Saturday, May 31, 2008

Advanced Technology Madness

About to air a pet peeve here. As appreciative as I am of the miracles of modern technology, specifically the PC and the Internet, and as cognizant as I am that it is simply amazing that a little machine like my laptop can do and access so much, why is it that with all our techno-sophistication we have not perfected ways of running these systems securely? Every day it seems there is some new weirdness going on inside my laptop, some new executions that I (at least) have not asked it to perform that it has taken it on itself to perform anyway. And every day there are glitches and bizarro happenings at some of the websites I use or visit frequently.

Look, my refrigerator does not rebel against me. My television does not seem to have a mind of its own (well, maybe with Tivo). My car is not invaded at night by nanobots who take over the controls. But all those things, roughly, do happen frequently in the world of computers.

And keeping up with all of this could be a full-time job. As an end user, I am expected to be aware of viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware, malware, unwanted cookies, tainted websites, keyloggers, hijackers, zombies, registry problems, etc., and to know the fixes for each. I could install and/or run dozens of anti-virus, anti-adware, anti-spyware, and anti-hijack programs, firewalls, spam blockers, registry boosters, site advisors, defraggers, Microsoft patches, and so on -- but, oh, I also have to remember to always keep their definitions updated too. It's exhausting, and even when you do all of it, it maybe fixes a given problem about half the time. Right now (among other issues) I've got a nasty little "web rewards" pop-up that no anti-adware or anti-spyware program I've run seems to recognize. Why oh why can't I simply press a button on my computer labeled "Clean-Up" and have it all be done? Is it in no one's best interests to fix this system?

I'm afraid I know the answer to that question.

Let me trot out one more example of what drives me up the wall. If I go into my Windows Task Manager to check on processes, the names of the .exe programs are so completely arcane and non-communicative that I have no idea what is doing what, so how would I know what to delete or halt when I've got a problem? Oh sure, I can do Internet research on this, only to find that legitimate and illegitimate programs frequently have the exact same names, and that my computer often can't help me figure out which is which, and that even if I delete programs they are set to re-install themselves automatically (I've actually watched this happen).

For all its miraculous abilities, my laptop simply doesn't present me with a very reassuring picture of human tendencies.

The Woody Allen Project

Lately I am compulsively organizing most of my reading / viewing / listening into projects, reviewing what I've done up to now and where I want to go next. I have a complete log of my book-reading going all the way back to high school; my similar logs for film watching and music listening are, alas, either buried in a storage locker a thousand miles away (I really must take care of that stuff one of these days) or lost to history (I've had a number of catastrophes over the years which I won't dwell on, including the loss of painstakingly assembled personal libraries to economic circumstance). But much of what I've done before I want to do again anyway, from a matured perspective.

The projects spin off into sub-projects, and unless a project is very tight (but I can always expand its definition), none is ever really "done."

An example of one of these projects, just getting started: Woody Allen. It is axiomatic that Woody has been in decline for 20 years, with the occasional uptick. But is it true? I mean to find out.

There are many Allen pictures I've liked or loved over the years; you could call me a fan. Among the Allen high points for me are Love and Death, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives. But I realized recently that those latter two were the only films of his I had seen since Radio Days (also quite good) in 1987; I had missed 19 features (now 20, Allen works fast), the Allen segment in New York Stories, and a TV movie (Don't Drink the Water), not to mention several freestanding Allen performances in works directed by others. The worsening critical climate for Woody undoubtedly had a lot to do with my missing so much. I'm certainly influenceable, and Allen didn't seem essential on the cultural radar anymore.

But then he got really good notices for Match Point in 2005, and when I finally saw it on DVD, I too was impressed: it is a superior modern noir (in the plot sense, not the lighting sense). I especially liked the fact that Jonathan Rhys Meyers's character gets away with everything: that seemed realistic as well as cynical.

Now I've watched Deconstructing Harry from 1997, and you know what? -- it's really good too! I have a lot more late Allen to look at, but I'm starting to get a suspicious feeling that it's not that the quality of his work flat-lined so much as that the critics just got tired of him. He is repetitive, no question; Deconstructing Harry, for example, reprises themes that are quite familiar from Stardust Memories. But artists get to be repetitive and work a vein if they want to; Ivy Compton-Burnett is strictly repetitive, but also one of the greatest English language novelists of the 20th century. Allen's obsessions are his working material, and he likes to revisit them as often as possible. There is nothing wrong with that.

Oscar Winners

Posted in a forum a couple of months ago:

I finally caught up with the Best Actor and Actress of 2006, Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker, who won every statuette and critic's award out there. I have the greatest respect for both actors, but although their award-winning performances were quite good, the movies that featured them were less than exciting.

The Queen is smooth and watchable, but despite good efforts from the entire cast -- Michael Sheen is delightful as Tony Blair -- it doesn't amount to much finally; it doesn't seem to have a point of view. Peter Morgan's screenplay hedges its bets so you can't tell whether the movie is meant to be pro-monarchy or anti-monarchy; and it needs to be one or the other, since it doesn't have the artistic distinction to be interesting and, simultaneously, neutral. This feeling of being nowhere in particular plays out awkwardly in a couple of ways: there is a symbolic sub-plot about a stag that is frankly embarassing in a first-year play-writing class kind of way (and Morgan is an acclaimed playwright, so shame on him); and late in the film Sheen is saddled with a little outburst defending the Queen that comes out of the blue and should have stayed there.

Elizabeth II is not the most difficult role that the marvelously accomplished Helen Mirren will ever play. Take a stiff character, apply a little shading, a little subtlety -- any A-list actor had better be able to do that. Mirren's praise for this role is disproportionate to that for the more challenging roles she has played, but goes along with the recent tendency for the Academy Awards to reward the best impersonation of a famous person (Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote, Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn).

As does the acclaim for Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin. Although Whitaker is tailor-made for the part and is undoubtedly commanding in it, the Amin of The Last King of Scotland has no interiority, and so again, the assignment is only so difficult. Dramatically, the film (which is based on a novel, people may be surprised to learn, not on the actual historic record) is a sorry mess, starting somewhat promisingly but quickly descending into melodrama and ludicrousness. As in The Queen, the supporting cast -- James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney -- is first-rate. But the film falls far short of an obvious model, Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously. Interestingly, the same Peter Morgan who wrote The Queen co-wrote this screenplay -- although blame for the maladroit plotting may fall on the source novelist Giles Foden.

Reading Diary

A few quick shots...One of Trollope's excellences is that he is frequently laugh-out-loud funny; I notice this increasingly as I proceed through Can You Forgive Her? But he is also quite equal to intensely dramatic scenes, such as Kate and George Vavasor's walk on the fells in Chapter 57, with its unexpected distressing outcome. Trollope's take on George's psychology here is reminiscent of Dickens's insights into Bradley Headstone in the closing chapters of Our Mutual Friend -- and that is high praise indeed, for Headstone is one of the most memorably presented "evil" (unbalanced) characters in all of 19th century fiction...The closing chapters of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night are also a distressing experience, as Dick Diver Loses It, and they must have been hard for Fitzgerald to write, as the themes of alcoholism and decayed charm and diminished financial capacity were very close to the bone for him. One never forgets the early passage

Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself..."You see," said Dick smugly, "I'm the only one."

in the light of his eventual decline:

"There are those who can drink and those who can't. Obviously Dick can't. You ought to tell him not to."


