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Friday, July 29, 2011

Ranking Vonnegut

I’ve read all 14 of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, a book of his short stories, and plenty of his essays and other non-fiction pieces. There really no other author for whom I’ve made that effort toward completeness. But because I read so much of his in my teen years, and I have subsequently discovered what an ignoramus I was for most of that time (I am truly sorry I ever slandered you, The Great Gatsby) I always worry that I overestimated his literary talents. So I have been ever so slowly rereading his novels over the last year or so. I’ve reread Cat’s Cradle and found myself somewhat disappointed, but was also pleasantly surprised by God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It’s an interesting experience. Right now I’m in the midst of rereading Mother Night, and it is also holding up quite well.

I thought I might rank the fourteen Vonnegut novels as I rate them now, and then perhaps reconsider the arrangement after I’ve reread them all. Note: I have never actually disliked any of his novels, so it was very hard to put any of these novels last, especially since it partly became a statement on how much or how little I remembered of the book, instead of its actual quality. On that basis I might put a priority on rereading the novels at the bottom of the rankings.

14. Player Piano
-first novel. Not bad, just not as good as the others.
13. Deadeye Dick
-honestly don’t remember much about it.
12. Slapstick
-Vonnegut disliked this book, but I had a better opinion of it.
11. Galapagos
-Interesting affectations but a so-so story about evolution and genetics.
10. Timequake
-A barely finished novel inter-spliced with personal thoughts.
9. Jailbird
-This is where they start to get really good. Satire of Watergate and America.
8. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
-Lunatic rich person. Lots of lawyer jokes too.
7. Hocus Pocus
-Vonnegut on Vietnam and the penal system.
6. Cat’s Cradle
-An attack on organized religion. Source of Vonneguy’s neologisms kurass, wampeters, foma, and granfaloons.
5. Bluebeard
-satire of modern art.
4. Mother Night
-satire of espionage and patriotism.
3. Breakfast of Champions
-Panoramic satire of America fused with black comedy of a psychotic used-car salesman
2. Sirens of Titan
-If I felt the need to be contrarian I’d put this number one. It’s a great combo sci-fi/literary novel.
1. Slaughterhouse-Five
-the first one I ever read, and the best. Classic anti-war novel because it recognizes how ineffective anti-war novels are.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Clockwork Orange

This novel is a malenky bit bezoomny, if you ask me, O my brothers.

Sorry, I felt that was necessary. So much of the reader’s enjoyment of A Clockwork Orange will depend upon whether or not they mind Anthony Burgess’s invented language of nadsat, a patois equal parts Cockney rhyming slang and Russian. As for the actual content behind those words, well…it brings up some interesting questions before, depending on the version you read, taking a firm position on the incontrovertible darkness of the human soul, or totally selling out the story in favor of a silly and insulting moral about the possibility for people to change.

You see, there are two versions of A Clockwork Orange. One of them is longer than the other by exactly one chapter, the last. This last chapter was omitted from the initial American edition at the insistence of a New York publisher. (Incidentally, the Stanley Kubrick film uses the American text.) Burgess insisted that later editions publish his full manuscript, which is the version I read.

For the first twenty chapters (which comprise the original American edition) A Clockwork Orange tells the story of an ulta-violent young malchick named Alex who, along with his droogs Pete, Georgie, and Dim, terrorizes his neighborhood at night. The foursome rob, steal, assault and even rape without as much as a second thought. Burgess is unsparing in his depiction of these crimes and of Alex’s glee in partaking in them. They are fairly disturbing to read.

Eventually, an argument with his droogs and an ill-fated robbery attempt lead to Alex’s incarceration. Further episodes of violence lead Alex to become part of an experiment in behavioral control. This has some unintended consequences.

The brilliant part of these twenty chapters is the way in which Burgess subtly interweaves the apparent totalitarian Socialist regime that has taken over Great Britain. In this light A Clockwork Orange becomes a tale about the strength of individualism and its resistance to oppression and compulsion. It’s an argument made all the stronger by being argued through very nearly the worst possible example. Alex is a truly contemptible person, but the reader still feels revulsion at the state’s attempts to thwart his true nature. In that way it reminded me of The Power and the Glory, wherein Graham Greene argues for Catholicism through a fallen drunk known as the Whiskey Priest.

It’s hard to describe the differences between the two versions of the novel without spoiling the ending(s). Suffice to say that I greatly preferred the one without the last chapter, since it seemed so much truer to the rest of the novel, with its dark, portentous concluding words. The author’s last chapter is an absurd redemption story which seems to sweep Alex’s horrific misdeeds under the rug. It’s a curious decision to say the least.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from reading A Clockwork Orange is that you shouldn’t assume that editors are idiots. The guy who decided to cut the last chapter from this novel is a frickin’ genius.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Help Me Choose My Big August Novel

Though it doesn’t speak well to my intellectual capabilities, I often pick which novels to read with an eye toward quantity instead of quality. In short, I’d prefer to read lots of short novels instead of few long ones. Lately this habit has been reinforced as a matter of practicality, as commuting by bus is great for reading, but not conducive to lugging around mammoth doorstops for weeks at a time. (And yeah, I know I could buy a Kindle, rendering Tolstoy the same weight as a slim paperback, but I’m not ready to take that step yet. Someday, when they’ve closed the last actual bookstore, sure. But not today.)

