance, I neglected to mention that the lead singer, Matthew, has kidnapped an apparently haughty kangaroo from the zoo where he works, and is locked in a cold war with his boss Dr. Marian. I also didn’t bring up the fact that the band’s drummer, Denise, works in a sex toy store called No Shame. Or that the band’s sensitive-genius songwriter obsessively watches a film by Fritz Lang to find the hidden meanings in the set design.

The reason I left these somewhat more interesting elements out of the summary is that, for all intents and purposes, Lethem has left them out of the main plot. It is truly hard to imagine why the author bothered writing in a kidnapped kangaroo only to have it amount to so little in the way of story. This is Lucinda’s story all the way, apparently, however much the reader might like a broader perspective.

You Don’t Love Me Yet is a short read, but its brevity does not produce much wit. In fact, this novel is so slight it barely registers at all, leaving no impression on the reader who chances upon it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Riding the Rap

The first season of Justified got me so hooked that, in desperation while awaiting the release of season two on DVD, I turned to reading (the horror!) one of Elmore Leonard’s novels featuring Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the character played by Timothy Olyphant on TV.

Much of the plot of Riding the Rap was adapted into the third episode of Justified, “Fixer”. In both forms the story centers on a broke man living in his mother’s run down house who kidnaps a bookie he owes sixteen thousand dollars. In the book the kidnapper is assisted by a Puerto Rican ex-bounty hunter and a Bahamian with the improbable name of Louis Lewis. There’s also a fortune teller named Reverend Dawn who seems to be helping both the kidnappers and Marshal Givens.

Maybe it’s just another case of my father’s maxim that whatever medium you first experience a story in is the one you’ll automatically prefer, but after watching “Fixer”, Riding the Rap seems overstuffed and monotonous by comparison. The plots of both versions rely on a comically stupid decision by one of the bad guys, and indeed the whole kidnapping plot is so obviously misconceived that the reader just kind of waits around for the snag in the plan to bring the whole thing down.

Unlike in previous Leonard fiction I’ve encountered, the bad guys in Riding the Rap are lifeless and uninteresting. Even the fortune-telling Reverend Dawn wears thin quickly. Raylan Givens isn’t given much to do besides wait out the dumb kidnappers plot with the rest of us. There are brief flashes of the humor and world-weariness that bring the character to life on screen, but they are few and far between.

Riding the Rap is a fairly mediocre source of entertainment, and did nothing to quench my appetite for more Justified.