But Nicole was annoyed -- everything he did annoyed her now.


"He's not received anywhere any more," the woman said.


"I guess I'm the Black Death," he said slowly. "I don't seem to bring people happiness any more."

The drifting apart of Dick and Nicole Diver has the sadness of any break-up ("It was lonely and sad to be so empty-hearted toward each other"), but has an added sting because of the cruel perception from the rich characters that Dick, who lived the high life on Nicole's money, was in the end analysis "Not Our Kind Dearie," because he was not born rich himself:

"We should have let him confine himself to his bicycle excursions," [Nicole's sister] remarked. "When people are taken out of their depths they lose their heads, no matter how charming a bluff they put up."

Now that's an "Ouch!" And the notion is illustrated in two final, devastating paragraphs, in which Dick drifts from city to town to small town to hamlet in upstate New York, never finding his footing, sending shorter and shorter communications, until he evaporates altogether: any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.

Tender Is the Night, by the way, has been filmed twice: with Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones in 1962 (Jones at 43 way old for her part, Robards not conventionally handsome enough for his...I'm having a hard time imagining this being good); with Peter Strauss and Mary Steenburgen, which sounds like ideal casting, as a mini-series for cable television in 1985. I intend to track the latter version down somehow, although it has never been commercially available...I finished my first paperback from the wonderful imprint Hard Case Crime, a reissue of Richard Powell's 1953 suspense novel Say It with Bullets. Powell, an accomplished genre and mainstream novelist, had a considerable way with prose:

There was Deputy Sheriff Carson Smith, on leave of absence from a dude ranch advertisement.


There wasn't enough water around here for a duck to make a forced landing.

This is a smooth, entertaining read, nicely set on a bus tour through the towns and attractions of the West (Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, Yosemite). The protagonist, Bill Wayne, is a little slow on the uptake, and I did spot the "solution" a ways off, but I loved the book.

Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival

Reading different types of non-fiction calls for different mental muscles than reading fiction, and, when one is reading outside one's expertise (as I usually am, being a dilettante), a strong degree of humility. I just finished Kenneth Clark's The Gothic Revival, the first book he published as a then-brash and brilliant young art historian (in 1928, when he was all of 25). Although clearly and persuasively written, it is something of a challenging book for non-specialists because Clark assumes an extensive familiarity with the subject of Gothic revival in English architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries; he is making advanced arguments. For background, the Wikipedia article is not bad at all and actually made a few things clearer to me:

The historical and intellectual territory that this subject takes in is vast, including the literary Gothic movement, the romantic taste for ruins (and even sham ruins), the histories of famous buildings such as Strawberry Hill, Fonthill Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament, the Oxford Movement in theology, the debatable relations between ethics and aesthetics (do virtuous men build good buildings?), and the challenging art criticism of John Ruskin. I did my best to keep up with Clark, but I clearly have some more reading to do!

For starters: Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins, which I have been meaning to get to for years; Rosemary Hill's God's Architect, on the influential Gothic revivalist Augustus Welby Pugin; and Penelope Hunter-Stiebel's Of Knights and Spires, on the Revival in France and Germany.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Donut Politics

By now if you're moderately newsy you're aware that Dunkin' Donuts has pulled an ad with celebrity foodie Rachael Ray because the nut case blogger Michelle Malkin (the poor man's Ann Coulter) fingered Ray's paisley scarf as an approving nod to Palestinian jihad. Instead of being laughed into the next universe, Malkin was rewarded both with corporate capitulation and 2,013 hits on Google News, last I looked (and that doesn't include the blogosphere). Normally I wouldn't comment on this and add to the madness, although Malkin's observations are predictably certifiable:

Anti-American fashion designers abroad and at home have mainstreamed and adapted the scarves as generic pro-Palestinian jihad or anti-war statements. Yet many folks out there remain completely oblivious to the apparel’s violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones.

What caught my fancy in all this, however, was the way Dunkin' Donuts capitulated:

In a statement, Margie Myers, senior VP-communications for the donut firm said that "the possibility of misperception detracted from its original intention to promote our iced coffee."

In its dry understatedness, that has to be one of the funniest lines ever perpetrated by a publicist. It is improbable that even The Onion's best writer on her best day could have come up with anything half so droll.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Vagabond (1985)

This is a sterling film in every way --direction, screenplay, acting, cinematography, the works -- but also one of the most depressing movies you will ever see, so be forewarned. It is not a pleasant matter to watch someone's march toward and arrival at extinction. Vagabond is really a long suicide scene.

Writer / director Agnes Varda keeps the dramatic situation simple. A very young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has decided to "drop out" of bourgeois society (somewhat in the manner of the Summer of Love pilgrims I referred to a couple of posts back, though with less of an end in mind; there's no San Francisco) encounters a series of people who take varying degrees of interest in her, but none of whom influences her to take a more definite path than the one leading her to nowhere. The vagabond's rejection of structure is absolute and unnerving, and clearly comes with a heavy price. The folks she encounters could be said to represent a range of accommodations to the pressures the "real world" imposes. One of them, a philosophy student turned goatherd, is the most articulate about the need for making some compromises, in his case as small as possible but still important ones; and he is the most disgusted when the girl spurns his efforts to help, by setting her up in small-scale potato farming, or having her assist with his family's herding and goat cheese-selling, or something.

The movie presents a pointedly unromantic view of "freedom," set against a bleak (but not snowy) wintry harshness. (Snow would be too pretty; snow is a blanket.) Sandrine Bonnaire was only 17 when the movie was shot -- not for Varda that typical form of movie cheating when actors play roles ten years their junior -- and her youth, counter-balanced at first by the brash attitude of the dropout, becomes more desperately apparent as hopeless scene follows hopeless scene. Her boots fray to the point where she can scarcely walk in them, her scared emotions get closer to the surface, until by the last scene when she trips and cries, it's almost too deeply upsetting to watch.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives, admits that he borrowed liberally from this movie in creating the basic situation of the series, and one can easily see how. The movie is set in a posh suburb of New York City (not identified as such, but the Hudson River is clearly visible in some shots; exteriors were filmed in Cold Spring). Three wives and good friends (not yet desperate, but about to become so) are headed out to chaperone a Saturday children's outing when they receive a letter from another member of their circle, an unattached man-trap who claims to have run off with one of her husbands. But which one? They'll have to sweat it out until the evening, each in the meantime doing a feverish mental inventory of the circumstances suggesting that it could be her husband.