But I like to buck the trend every once in a while, and the last few years I’ve been doing that in the summer, typically in August. At least once a year I like to pick up a back-breaking lead weight of a novel and dig in for the long haul. Last year I read Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and I read David Copperfield before that. Now I’d like to crowdsource my choice for the next Big August Novel.

My criteria are not rigid, but the Big August Novel should be a well-known novel by a prolific author. It should be at least 700 pages, or if shorter, noted for its complexity. Basically, and I am aware that this sounds kind of douchey, I want a book that, when I tell people I’ve just finished reading it, even my fellow English majors will be impressed.

Anyway, I have some candidates in mind, which I’ll list below, but I am amenable to suggestions.

The Candidates

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
-Prof. McAdams recommended that I read this during the summer after my freshman year of college. I promptly bought the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, but small-type-induced headaches forced me to quit just as promptly.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
-I’ve had this for a while, but one day the ending was spoiled for me by, of all things, a clue on Jeopardy! This may be pedestrian of me, but knowing the ending dampers my enthusiasm for embarking on a long read quite a bit.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
-This is the best argument for the Kindle I’ve ever encountered. The book is so cumbersome it feels as though it should have its own table, like those unabridged dictionaries in old homes.

V. by Thomas Pynchon
-A little shorter than the others, but it is Pynchon. I’d prefer to read it before tackling Gravity’s Rainbow.

Something by Charles Dickens
-I could go back to the man who wrote as if he were paid by the word, which in fact he pretty much was, considering that his novels were mostly magazine serials. I’ve read five novels by Dickens, but not Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, The Old Curiosity Shop, and many others.

Ulysses by James Joyce
-This is probably not happening. I prefer my books to be in English.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
-Because I should really break out of my Dead White Male comfort zone every once in a while, and Dead Chilean Male seems like a comfortably small step.

J R or The Recognitions by William Gaddis
-Gaddis isn’t quite as well-known as the other authors on this list, but his novels are acclaimed works of complexity, and he has an impressive list of fans including Pynchon and Jonathan Franzen.

Anyone got another suggestion?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ten Favorite Mystery/Crime Novels

Lots of mystery novels are just fun, disposable reads, good for a lazy summer afternoon or long flight but lacking the real staying power of other kinds of fiction. Wait a few months after someone has read a mystery novel and ask them to remember whodunit? You’ll get a lot of blank stares.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries and crime novels and the thing that truly separates the wheat from the chaff is often as simple as whether I can remember anything specific at all about the story. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I have read fifty Agatha Christie mysteries, but the details of most of them have receded past my ability for recollection. The ten novels listed below, including a few by Dame Agatha, broke through the conventions of their form, either through innovation or spectacular prose, and have stayed with me through the years.

10. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The dark heart behind Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity is probably best known for this extremely short work with a really killer metaphorical title. Frank stops at a diner for a meal and winds up getting way more than he bargained for when he falls in love with Cora, the owner’s unhappy wife. Cora ensnares Frank in a plot to kill her husband, and Cain’s spare but unsparing prose captures the horrific evil that men and women can do.

9. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
This is my favorite Miss Marple novel. I resisted reading the Marple books for a while, until I ran low on Poirot stories. This was out of stupidity and vestigial male arrogance, and I truly am sorry for having doubted the estimable Marple. The novel takes its title from the poem The Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and concerns an attempt on the life of an American actress which takes the life of her biggest fan. Without spoiling too much, it has a very ripped from the headlines feel, as the plot is based on a incident in the life of actress Gene Tierney.

8. And Be a Villain… by Rex Stout
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective novels lie at the intersection of British-style Golden Age mysteries ( which featured elegantly structured puzzles for readers to solve, like Christie or Dorothy Sayers novels) and the more American hard-boiled style exemplified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Wolfe himself is a thinker, nearly house-bound due to excessive girth and misanthropy. His employee Archie Goodwin, who serves as narrator for the stories, is a whip-smart man of the streets who’s never caught without a witty comeback. This novel is the first of a trilogy concerning Wolfe’s archenemy, a Moriarity figure named Arnold Zeck. During a radio broadcast a guest is killed when he drinks a poisoned glass of the show’s soft-drink sponsor. Wolfe takes the case and uncovers its connections to Zeck’s criminal empire. It’s a structurally sound mystery, elevated to greatness by the smartness and hilarity of Goodwin’s narration.

7. The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Ned Beaumont serves as a right-hand man for local kingpin Paul Madvig, but the relationship is strained by Madvig’s ill-considered courtship of a senator’s daughter and by her brother’s corpse, which many people assume Madvig is responsible for. Driven by a belief in fair play and principle which earns him a few beatings and a lot of trouble, Beaumont tries to get to the bottom of the murder while keeping an out-of-control Madvig from losing his empire. More than just a traditional mystery, The Glass Key is a novel about the fractured loyalty between two men with drastically different worldviews. The solution is almost secondary, but it is quite ingenious, and the end of the novel is almost heartbreaking.

The Glass Key was also an inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
It would be ridiculous to make this list without Sherlock Holmes. The character’s immense popularity has lead to innumerable film adaptations and even societies dedicated to preserving his memory. There are even those who still insist he must have been real. I didn’t love any of the novels featuring Holmes, but quite a lot of the short stories are spectacular. Many of the best can be found in this first volume of stories, including “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Red-Headed League.”

5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
This certainly meets the standard for memorable-ness. The set-up is a classic, and irresistible. Ten strangers have been lured to an island only to be accused of murder by their absent host. Shortly thereafter the begin dying in succession in seeming tribute to the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” But there’s no access to the island due to inclement weather, and it becomes apparent that the murdered must be one of the guests, right? This really is one of the most incredible solutions ever conjured up by a mystery writer, and the novel deserves its standing as the best-selling mystery of all time.

4. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
The nameless Continental Op is on assignment in Personville (derisively and more accurately referred to as Poisonville.) His task is to solve a murder, but it seems like that might involve cleaning up the whole town and ridding it of its warring gangster factions. The mystery here is secondary to Hammett’s unflinching portrait of human greed, sin, and susceptibility to evil. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is relentlessly compelling.

3. The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
This Swedish police procedural captures all sides of a police investigation, as conducted by flawed human beings. A man opens fire on a city bus and kills eight people in a seemingly senseless crime. But one of the dead turns out to be a police officer apparently working on an unsolved crime on his own time. Detective Martin Beck, a sour man in an unhappy marriage who suffers from lack of sleep and chronic stomach pain, leads the investigation through numerous dead-ends and wrong turns. Sjowall and Wahloo’s prose is bleak and gloomy, perfectly capturing the spirit of the occasion.

2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The plot of this noir novel is so complex that the author himself famously could not explain some parts of it to the people making the film adaptation. Truly, whodunit is not quite the point of The Big Sleep, which follows Marlowe’s investigations on behalf of an elderly general and his misbehaving daughters. No character ever really tells the truth, and the cases and dead bodies keep piling up as a result. Eventually the plot incorporates missing husbands, pornographers, casino owners, and other nefarious types. On top of the complexity, Chandler’s prose is the best I’ve ever read in a mystery writer.

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Honestly, I can’t explain why this novel takes the top spot over the other deserving candidates on this list without giving away the ending. Let me just state that the solution to the titular murder is still the most controversial ever written. This is the novel that really hooked me on the genre.

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

This… novel….was very hard to read. At least… partly due to the… author’s…aggravating use of a certain…typographical… oddity.

If I’m exaggerating with that first paragraph it’s not by much. The Waterworks is littered with ellipsis. It’s very unsettling and wears out its intended effect through tremendous overuse.

The Waterworks is an attempt at a very appealing crossover work of fiction. The basic idea seems to be to transpose the popular Victorian Gothic style of works like those of Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker into the New York City of the time (I have also seen Wilkie Collins mentioned as a comparison in reviews, but as I have yet to read The Moonstone I’ll demur from pretending to see the similarities myself.) Thus you wind up with a glorified ghost story set amidst the corruption of the Tweed Ring in 1871 New York.

The story is told in retrospect, in that exasperating style mimicked above, by a newspaper editor named McIlvaine, whose best freelance writer has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. This freelance, Martin Pemberton, was the disinherited son of a wealthy war profiteer. Martin disappears shortly after relating to McIlvaine and others the strange experience of sighting his supposedly dead father riding in a public omnibus.

The rest of this interminable novel follows McIlvaine’s efforts both to find Martin and expose the conspiracy behind the apparent resurrection of his father. Unfortunately, Mr. Doctorow’s novel lacks the suspense of the Victorian novels he so self-consciously apes, and the plot of The Waterworks languishes as the rather predictable plot unfolds ever so slowly. (Honestly, it seems as though half of this book consists purely in wrapping up the main plot. The last fifty pages are intolerable in this regard.)

Of the wild implausibility or lack of spookiness of the final conspiracy I will not say much. But they are certainly not discoveries of any such wit or imagination as to justify even slightly the tedium experienced by the reader of this book. This was a severe disappointment coming from Mr. Doctorow, whose Ragtime is rightly held as a modern classic. A novel like The Waterworks is almost enough to call into question the general assessment of Mr. Doctorow’s literary genius.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Ten Favorite Comedies

I saw a list on some blog yesterday about the 10 Best Comedies of All-Time or some such nonsense. Of course the list was nonsensical, in so far as all such lists are. No one person's tastes could be so reflective of society's that their dictates could amount to anything resembling an authoritative ranking. So I choose not to participate in the general castigating of the author's taste, which will not and cannot change, no matter how many people use all-caps to INDICATE THEIR DISPLEASURE! It is only the pomposity, the pretension to speak for masses, which I decry. In that vein I present to you, not the TOP 10 COMEDIES EVER MADE, but a simple selection of 10 movies which, in the amount of time I took compiling this list, struck me as my favorite comedies.