The letter-writer is also the movie's sly narrator, thus fusing the roles of Edie (troublemaker) and Mary Alice (observer) in Desperate Housewives. It's not just the set-up that links the movie and the series so closely, though, it's the sardonic tone (very apparent in the narration). In fifty plus years, the suburbs apparently didn't change much. Certainly not in their potential for this kind of humor.

It's a marvelously entertaining movie all the way, guided with a sure hand by writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (celebrated in the former capacity; under-rated in the latter). The principals are Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn, Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas, Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas; Celeste Holm as the never-seen narrator; and, in one of her peerless supporting roles, Thelma Ritter. (Anne Baxter was originally slated to be a fourth wife; the source magazine serial was actually "A Letter to Five Wives." Three is about enough for one movie.)

All the actors are fine, with Kirk Douglas notably cast against type as a soft-spoken (until pushed) school-teacher; but it's the unrelated Paul Douglas, as a gruff retail tycoon, who engages in the entertaining form of larceny known as "stealing the picture."

The Summer of Love

I missed the Sixties, as I was a kid, and it's just as well. I'm non-communitarian, unattracted to drugs, not a rock & roller (which is not to say that I dislike all rock music), suspicious of vague and trendy varieties of "spiritualism." I'm pretty bourgeois and traditionalist, and I'm more past-oriented than future-oriented (or even, for that matter, present-oriented). No, the Sixties and I wouldn't have been a good fit; I hit college in the late Seventies, when things had really calmed down.

But I am kind of fascinated by the Sixties (by which we always mean, the late Sixties stretching into the early Seventies), in part because the guiding impulses of those years are so far from my temperament, in part because I do have a strong historical/sociological impetus (and boy, did those years become "history" fast).

The other night I watched (on DVD) a PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love, which did about as good a job as could be managed in an hour; the subject deserved more time. The narration was intelligent, the unearthed contemporary footage excellent, and the talking head interviews reasonably good. Too many of the latter's stories were begun and not finished, though. I got interested in the fortunes of a woman who had made it to San Francisco in 1967 as a 13 year old runaway / hitch-hiker; but once the documentary deposited her at Haight and Ashbury it lost interest or ran out of time. She clearly survived to be interviewed now, but how did her experiences affect her? (Another interviewee looks so ghastly worn that one suspects the revolution was very hard on him indeed -- but again, the film-makers don't go there.)

The Summer of Love, based on what I've read about it in Jay Stevens's wonderful Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, was a gassy Utopian idea that turned sour very quickly. The Haight-Ashbury, and San Francisco generally, were scarcely prepared (how could they have been?) for that kind of influx of bodies (estimated at 50,000-100,000), especially since many of the pilgrims arrived in town close to destitute. Services were strained, conditions deteriorated, tempers flared, crime and exploitation flourished. And as Stevens aptly puts it, once the use of hallucinogens expanded beyond a self-selected elite of consciousness explorers and became a widespread youth sacrament, the results were a bad trip: "Instead of creating a taste for enlightenment, LSD was promoting a love of sensation, the more intense the better."

More reading I should do on this subject: Charles Perry's The Haight-Ashbury; Joel Selvin's Summer of Love (both Perry and Selvin are interviewed in the documentary, and Selvin is especially sharp, noting how he started to turn off to the whole experience when it became "squalid"); Martin Lee's Acid Dreams.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Vigorous Hobby

I'm taking today and tomorrow off from work to extend Memorial Day weekend to five days, and enjoying using some of the extra time to tend to my sartorial hobby. There is always stuff to do! Today I have picked up tailoring, picked up and dropped off shirts for monogramming, picked up and dropped off drycleaning, monitored my Ebay auctions in progress, checked out some online sales, posted my "What Are You Wearing Today?" in Ask Andy's Fashion and Trad Forums. It's like bird watching: there are always more birds.

UPDATE (5/1/2009): I'm still finding the hobby as much fun as ever. During this current extended period of unemployment, I dress for business every weekday; it keeps me in an upbeat frame of mind. (As noted elsewhere, I've dropped my involvement in the online world of menswear enthusiasts, who are a pretty catty bunch for ostensibly straight guys.)

My Wardrobe: Brick Red Blazer

I picked this up at Jos. A. Bank for half off clearance, which meant a whole $29.00! It's a single-breasted, single vent, three-button jacket. At first I wondered how much use I would get out of it (but for $29.00, you can't go wrong!). It turns out that the color pairs wonderfully with a lot of items in my wardrobe, and is a great conversation provoker, as well.

Awara (1951)

I'm not an expert on Bollywood -- in fact, I've seen scarcely any Bollywood films (well, Lagaan, which I thought was terrific like everyone else).

So I thought I'd try an early Bollywood classic, Raj Kapoor's Awara, to start to ground myself historically. Kapoor, a legend both as an actor and a sometime director, was a young man of 25 when he made Awara, his third outing as a director. But he had been born into Indian film-making -- his father was the handsome, commanding, and extremely popular actor Prithviraj Kapoor. (He plays a key role in Awara, as the judge.)

Like all Bollywood films, Awara is long by Western standards -- 168 minutes, and the IMDB refers to an original 193 minute version, which I suppose is possible (add a few more musical numbers, and presto!).

The musical numbers can easily make or break a Bollywood film for an unaccustomed viewer. There are many of them in Awara, in a dizzying variety of visual styles (from a relatively realistic song sequence on a boat at night, to an elaborately fantastic dream complete with Hindu gods). Stylistic consistency does not look like one of Kapoor's aims -- the movie also shifts between location filming and obvious sets with no sense of incongruity.

For a sprawling film on the clock, Awara is tight in other ways. It has but five characters who matter -- the vagabond Raj (Kapoor); his mother; his unacknowledged father, the judge; his surrogate father, the bandit; and his childhood sweetheart (played by Kapoor's frequent co-star Nargis). It has only two themes that I could discern -- a notion of genetic determinism put forward by the judge and debunked by others (the child of a bandit is destined to become a bandit), and a sentimental conception of childhood romance resurgent in adulthood.

Kapoor had obvious gifts as a director. Even with the noted visual inconsistencies, his visual sense within given scenes is often very strong. The night-dominated black and white look of the film is striking, and reminds me more of Mexican film melodramas of the same period than of Hollywood film noir (maybe this has something to do with the film stocks? -- a largely unexplored element in cinematic history).

Generally I liked the opening 45 minutes of Awara, the childhood sequences, the best. These have a slightly Dickensian flavor as destiny frowns on the boy Raj as if he were a Hindu Oliver Twist. If I wasn't as taken with the rest of the film -- which honesty compels me to admit that I was not, although I was impressed by it and glad to watch it -- that has to do with my lukewarm reaction to Kapoor as an actor and a presence. He proved, though, to be enormously popular worldwide, so this is probably just me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Beer: Samuel Adams Longshot

This year's Samuel Adams "Longshot" six-pack, consisting of three bottles apiece of two award-winning homebrews, is a winner. The Grape Pale Ale is very subtle in its green grapiness --not some "loud" fruit beer -- and quite delightful; I will miss it when it is no longer available. The Weizenbock is bold and satisfying (and I'm a big bock guy). Snap up this combo now before it's too late!

My Neighborhood

With the last post fresh in my mind, I headed out for a walk. I live in an unpretentious apartment complex (rent: $525.00/month for a large two bedroom apartment with garage and pet fee, which will no doubt shock those of you in big cities) on the fringe of a commercial district and a single-family residential neighborhood. The homes in that neighborhood are relatively recent construction (post-1980, certainly, possibly post-1990). Mostly one story with rather dominating two-car garages. Many trees, but not on the edges of the broad streets, which means it's not a shady neighborhood. No sidewalks (which strikes me as uncivilized, un-neighborly, and short-sighted, but whatever). Many cul-de-sacs, dead ends, and "No Outlets" (same observation). Expanses of well-manicured lawns; few dandelions. Swings, benches, many standard issue basketball hoops in the driveways. SUVs everywhere. Children, I suspect, but not very visible, not at any sort of physical play; the few kids I saw were really chubby, as if they had eaten too many pizzas and Happy Meals and spent too much time sitting on sofas playing video games (wait a minute: "as if"?). More "For Sale" signs than I expected, and most of those "For Sale By Owner" (where is everyone going, I wonder?).

A pleasantly average American neighborhood, in short, with aspects I dislike, to be sure, but not without its middle-class appeal. As I walked, I thought: cheap energy made this all possible, and without cheap energy, it won't be possible anymore.

Memorial Day

A sparkling, sunny, and altogether delectable Memorial Day here in Northeast Wisconsin. When days like this come, I sometimes feel that it's our version of Summer 1914 -- the last "normal" times we shall know. If gas prices are above $6.00 a year from now, then the American Way of Life we have known, and which the elder George Bush once famously said is "non-negotiable," will be quite over (see under: James Howard Kunstler).

We shall see.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

One of the joys of reading many great novelists is the sheer quality of their observations, generalizations, aphorisms, and authorial asides. As I g0t deeper into F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (I'm now 50 pages from the end), I was reminded that FSF is a master of this. Within just a few pages one gets this remark from Nicole Diver:

Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do--they think other people's opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.

And this moving observation from the consciousness of Rosemary Hoyt:

Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy -- one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure, but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.

And this famous passage about Nicole Diver (the contemporary leftist critics who felt that Fitzgerald was insensitive to socio-economic realities must have skipped over this entirely):

Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors—these were some of the people who gave a tithe to Nicole...

One of the things that amazes me about Fitzgerald is that he managed to live an inebriated lifestyle and write about it in an utterly clear-eyed, knowing manner simultaneously. Certain alcoholic authors write somewhat "drunkenly" (Malcolm Lowry), and others who may not have been alcoholic do so also (Thomas Wolfe). But Fitzgerald writes in a succinct and disciplined fashion at all times, and I think that the personal cost of maintaining that split between his personal self and his writing self, as much as the alcoholism itself, led to his early demise. It also helps explain why he is an author who many people, myself included, feel so tenderly about. He was a tragic figure, but there is something heroic about him too.

Tender Is the Night is not a novel that prompts thoughts of perfection the way The Great Gatsby does (or that his first novel, the inspired, inventive, and effervescent college novel This Side of Paradise, does for me). Fitzgerald had a hard time deciding on the structure of Tender Is the Night: the first edition (and usual printed version) is non-chronological, but there is also a version printed in 1951, edited by Fitzgerald's friend Malcolm Cowley, that is chronological and incorporates FSF's plans for a revision that he never got to undertake. Having only experienced the standard version, I'm not sure which would "play" better, but I have felt at times that FSF is so close to the material in this book that he hasn't got the expressive form quite right.

Still, it's not to be missed.

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

I sense through various Web references lately that the reputation of this noir-tinged late Forties "woman's picture" has been growing, and I'm not surprised. In what seems at first to be a perfectly well-cooked meal of melodrama, there are all kinds of raw bits. Our heroine Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) has to choose between two men, one of whom tries to force himself on her physically (an ugly scene, especially for its time), the other of whom no less disturbingly forces himself on her emotionally. The neglected socialite wife of the first man (lawyer/tycoon Dana Andrews) dislikes her younger daughter and abuses her physically (and the movie doesn't even beat around the bush about this!). Lawyer Andrews takes on a noble litigation involving a discriminated-against Japanese-American -- and, counter to the strong movie tradition of nobility winning through, loses the case. Meanwhile, the second man (ex-serviceman Henry Fonda) can't shake memories of his own dead wife and treats Daisy with a bizarre blend of loving attention and passive-aggression. In the ultimate showdown between the two guys, Fonda at first seems to have nothing but proves to be the ultimate slyboots, provoking the question, Can someone be a throroughly good man and a master manipulator at the same time? (Fonda's final line is one of the best closing observations in movie history.)

Director Otto Preminger's disciplined visual style serves the material with real distinction, and the actors are in great form -- all three are appealing, all three are maddening. (Fonda says perplexedly of Andrews at one point, "Funny thing is, I like him," to which Crawford responds, "He wants you to like him. He's good at that.") By the final scene, the movie has moved beyond melodrama: there can be no "happy ending" because someone is going to be unhappy, and our final glimpse of Andrews -- great facial acting here! -- casts a troubling shadow over, well, everything.


There is a young marketing consultant and branding guru hereabouts whom I have met once or twice; I'll be vague. Although we both have a liking for dressing well and carrying ourselves with a certain executive authority, we didn't really hit it off, and I wasn't sure why -- until, I think, now. Said marketer has a blog with an extensive selection of photographs inviting the reader to get to know him better. I looked at all of them out of curiosity, and it is hard for me not to see them as an act of self-branding, given how completely they embody a certain Men's Journal-type take on masculinity. In the photographs we see the young marketer (who is ex-military, although I forget which branch):

Attending a Packers game in a Packers jersey
Attending March Madness
Attending the Kentucky Derby
Saluting the flag
Visiting Las Vegas
Traveling throughout Europe
Hanging out with luscious babes
Smoking cigars
Posing with a tractor
Shooting at a range
Taking a private helicopter ride
Scuba diving
Checking out a Ferrari
Engaging in martial arts
Mountain biking
Playing electric guitar
Playing pool

Golf, poker, and hunting somehow got inexplicably left out of this mix, but otherwise it's pretty thorough, wouldn't you say?

It got me thinking how "unmasculine" I must seem by contemporary and especially by Wisconsin standards (despite a 6'2" frame, muscular build, manly baritone, that stuff). I don't go gaga over the Packers; I don't hunt or fish; I've never owned or even shopped for a pick-up; my pet is a cat, for goodness sake.

Something I never would have anticipated in the wake of the Sixties and the Sexual Revolution and Free to Be You and Me is the intense rigidifying of modern gender roles -- chick lit, "It's a guy thing," Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, etc. But there you have it. Mr. Marketer (whose first name, amusingly, is sexually ambiguous, so he always does use "Mr.") is a sign of the times.