10. Raising Arizona (Coen Brothers, 1987)
I never had any respect for Nicolas Cage until I saw this movie. His performance as H.I. McDunnough is just fantastic. Maybe it’s not the greatest compliment in the world, but Cage is great at playing a stupid man tormented by competing desires. Holly Hunter is her usual impeccable self, and John Goodman is wonderful as one of H.I.’s escaped con friends. My favorite scene is probably the one where Goodman and William Forsythe rob the farmer’s bank:

Goodman: All right, ya hayseeds, it's a stick-up. Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.
Farmer: Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion. You see...

9. One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)
This movie was made well after the golden age of screwball comedy, but it has all the elements of a classic of the form. The movie takes its time winding the gears into place, but once it lets them go, man does it really get moving. James Cagney is the beleaguered head of Coca-Cola’s office in West Berlin who is tasked with babysitting his boss’s wild-child daughter. When she winds up sneaking off to marry a dyed-in-the-wool East Berlin Communist, Cagney schemes first to break up the marriage, and later to make it acceptable to his boss back in Georgia. The final mad dash to the airport, with “The Sabre Dance” playing over it, is practically perfect in its sheer lunacy.

8. Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Gene Hackman’s performance as Royal Tenenbaums is, no kidding, one of the best I’ve ever seen. He just totally inhabits the roguish asshole halfheartedly seeking forgiveness. It’s not slapstick, but the situation is funny enough that you get a chuckle or more out of every scene. I especially like Owen Wilson’s Western novelist Eli Cash…

Eli Cash: Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is…maybe he didn’t.

7. The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980)
The car chase through the mall. “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Jake ordering four fried chickens and a Coke. The band taking the gig at the Country Bunker, and having to resort to playing the theme from Rawhide. Oh, and the music’s pretty good too.

6. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
This movie just doesn’t stop. It makes some other screwball comedies look like staid period dramas by comparison. The premise starts out absurd and only gets zanier from there. By the time they introduce the second leopard (the Baby of the title is the first) you’ll be practically gasping for air. Cary Grant plays a meek zoologist trying to get grant money out a wealthy woman and her attorney, only to be thwarted inadvertently by Katharine Hepburn’s heiress character and her pet leopard. Amazingly, Hepburn was so unpopular at this point in her career that the movie was a gigantic flop and got her released from her contract. It was only with The Philadelphia Story (which just missed making this list) that she revived her career.

5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005)
This movie gets extra credit in my book for really launching the Apatow universe into major film success. I’ve enjoyed so many of the follow-up projects of Carell, Rogen, Rudd, and others not to include a representative sample of their work. Knocked Up might have made the list instead (especially since it features Jason Segel and Martin Starr as well) but I can’t stand Katharine Heigl.

4. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
This is probably the most dramatic film on this list, but it’s listed as a comedy, and it does have quite a few laughs, and I love it, so here it is. Jack Lemmon is C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at a large insurance company who’ll do anything to get to the top, including letting all the top executives at his firm use his bachelor pad for their extramarital affairs. Promotions ensue, but things change for Baxter when he realizes that his boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray plays a heel wonderfully) is using the apartment to carry on an affair with the elevator girl that C.C. has fallen for. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as Fran Kubelik, and the movie’s vision of romance is a little grittier and more realistic than your average romantic comedies. It’s one of the best, movie-wise.

3. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers, 1998)
The genius of the Coen Brothers has always seemed to me to lie in the outrageousness of their conceits. No one else could or would make the connections they do or ask the questions they ask. Questions like, “What if the plot twists of a noir mystery like The Big Sleep happened to a perpetually stoned ex-hippie instead of a suave tough-guy detective?” and “Instead of mobsters and cops and gun molls and dames, the rest of the cast consisted of nihilists and conceptual artists and a pedophile bowler and a Vietnam veteran with rage issues?”

2. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers, 2000)
As you have probably noticed, I am a fan of the Coen Brothers, to put it mildly. This movie gets the edge over The Big Lebowski because I am a word person, and the use of language in this film is incredible. It strains credulity to think that anybody, or even two anybodies like Joel and Ethan Coen, could have written the dialogue in this movie. George Clooney does a great job with the material too. I’m not sure how many actors could wring a laugh from the very word “paterfamilias.” This one line delivered by Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill is representative of the script’s use of words:

Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin'?

Now, how can you not love that?

1. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The strength of the premise and the plot is what vaults His Girl Friday into the top spot. A morally bankrupt newspaper editor schemes, cons and tricks his ex-wife and ace reporter out a stable engagement in order to get her back on staff so she can scoop the rest of the city’s papers on the latest story of the century. A nutjob Communist sympathizer and alleged cop killer, escapes from jail the night before his scheduled execution. Cary Grant plays Walter Burns, the newspaper editor who wants to expose the corruption in the system for his own financial gain. Rosalind Russell is his ex-wife Hildy Johnson, and Ralph Bellamy is her new beau. It’s a pure delight to watch Walter handle the escaped convict, the mayor, and the situation with his ex. The movie is relentless in its pace and its skewering of newspapers and politicians. If it’s not the best comedy of all time, it’s close, and it’s my favorite.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement is about how a young girl’s inexperience leads her to a mistake with tragic consequences. At 13 Briony Tallis sees her older sister in a few compromising positions with their father’s ward, and misconstruing the images leads her to a false memory so powerful it shatters the lives of everyone involved. Atonement is presented as the confessional novel penned by a much older Briony.

Reading Atonement was like being dragged around by someone who knows where they’re going but insists on taking the scenic route; only add in the torment that you yourself can see your destination as a fixed point. As your journey lengthens seemingly without decreasing the distance yet remaining, you are likely to experience weariness and regret that you ever picked up the story in the first place.

And that’s a shame really, because the structure of Atonement is so solid that it promises much better. The characters, for one thing, are all sympathetically drawn and humanized, so that I didn’t mind being presented with chapters from many different points of view, though eventually I balked at having events repeatedly retold from different perspectives. It just started to take up too much time. The prose itself is as strong as you would expect from such an acclaimed novelist, though I found it a bit wordy in places, and unevenly distributed among the characters. Personally I found the sections told from Briony’s perspective significantly more compelling than the others, even Robbie’s war-time travails.

Recently there was a bit of a controversy involving the novelist V.S. Naipaul’s statements that women are inferior writers and that he can tell within a paragraph which gender produced a given piece of writing. I do not support Mr. Naipaul in either his misogyny or his boastfulness, and I feel that Atonement is the stumper to beat all stumpers. If this novel had been written in the 18th or 19th century I would most certainly insist that “Ian McEwan” was a pen name along the lines of George Eliot or Currer Bell. This is not to impugn the novel or female novelists, by the way, but I do feel that Mr. McEwan’s prose is a bit more concerned with evocation and sentiment than the novels I more fervently enjoy.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Emmy Trivia: Answers

1. Ed Asner won Emmys for the role of Lou Grant in both "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant". The former was a sitcom and the latter a hour-long drama.

2. That would be zero. Which means that as a group, the winners of Best Actor Emmys have more people killed than Oscars won, thanks to Robert Blake.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Emmy Trivia: Question Two

Earlier we discussed the difference between the Emmys and Oscars in terms of categories. Here's a question for you:

How many Best Actor Emmy winners, for either Drama or Comedy, (leaving out Movie or Miniseries awards) have won an Academy Award for acting?

Emmy Trivia: Question One

In honor of yesterday's announcement of the Emmy Award nominations, I'm going to throw out a few questions related to the awards. Here's the first:

One of the biggest differences between the Academy Awards and the Emmys is that the latter splits its awards between Comedy and Drama. The idea being that there is a stark difference between the two styles of acting, and it would be unfair to judge one style against another. (Whether this distinction is upheld in light of nominations for Showtime "comedies" like The Big C and Nurse Jackie is an open question.) But sometimes the styles aren't so different.

There is one actor who has won a Best Actor Emmy for both Comedy and Drama for the SAME ROLE. Can you name him?

(HINT: The awards came for two different series.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Baseball Trivia: All-Star Game

Tonight the MLB All-Star Game will be played in Phoenix. One of the big storylines going into the game is the spate of injuries and withdrawals which have left the lineups for both leagues somewhat lacking in true "star" power. (Asdrubal Cabrera! Scott Rolen! It's the All-Star Game on FOX!)

It's enough to leave one nostalgic for a time when they game seemed to matter more, even as it truly mattered less (the home-field abomination is relatively new.) For instance, forty years ago the All-Star Game was played in Tigers Stadium in Detroit. The game, which was won by the AL 6-4, is perhaps best remembered for Reggie Jackson's titanic third-inning home run, which hit a light tower on the roof. But that wasn't the extent of the contributions by true "stars". In fact, there were six home runs hit in that game, three by each league, and all of them were hit by Hall of Famers. Reggie Jackson is one, can you name the other five?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Jonah Keri and Meaningless Statistics

Today on Grantland, Jonah Keri commits the sin of unintentional irony. In a column that argues for refocusing our priorities when it comes to baseball statistics. It's far from a new idea (they're already putting out a movie version of Moneyball, fer chrissakes) and Keri, while a perceptive writer, really doesn't bring anything new to the table in this column. But that's not why I'm bothering to write about here.