UPDATE (5/4/2009): And double. Especially since I'm out of the business world, the doings in which provided a small piece of common ground, I find I have almost nothing to talk to most Wisconsin men about. And I was always, during my commercial real estate years, forcing my interest in business a bit, quite understandably. I'm not uninterested in business (I've got plenty of sociologist in me), but I was never the "businessman" I tried to be -- I have no real instinct for making money in business, or for corporate politics. Since I've largely lost my interest in spectator sports, never had any interest in hunting or fishing or the various forms of recreation vehicles (all Wisconsin passions), and am not a "family man," I might as well be trying to relate to these guys across the Grand Canyon. Almost none of what I write about here would interest or appeal to them, either.

Favorite Paintings: John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere

When I lived in the Boston area -- Quincy and Milton, to be precise -- one of my favorite places to visit was the roomful of John Singleton Copley canvases at the Museum of Fine Arts. I am no sort of expert on these things, but something about Copley's "way" as a portraitist really speaks to me, as in this famous view of silversmith and patriot Paul Revere:

I love the steadiness of Revere's gaze, the fact that as a craftsman he's in his shirt-sleeves (most unusual for a portrait), the tools on the table, the gleam off that silver teapot.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The British New Wave is a tight little group of films, maybe 25 in all, with a tight group of creative personalities involved, and -- I have come to notice -- a tight sense of situation. Of the four films in the cycle I've watched so far -- Room at the Top (also read the John Braine novel), Look Back in Anger (also read the John Osborne play), Billy Liar (planning to read the Keith Waterhouse novel), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (planning to read the Alan Sillitoe novel) -- all are set in cities in the North or Midlands of England, all feature an "angry young man" as protagonist, and in each of them the young man is juggling the affections of at least two women (three, in the case of Billy Liar). By the end of each story he makes a decision about which woman to commit to (except for Billy Liar, who decides not to commit at all).

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz (who also directed the New Wave film Morgan and produced the film version of David Storey's This Sporting Life), written by Alan Sillitoe (who also wrote The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner), produced by Tony Richardson (who also directed the film versions of Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, John Osborne's The Entertainer, and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey), shot by Freddie Francis (who also shot Room at the Top for director Jack Clayton), and stars Albert Finney (who appeared in the film version of The Entertainer, played Billy Liar on stage, and starred in John Osborne's play Luther directed by Tony Richardson on Broadway). See what I mean about a tight group?

Finney is electric in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as the actors grabbing these angry young man roles tended to be -- they all spotted the opportunities inherent in the parts, which are very showy even as they are very realistic. Finney's brash factory worker negotiates his way between a married woman played by Rachel Roberts, whom he impregnates, and a single gal played by Shirley Anne Field, whom he ultimately proposes to. There's a great part for Norman Rossington (familiar as The Beatles' manager in A Hard Day's Night) as Finney's pal Bert. Freddie Francis's black and white "lensing" (as Variety might call it) is exact, unlovely, and therefore quite beautiful; not the least of the contributions of these New Wave films is finding the visual poetry in the prose of these grimy towns.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More Films Watched Recently

As with the last "Movie Round-Up," I'm gathering notes I've posted in web fora in recent months, with some revision and added material.

Closer, Mike Nichols, 2004 -- If ever a movie was calculated to make one (well, me) feel good about having withdrawn from the romantic and sexual arena, that movie would be Closer. And a mighty impressive film it is, too, possibly the best film that Mike Nichols has ever directed. The generally embittered (and, I believe, quite realistic) tone about relationships is one which Closer shares with Bad Timing, Short Cuts, Nichols's own Carnal Knowledge, all versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, many Bergman films, all Fassbinder films, and (in somewhat disguised form) most Woody Allen films. Closer, adapted by Patrick Marber from his own acclaimed play, is particularly savage and formally rigorous. Although other people are visible in many scenes, and one or two of them get a line to speak, essentially the movie plays out as a series of getting together and/or breaking apart scenes between four individuals in various permutations, played brilliantly by Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen. (Owen and Portman had more acclaim because their roles are showier, but Law and Roberts are equally good; I don't think Roberts has ever been better.) We never get to see how these four are with other people or during relationships; we can only base our reactions to them on the limited slices of behavior we do see. Of course that is true in a sense of all drama, but Marber doesn't pretend to give you more than he does.

Rather than give more away, I'll just urge you to see this film, if you haven't. It's a very fine movie.

Ju-on: The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2003 --Not to be confused with two earlier Ju-on movies; one subsequent and another planned; and American remakes of this one and its immediate sequel -- all linked, all directed by Takashi Shimizu. If you're not confused enough already, this film is narratively fractured and the scenes are completely out of chron order. It winds up being like a modernist take on Poltergeist. The house in this movie is not merely haunted, but seriously messed up, just like the house in Poltergeist. (Remember Zelda Rubinstein's spurious pronouncement: "This house is clean!" Ha!)

Panic in the Streets, Elia Kazan, 1950 -- Here is a film noir whose concerns are so strikingly contemporary that I am really puzzled as to why someone hasn't remade this. Not that there's anything wrong with the original, mind, but the scenario is still both thought-provoking and commercial. Criminals smuggled into New Orleans are carrying highly communicable pneumonic plague; can the Public Health Service and the NOPD avert a crisis by finding them all in time?

The film benefits from strong performances (Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes), sharp location filming in New Orleans, and a crackerjack Oscar-winning screenplay. A very literate touch which I just love is that the plague carriers came aboard their ship at Oran in Algeria -- the plague-ridden city of Albert Camus's great novel The Plague (which appeared in French and English a few years earlier).

Widmark has a great moment late in the film as he tussles with officials about the risks to the New Orleans community. He points out that within ten hours the disease carriers could be anywhere in the US; within a day, in Africa (or, by logical extension, anywhere):

"Then think of that when you talk about community. We're all in a community. The same one."

Anyone who has read The Hot Zone or similar books will see exactly what Widmark is driving at, but it is startling for a character in a 1950 movie to be so amazingly prescient about the nature of future world health crises, and the way that air travel creates a "global village."

Terrific movie.

The Curse of the Cat People, Robert Wise / Gunther von Fritsch, 1944 -- There is absolutely nothing puffed-up about the reputation of the nine "horror" films that Val Lewton produced in the Forties; they are that good. The Curse of the Cat People is a most unusual sequel to Cat People in that it launches into an entirely different direction while still being carefully grounded in the events of the earlier film. It is a delicate, thoughtful film about the sensitivities of childhood, and finally very moving: this guy was in tears during the final scene.

The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges, 1944 -- The other nonpareil series of the Forties is the sequence of eight films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed for Paramount. I have seen The Palm Beach Story more times than I can count, and it still cracks me up: during one of Claudette Colbert's and Joel McCrea's lightning-fast bits of repartee I did a beer spit-take all over my pyjamas!

This is perhaps the frothiest of these eight Sturges films; it's as if Preston added egg white and shook vigorously. But that doesn't mean it's without its own kind of depth. McCrea and Colbert are one of the great married couples on film, so much so that, like Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette in The Bob Newhart Show, they provide a stealth model of how a successful marriage could be conducted, assuming that there was anyone out there who was interested in doing so.

Trollope Update

Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money. Compared with him even Balzac is a romantic. -- W. H. Auden

The further I read into Can You Forgive Her?, the more I see what Auden means (although I think he over-states the case just a bit; I'd say that it was a draw between Trollope and Balzac on this point). Trollope is not utterly without sentimentality, but his warmer passages tend to focus on Nation and Service and other abstractions. On the subject of personal relationships, and the paramount role that money plays in them, he is altogether harder. (He is scarcely unaware of the sexual aspects, either, although as a "proper" Victorian he has to be less explicit about them. But they are certainly implied.)

It is refreshing to encounter a 19th century novelist who can have his heroine sensibly comment:

"It seems to me, papa, that there is a great deal of false feeling about this matter of money in marriage, -- or rather, perhaps, a great deal of pretended feeling. Why should I be angry with a man for wishing to get that for which every man is struggling?"

This is one of Alice Vavasor's most lucid analytic moments. She in fact spends much of her time on analytic thinking, but she frequently mis-times her use of it. Those who find her a trying protagonist, as many readers have, are undoubtedly reacting not just to her frequent indecision and changeability, which I have commented on before, but to the fact that she almost invariably regrets her decisions once she does make them, and as the novel progresses, the regrets set in almost immediately with no lag time. One wonders that she doesn't notice that she might as well do the opposite of everything she decides, as that should on the example of all her experiences lead to a much better result!

In Chapter 48, Lady Glencora practically begs our Alice to accompany her to a grand party. This would mean a great deal to her and scarcely put out Alice at all. Nonetheless, Alice refuses her repeatedly over the course of their morning's conversation, only to do a mental about-face practically the minute Glencora is out the door:

Alice regretted, -- regretted deeply that she had not consented to go with her cousin. After all, of what importance had been her objection when compared with the cause for which her presence had been desired? Doubtless she would have been uncomfortable at Lady Monk's house; but could she not have borne some hour or two of discomfort on her friend's behalf? But, in truth, it was only after Lady Glencora had left that she began to understand the subject fully...

And so it goes, not just the more-or-less unhelpful clarity after the fact, but also the selfishness and solipsism of Alice's decision-making process. Can You Stand Her?

This only makes the novel that much more interesting.

My Wardrobe: Black Tassel Mocs

The AE Grayson or equivalent in black has always been my favorite business shoe (although I also like just about every other color this style of shoe can possibly come in). Versatile, jaunty, and pretty darn sexy for men's business footwear, if you ask me.

Over at Ask Andy About Clothes there is a whole thread for enthusiasts of this style, "Ode to the Tassel Loafer":

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Question for Quentin Tarantino

With the release of the new Indiana Jones movie (not that I plan to see it), I thought again of my favorite moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the scene when Indy shoots the swordsman instead of dueling him. I love that because it so spectacularly and humorously deflates the generic convention that you never fight an enemy with weapons unlike in kind or power.

I also thought of that scene during the interminable sequence in Kill Bill Volume One when Uma Thurman fights Lucy Liu and her two zillion henchmen. Why doesn't any of them (including Liu, who's watching most of the time as her minions get mowed down) just pull out a gun and shoot her? I was baffled. Post-Raiders, the concept of the sequence makes little sense. Because I honestly think that Spielberg and Lucas didn't simply deflate that particular convention; they killed it. The convention isn't available any more. You would think that a Movie Fan Supreme such as Tarantino would get that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hill Street Blues

The day was January 15, 1981, about six months after my college graduation. As a struggling young freelance writer on cinema and other cultural topics, I was living at home in New Jersey. My mother told me that she had heard that there was to be a premiere of a police drama on NBC that night that was said to be very unusual -- and unusually good. I bit, and sat down that evening to watch the pilot episode of Hill Street Blues. I got up an hour later and said to myself, "That was the best hour of television I've ever seen."

And it is still mighty good. I have been watching the first season of Hill Street Blues on DVD, and confirming that not only is it as absorbing as ever, but also that I remember it extremely well. Lines of dialogue, bits of camera business, actors' body language, once I start an episode I anticipate most of what's coming up -- and I haven't seen most of these hours in 25 years.

Hill Street Blues brought the techniques that Robert Altman had been pushing in the movies to television -- the overlapping dialogue, the complex cast of characters, the multiple and intertwined storylines. In that sense it couldn't be more "Nashville," and I loved it for that. But what gave the show distinction beyond the mere importation of technique was its rueful, melancholy tone (which the title hints at). It wasn't just the most "cinematic" American television show up to that point; it was almost certainly the saddest. Nothing ever really got better in the unnamed city (which everyone rightly takes as Chicago) -- not the situation on the streets, not the characters' lives. The vein of black comedy at Hill Street Station was also very pronounced, which viewers could be grateful for; the show was most entertaining in its blend of tones (as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under would notably be many years later; Hill Street Blues made most of the good American television that came after it possible). But the world it depicted, fraught with anxiety and bitter outcomes, was not ever a world I was seduced to want to be a part of -- only to watch.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Movie Round-Up

Billy Liar is based on the novel by Keith Waterhouse (first turned into a play, then this film), and was directed by John Schlesinger; it stars Tom Courtenay (who had followed Albert Finney in the role on stage) and Julie Christie (briefly but memorably). Billy "Liar" is a disaffected dreamer of a young man who, trapped in his own solipsism, doesn't much consider his impact on the people around him (including his two mutually unknowing fiancees). Courtenay is very believable in the role, but doesn't, to my way of thinking, pull the audience into his fantasies; perhaps there was no intent to do that, but, watching the character from an exterior perspective, he's rather off-putting. That makes the film, ostensibly comic, actually rather sour and eventually quite sad; the ending (beautifully done) is an unexpected slap that would be unthinkable in an equivalent American film of that time. Billy Liar is, ultimately, a serious, substantial, must-see movie.

Dark Passage, based on a novel by David Goodis and directed by the underrated Delmer Daves, teamed Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall for the third of their four movies together. Because the noir plot hinges on a plastic surgery operation, the audience doesn't actually see Bogart's face until the last third of the movie; most of the first third is shot from a subjective camera perspective (well done). There is terrific location footage of San Francisco throughout the film, which looks to me to have been a definite influence on Hitchcock's Vertigo (one shot in particular, a fall from a window, is startlingly reminiscent of the later film). Dark Passage is especially strong in juicy supporting performances; even the actors only on for one scene give it their all. Tom D'Andrea is a standout as a sympathetic cabbie; less than thirty seconds into his first scene, you know you're seeing something special. Anyone who responds to film noir or Forties melodramas ought to catch this movie.

I didn't care for Kill Bill Volume One at all. That's my review.