It seems to me that if you're going to talk about only using numbers in ways that actually mean something, you should probably make sure you yourself don't either misrepresent or mislead using numbers, but check out this passage detailing the supposed bad deeds done by focusing on outmoded counting stats:

"The era in which a player played, the park he played in, and the competition he faced all matter when evaluating his legacy. Position and defense also matter: A shortstop or a third baseman shouldn't be expected to hit nearly as many homers as a left fielder, because he's providing a lot more defensive value by fielding his position. Ron Santo was an all-time great. Jim Rice was a very good hitter who had a few big years, benefited immensely from his home park, and hit into more double plays than all but five players in baseball history."

I'm with Keri when it comes to things like taking a player's defensive contributions into account, especially as defensive stats are perfected over time, but what is this about double plays?

Jim Rice hit into more double plays than all but five players in baseball history. In other words, he's sixth on that list. Not a badge of honor perhaps, but is it really a strong argument against his Hall of Fame candidacy?

Before you answer, take a look at the Top 5:

1. Cal Ripken 350
2. Hank Aaron 328
3. Carl Yastrzemski 323
4. Dave Winfield 319
5. Eddie Murray 316
6. Jim Rice 315

Yep, that's right, everyone who has hit into more double plays than Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame. So how exactly is this a black mark against Rice? It seems to me that double plays occur under limited circumstances. Most transparently there has to be a runner on base, usually first. If you hit the ball pretty hard, which all of these guys, Rice included, did regularly, and if you aren't blazing fast, which most sluggers aren't, then double plays are just an unfortunate side effect; a chance occurence that really shouldn't be held against a player. The fact is, the reason that almost all of the players atop this list are greats is that it takes time to accumulate that many GIDPs. Obviously if you were hitting .230 without power and grounded into double plays constantly, you wouldn't be in the lineup very long. In an ironic twist, it seems like this stat is a fairly good indicator of offensive success. Chekc out the top 50, it's full of Hall of Famers and near-greats:


Enough intelligent people have made the argument that Jim Rice doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame that I at least have to respect the position. But there have to be better arguments than the one that he hit into too many double plays. And using that argument in a column preoccupied with sensible use of statistics, without telling your readers about the other five guys, strikes me as unfair and unintelligent. Jonah Keri is a lot better than that.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trivia Answer: Two Actors, Four Best Actor Oscars

Yesterday's question asked for a film that starred two of the nine men who have won the Academy Award for Best Actor twice, and was made after both men had won their second Oscars. First, here is the list of the nine two-time winners:

Spencer Tracy
Frederic March
Gary Cooper
Marlon Brando
Jack Nicholson
Dustin Hoffman
Tom Hanks
Daniel Day-Lewis
Sean Penn

The only film that meets the criteria is Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as fictionalized versions of Clarnece Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the opposing attorneys during the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The film was released in 1960.

The only films I could find which starred two of these men, at any time in their careers, were Design For Living (1933), which starred Frederic March and Gary Cooper before either of them had Oscars, and The Missouri Breaks (1973) a western starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson won his first Oscar two years later. Nicholson also starred in The Pledge (2001) which was directed by Sean Penn, but Penn did not appear in the film and in any case had yet to win any Oscars.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trivia: Two Actors, Four Best Actor Oscars

Only nine men have ever won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role twice. Name a movie which starred two of these nine men, and came out after they both of them had won their second Oscar.

(Note: As far as I know, there is only one correct answer to this question, but researching it proved a little difficult. I will try to see if there are other acceptable answers, but for now there is at least one.)

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Dear readers,

I must confess to you that I am not as deeply learned a man as I pretend to be, and that no other book has pointed this out to me quite as much as that of Wise Blood by noted Southerner and Catholic Flannery O’Connor. Indeed I confess that in general I am often left flummoxed by the so-called Great Catholic Novels, a revelation that might not surprise people who know me and my lack of reverence, but which is nevertheless a curiosity to myself. I feel like I know enough of Catholicism through exposure that I should be able to recognize it even in its subtle disguises, but alas it would appear that I am wrong.

Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes, a young man recently let out of the army, who is voyaging south after finding his hometown largely abandoned and his mother deceased. Hazel is the grandson of a preacher, but he hates Jesus and thinks that redemption through Christ is a lie. When Motes reaches his destination he meets a series of tragicomic caricatures that torment him further and drive him to preach for his new church, the Church Without Christ, "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way."

These caricatures include the lonely simpleton Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old guard at the zoo who is desperate for companionship, unaware that his incessant talking turns everyone against him. There are also the Hawks, blind street preacher Asa and his sexually-charged teenage daughter Sabbath Lily.

Here’s where my idiocy shows through. Though the book is billed as a comedy I didn’t find much funny, except maybe Sabbath Lily’s letter to an advice column, which I won’t spoil by quoting here. Though it is said to be infused with Catholicism, I didn’t see in it any strain which I recognized. And though it is said to be a classic novel, I didn’t see much in its plotting to be admired.