A much better use of my and your time is the excellent documentary Storm the Skies, directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo, on the subject of Leon Trotsky's exile in Mexico and his eventual murder by Ramon Mercader, a Catalonian who imbibed Stalinism with his mother's milk (quite literally; the mother, Caridad Mercader, was a piece of work). Absolutely everything about this content is completely fascinating, and the material is put across exceptionally well; my only complaint is that the directors really needed to run tags at the bottom of the screen for all the interviewees -- they're great, but who are they? Sometimes you can figure out from context, sometimes you can't. Names and descriptors would have helped. Still, that's a minor blemish on a terrific film. The movie is readily available through Netflix.

I have a particular affection for the culturally and geographically vast world of the Iberian-speaking peoples (Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Latin American, Caribbean, Brazilian, Luso-African, etc.). I just wish my Spanish was better!

My Wardrobe: Navy Suit

It's not a fancy make, although it fits me well. I've had it for a while, and it calls for a touch of attention now and then; right now the interior waistband needs refurbishing, so tomorrow, off to the tailor it goes. It's single-breasted, three-button, ventless. And it possesses the great virtue of a single-breasted navy suit: it is the perfect neutral frame for other sartorial gestures. A gentleman's boldest shirt typically works quite well with his navy suit.

Today I'm indulging a look that I like a lot: going beyond the popular navy suit and brown shoes gambit to the more outre navy suit and tan shoes statement. Specifically, I'm wearing my Allen Edmonds Pembrooke tan split-toe tassel mocs -- about which more another time.

Menswear Moments: James Ellroy, American Tabloid

Ellroy's clotheshorse FBI agent Kemper Boyd is always nattily attired and has a memorable exchange with his boss J. Edgar Hoover:

"In fact, you've always dressed distinctively. Perhaps 'expensively' is more apt. To be blunt, there have been times when I wondered how your salary could sustain your wardrobe."

"Sir, you should see my apartment. What my wardrobe possesses, it lacks."

Hoover chuckled. "Be that as it may, I doubt I've seen you in the same suit twice. I'm sure the women you're so fond of appreciate your sartorial flair."

"Sir, I hope so."

I especially like this because it reminds me of my own budgeting practice: any amount for the wardrobe; as little as possible for the apartment.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dutch Literature

Ever since reading Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates as a kid -- still a nice book! -- I've had a strong interest in all things Dutch. For a few years here in Northeast Wisconsin, I lived in Little Chute, a largely Dutch-American community founded by Dutch Catholics back in the 1840s. A committee in Little Chute is raising money to build a historically authentic Dutch windmill as a tourist attraction, and I was involved with that committee during the time I lived there.

One of the projects that the windmill project's executive director and I launched (with only marginal success, I'm afraid) was a Dutch-literature-in-translation reading group, which gave me a good excuse to tackle some of the Dutch (and Flemish) novels I'd been meaning to read for years. A number of these were on the subject of the Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, which has been a fertile topic for Dutch literature (and which is the subject of an excellent study available in English, Mirror of the Indies by Rob Nieuwenhuys).

Here are the Dutch novels I have read or am reading. I have a lot more planned.

Frans Coenen, The House on the Canal -- I read this short novel by Coenen (1866-1936) back in 1984, and my notes indicate that it was "bizarre" and "fascinating"; I should read it again.

"Multatuli" (Edward Douwes Dekker), Max Havelaar -- This 1860 novel by a disgruntled Dutch colonial civil servant is the best-known work in Dutch literature and kicked off the entire Dutch-Indonesian sub-literature. For a mid 19th century work of fiction, it is decidedly odd and restless in its form, told in multiple voices and nestled layers of narrative -- not with entire success, but this sort of aesthetically challenging experiement was quite a few decades ahead of its time in European literature. The novel is politically challenging, too, since Douwes Dekker's denunciation of Dutch colonial practice is scathing; it electrified his contemporaries. (The Roy Edwards translation in Penguin Classics reads very well.)

Maria Dermout, The Ten Thousand Things -- Maria Dermout (1888-1962) was born and spent much of her life in Indonesia, but blossomed late as a writer, in her sixties. The Ten Thousand Things, her most famous work, is no more conventional a novel than Max Havelaar (I somehow get the feeling that modern Dutch literature is not strong in that sort of convention). It is rather a dreamy collection of linked tales -- maybe a little too dreamy for me (I found it lacking in forward motion, which admittedly it doesn't aim for). The book has had a bit of a cult following since it appeared in English translation, and periodically comes back into print; it is currently available from New York Review Books in a translation by Dutch-American novelist Hans Koning.

Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force -- Another Indonesia-based novel, this is my favorite of the group, a marvelous book that is certain to please any discriminating novel reader. Couperus (1863-1923) was the most famous Dutch writer of his generation, extensively translated into English, and has lately been undergoing an understandable, well-deserved revival. Critics have called him a "genius," and The Hidden Force, with its brilliant plotting and characterization and its profound understanding of the psychology of colonizer and colonized, certainly reads like the work of a genius. I strongly recommend the modern edition from the University of Massachusetts Press; the generally good Alexander Teixera de Mattos translation has been touched up, corrected, and de-bowdlerized by E.M. Beekman, who also contributes excellent introductory materials and end notes.

Willem Elsschot, Soft Soap -- I just started this comic novel of the business world by the celebrated Flemish writer Elsschot (1882-1960) and will report on it further.

BBC Radio 3: The Chopin Experience

BBC Radio 3, which is a delight to have available over the Internet, is holding a marathon this weekend called The Chopin Experience -- I think it might be note-complete, his oeuvre is the right size to lend itself to that. About twenty years ago I immersed myself in Chopin in just that way, and it was a tremendous experience. He is unquestionably one of the greatest of "specialized" composers, since 90% of his output was for solo piano -- but the emotional range he could express in that medium was astonishing.

My cat Claire has taken up a position near my laptop and seems to be entranced by the sounds coming from the speaker. She has good taste in music!

Menswear Moments : Worth Winning (1989)

Last night I watched a smarmy, generally witless 1989 romantic comedy that I could not recommend for its plot, acting, or direction. I have seen this film before and have subjected myself to it repeatedly. Why would I do such a thing?

Because Worth Winning, with Mark Harmon, happens to be one of the best menswear movies of all time. Harmon plays an impossibly toothsome Philadelphia-based TV weatherman who agrees to a bet that he can get three selected women currently unknown to him to accept offers of marriage within three months. Of course he genuinely falls in love with one of them, the testiest initially, and yada yada yada. You can see where this is going.

But what makes the movie for me is that Harmon is an irresistibly natty jacket, tie, and braces guy. One of the reasons that I'm a boutonniere regular from spring through fall is that Harmon's character Taylor Worth (note the clothing pun) sports a flower in his lapel every day. This made a deep impression on the young businessman that I was, and I've enjoyed adding a flower to my outfits ever since. My favorite visual in the movie is of a pinstripe-suited Harmon walking past an open air flower kiosk as he talks to the camera (one of the movie's chief conceits), accepting a bloom from the prepared saleswoman, and fixing it casually in his buttonhole as he strides and yaps.