One thing the novel does have going for it is O’Connor’s prose, which is gripping and very strong, possibly even masterful. It was spare, but also witty and fanciful in the right places, as when comparing the color of the sky to the fur of a wet goat. This was also a short read, due both to its low page-count but also because it is a very propulsive narrative. Unfortunately, all that propulsion never seems to power the story anywhere, and it is dispiriting that the novel’s characters have so little to do with one another as the story advances. The novel’s plot turns verge on the melodramatic, and then the story just kind of ends, extremely unsatisfactorily.

Maybe I don’t know as much about Catholicism as I think I do, since I have had by and large the exact same reaction to other reputed Catholic Classics, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Not that conversion should be a goal of novelists, but all three of these novels, if possible, might have pushed me further in the other direction.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Trivia Answer: Nobel Prize and Oscar

The only man with both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize is Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel in literature in 1925, and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1938, for adapting his own play Pygmalion into a movie. Pygmalion would also later be adapted into a musical by the name of My Fair Lady, which won Best Picture at the 1964 Oscars.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Deadwood Season 2: "The New Money" and "Requiem for a Gleet"

The third and fourth episodes of Deadwood Season Two are remarkably entertaining considering the near total absence of Al Swearengen. I missed that foul-mouthed Limey cocksucker.

Garrett Dillahunt enters the camp as Mr. Francis Wolcott, an advance scout for George Hearst, who struck it rich at the Comstock lode. He's a curious sort with a well-thought-out plan to cause panic in the camp. Enlisting E.B Farnum as his accomplice, he causes a rumor to be spread that the camp's claims will be ruled invalid once the camp becomes part of the U.S., leading many of Deadwood's speculators to sell out at bargain prices just to be out ahead of losing their whole claim. Mr. W, as he is called by Joanie's whorehouse partner Maddie, also has dealings to attend to with Cy Tolliver. Apparently Hearst himself has been impressed by Tolliver's business moves, and would like to help him out as a sort of silent partner in some as yet murky enterprise involving moving in on the Chinese operations of Mr. Wu.

Meanwhile, Alma does not react well to being cast aside by Bullock, and perhaps takes out her anger on Ms. Isringhausen, Sophia's tutor, whom she dismisses. Displaced anger seems to be a common trope for the series. Certainly Al, Dan Dority, Seth, and even Trixie can be said to demonstrate it at times. Ellsworth, who is fast becoming my favorite character, offers himself as an outlet for Alma's anger, saying that if she needs to punch someone in the nose his is broken in enough to take it.

Seth is trying to become domesticated, and a funny scene features he and his wife discussing their need to have a "conversation" (Mrs. Bullock even calls it an "intercourse" to underscore the point).

And poor Al, with his gleets, which are apparently some kind of stone you get from gonorrhea? Anyway they're blocking his urine and its getting serious. Al is found shivering on his floor. Watching the way Doc Cochran treats this ailment is yet another of the show's reminders how good we have it these days. From a plot standpoint, the more interesting thing to watch is how Dan Dority and the others in Al's camp react to the possibility of world without him. Dan seems to realize the impossibility of filling Al's shoes, which is why he so readily assents to Trixie's request that the burn the town down before letting Tolliver take it over.

Stephen Tobolowsky arrives in town as commissioner Hugo Jarry, and falls in with Cy, which a healthy Al might have prevented.

I enjoyed Alma, with a tip from Ellsworth, forcing E.B.'s hand and figuring out that the claims are more stable than is generally thought.

I also like how his injury has freed Sol up to speak his mind to Seth. I'm interested to see how their friendship adjusts.

A quietly touching scene between Jane and Utter, as she wakes from her drunkenness to find that Utter has put her to bed in Wild Bill's coat.

I like the odd pairs this show keeps introducing, but Ms. Isringhausen and Silas Adams has to be the oddest grouping yet.

God, there really is a lot going on with this show.

Trivia: Nobel Prize and Oscars

When "An Inconvenient Truth" won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and then a few years later Al Gore won the Nobel Prize for Peace, many claimed he had won both prizes. But in fact, the Oscar goes to the director, and that was not Mr. Gore. However, there is one person who has won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar. Can you name him?

Hint: The Nobel Prize was for Literature, and the Oscar was for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Deadwood Season 2: A Lie Agreed Upon (Parts I and II)

Since Sepinwall is only going through Season One this summer, and that is way too slow a DVD pace for most of us, I'm going to switch to episodic reviews of Deadwood Season 2.

A Lie Agreed Upon takes place several months after the end of Season One. This is established in several ways. Cy mentions President Hayes, putting us into 1877, and Seth has had time to build a house for the wife and son he inherited from his dead brother.

The season gets off to an explosive start, as Al Swearengen, angry at some bad news from the governor delivered by Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), taunts Seth from his balcony over the sheriff's affair with the widow Garret. Cy Tolliver struggles to contain his rage as Joanie's plans to open her own high-end whorehouse (a plan which had seemed abandoned) come to fruition. Powers Boothe is brilliant at displaying Cy's fearsome nature, mixed with his obvious tenderness towards Joanie. We also get a peek into Seth's administering of justice, as he goes easy on a bartender at Tom Nutall's saloon who shot the wrong man because he was wearing the same coat as the drunkard who pissed on him. Deadwood may have a law and order type, but actual law and order still seems far off.

The overall theme of Deadwood is still the way a society is formed. As the fight between Al and Seth spills over the balcony and into the street, this theme is rammed home in the way the various residents of the camp respond. Sol Star and Charlie Utter prepare to help the sheriff while Johnny and Dan Dority arm themselves to defend Al. Merrick the newspaperman is there to get the story. The stagecoach carrying Mrs. Bullock and her son, as well as the well-endowed new whores for Joanie, arrives just in time for Al to be moved not to stab Seth with the knife he had hidden on his person.

The principal question of these first two episodes is of course, what is the lie to be agreed upon? It is pretty clear early on that it will have something to do with Seth and Alma Garrett. There is an awkward scene where Mrs. Garret tries to warmly welcome the new arrivals while Sol and Charlie lie wounded in the hardware store, and it seems as though everyone will just be agreeing to pretend that Seth and his wife are a happy family.

In Part II the action is dialed down but the situation only becomes more tense as the time for Seth to get his gun and badge back from the Gem saloon draws near. Sol and Charlie separately try to counsel Seth to no avail, while a newly returned and even drunker Calamity Jane eggs him on to violence. All three back him up as he stands in front of the Gem, with Trixie hanging back with a shotgun.

It seems this is going to be a troublesome year for Swearengen. The camp seems to be full of people suddenly brave enough to resist his control. And not only that, but even before the fight with Seth, his body seems to be betraying him. He is having difficulty urinating and is in no small amount of distress over it. It's going to be fascinating seeing how he reacts to these two fronts of opposition.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Sport and a Pastime

For its first fifty-something pages, James Salter's 1967 novel "A Sport and a Pastime" amounts to little more than a befuddling hodgepodge of Hemingwayesque prose and seemingly meaningless pronouncements posing as deep reflections on life. It is all very disorienting, as Salter makes it difficult to determine who is speaking, or where we are in the narrative, often bouncing from the past to the present within the same paragraph with no indication to situate the reader. The unnamed narrator is not just unreliable, he is inscrutable.

Then Philip and Anne-Marie have sex. Then they have more sex. Indeed, the rest of this short novel is pretty much just sex with brief pauses to eat and stare at hillsides. Salter's prose, with its wistfulness and air of mysteriousness, works much better in conjunction with this love affair, between an American college dropout and a shopgirl. Their relationship outside their sexual chemistry is largely a mystery. Indeed, Salter's narrator admits that he is conjuring up most of these details for himself. He wasn't really there most of the time (he certainly might have made the bedroom scenes more awkward.)

Salter's writing about sex is certainly compelling, but does that alone make for a good novel? I for one am not sure that it does. I just don't think you can tell much about a character by the way that they fuck. It's only near the end that Philip shows his true nature, as his money runs short and he looks for ways to get enough to go back to America. Anne-Marie never really does become a character, though that it perhaps an artistically defensible choice. The narrator is infatuated with her himself, despite knowing little about her besides how beautiful she is. There is also a very off-putting undercurrent of racism recurring throughout the narrative.

A Sport and a Pastime may get your heart racing at certain points, but it will also leave you unfulfilled.

Presidential Trivia: Answer

Yesterday I asked which two men had appeared five times on the national election ticket of either the Republican or Democratic Party.

Answers: Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon

FDR ran for VP in 1920 on James Cox's ticket, then ran for president (and won) in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. His vice presidential running mates were John Nance Garner (1932, 1936), Henry Wallace (1940), and Harry Truman (1944).

Richard Nixon was Eisenhower's running mate in 1952 and 1956. In 1960 he ran for president with Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate and lost to JFK. In 1968 and 1972 he ran for president and won with Spiro Agnew as his running mate.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Presidential Trivia

Next we venture into the land of presidential politics. We're currently witnessing the desperate attempts of various GOPers to get on the ticket for 2012, now that the U.S.S. Economy is sinking, taking Captain Obama with it.

All of the current Republican candidates would be making their first appearance on the ticket of one of our two main parties. (Sarah Palin has not yet declared her intentions.) Did you know that two people have been on the ticket of either the Republican or Democratic parties in five (5) separate elections?

Name them both, the years they were on the ticket, and for super bonus points, their running mates each time.

Movie Trivia: Answer

Yesterday I asked which two movies are the only films to feature three performances that won Academy Awards.


A Streetcar Named Desire (1951):

Vivien Leigh, Best Actress
Kim Hunter, Best Supporting Actress
Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor
*Interestingly, Marlon Brando's heralded performance as Stanley Kowalski lost out to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. The Best Picture Academy Award went to An American in Paris

Network (1976):

Peter Finch, Best Actor (awarded posthumously)
Faye Dunaway, Best Actress
Beatrice Straight, Best Supporting Actress
*William Holden was also nominated for Best Actor. Ned Beatty was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost. Rocky won for Best Picture.