In the opening scene (ladies' day at the racetrack), Harmon is wearing a light checked double-vented sportcoat, an "odd" (as in non-matching) lapeled vest, dark trousers, perfectly knotted tie, and brown and white spectator wingtips. That sets the tone. As the movie goes on he wears a variety of suits and sportcoat/trouser combos, one nicer than the last, a lovely collection of braces, a lovely collection of watches, expensive Italian loafers, expensive black wingtips, white bucks and pastel socks, tab collar shirts, a Brooks Bros. lavender cardigan sweater-vest (called out in the dialogue), and so on. His casual wardobe is equally breathtaking -- pleated cotton trousers, slightly oversize linen shirts, and when he goes rustic at his Bucks County cabin, straight-leg jeans, a soft plaid shirt that's definitely a cut above Eddie Bauer, and topsiders without socks.

It's all too much, I need to go lie down now.

Thomas Wolfe

I follow a very predictable pattern on Saturdays: morning coffee at the local Atlanta Bread Company while reading a big Victorian novel (currently Can You Forgive Her?); errands including picking up and dropping off drycleaning; a stop at the Appleton Public Library to refuel on books, DVDs (they have a great collection which I fully avail myself of even though I'm also an enthusiastic Netflix subscriber), CDs -- I always have the maximum 75 allowed items out! For lunch on Saturdays, I stop at the food court of the Fox River Mall -- not my favorite place generally, but Kato's Cajun offers a whopping big plate of fried rice for $1.99, and who can beat that? I was settling in with my rice and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night yesterday when a woman at the next table spotted the book and suddenly asked me, "Have you ever heard of Thomas Wolfe?"

It turned out that she had recently visited Asheville and had been to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the boarding house he grew up in (as well as to the Biltmore estate, Asheville's other famous attraction). I got into a lively conversation with her and a younger woman (her daughter-in-law, I think) about Wolfe and Fitzgerald and that whole era of American writing. So it is possible to have a cultural encounter even at a commercial cathedral like the Fox River Mall! Just be carrying the right book.

It got me to thinking that I need to re-visit Wolfe. I read Look Homeward, Angel with great pleasure a number of years ago, and followed it with David Herbert Donald's excellent biography of Wolfe, Look Homeward, and Wolfe's essay The Story of a Novel and his play Welcome to Our City. One of the issues that came up during the lunch conversation is how ironic it is that Wolfe is now Asheville's most celebrated son, because at the time he was publishing the residents of the city weren't too fond of him -- his characters were mostly based quite transparently on real individuals, often portrayed none too flatteringly.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ursula Bethell

I respond to poetry, but I am not a very skilled explicator of it. In fact, if you asked me to explain what some of my favorite poems "mean," I would probably dither helplessly. I'm not against meaning; I like many poems because I sense meanings behind the attractive pattern of words, and I am grateful to those who can help me see what some of those meanings might be. I am also not great with the technical aspects of poetry such as meter.

So when I make modest notes about poetry, the encoded message is usually, "Help!"

I have been glancing through An Anthology of Twentieth-Century New Zealand Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1970), which I have out from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay library. I have been attracted to a selection of poems by Ursula Bethell (1874-1945), about whom information can be found at these websites:

A number of her poems can be linked to from the second site. There is something (note how vague I am!) in Bethell's way of talking about time and botany, clearly two of her favorite subjects, that is arresting and original, at least to my ears. She was a gardener, a serious Anglican, a woman whose primary emotional attachments were with other women. Here is a representative poem published in 1939 that I like very much. I am especially taken with the way it shifts gears in the final four lines to become more abstract and "philosophical":

October Morning

‘All clear, all clear, all clear!’ after the storm in the morning.
The birds sing; all clear the rain-scoured firmament,
All clear the still blue horizontal sea;
And what, all white again? all white the long line of the mountains.
And clear on sky’s sheer blue intensity.
Gale raved night-long, but all clear, now, in the sunlight
And sharp, earth-scented air, a fair new day.
The jade and emerald squares of far-spread cultivated
All clear, and powdered foot-hills, snow-fed waterway,
And every black pattern of plantation made near;
All clear, the city set . . . but oh for taught interpreter,
To translate the quality, the excellence, for initiate seer
To tell the essence of this hallowed clarity,
Reveal the secret meaning of the symbol: ‘clear.’

I am interested to read in Vincent O'Sullivan's Introduction to the latest edition of Bethell's Collected Poems that Bethell was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose innovative and electrifying poems had come to public attention in 1918, some thirty years after his death. This did not surprise me: I thought I had sensed the example of Hopkins in Bethell's manner (in a very positive way).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Trad Bloggers

Although I post in the web bulletin board Ask Andy About Clothes "Trad Forum," I am not a trad myself; I occasionally employ a trad element, but that's about it. If you want to know more about "trad," you can visit the forum itself, or attend to the blogs of two AAAC members, Tucker and Patrick (whose blog is Coiled Pleasures). These urbane gentlemen write well about much besides clothing, but they are also wonderful guides to the trad ethos.

UPDATE (5/1/2009): An example of what I don't do anymore. Nothing against these guys specifically, but in addition to ceasing any blogging cross-promotion here at PMD, I got out of "Menswear Cyberspace" altogether -- just too nasty. Both Tucker and Patrick discontinued their blogs sometime after I wrote this, then re-started them.

Beer: Black Wattle Superior Wattle Seed Ale

I've fallen hard for a dandy new beer, Black Wattle Superior Wattle Seed Ale from Barons Brewing of Sydney, Australia. What, you may ask, is wattle seed? Well, wattle "is a native Australian tree found in abundance around Australia," and wattle seed is now used as "an innovative flavoring agent."

When I bought the beer, I hoped that it would introduce me to a new and interesting flavor; but that the flavor would be subtly employed, not in a gimmicky or overpowering way. And guess what? I got exactly what I hoped for! The only problem is, the wattle seed flavor is so new to me that I don't know quite how to describe it (and I'm not one of those people who has great aptitude for the precise description of flavors in beer or wine to begin with). I'll just have to say that the wattle seed adds a lovely "je ne sais quoi" to a beer that would probably be smashing even without it. So if you see this beer on your local liquor shelves, by all means grab it.

UPDATE (5/1/2009): My local beer emporium is discontinuing all its Barons beers, and the Wattle Seed Ale was the first to entirely disappear, darn it!

My Wardrobe: Black and White Spectator Wingtips

These Allen Edmonds Broadstreet black and white spectator wingtips are among my favorite shoes. Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1985, I saw a newspaper ad for The Hound men's clothier (still in existence) that showed a thirty-ish businessman in a tan poplin suit and black and white wingtips like these. Always enamored of clothes, I thought this was the sharpest thing I had ever seen; and I immediately felt, "Now that's what I want to look like." The rest is history...

I wore these with my latest tan poplin suit today, in hommage to that moment.

Chronicle of Higher Education

I subscribe to the "Daily Report" email from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am not a print subscriber so I don't have access to all the articles, but the "Careers" section is fully accessible. Read this daily and you will never, ever regret not getting a PhD.

It is without question the most gruesome reading of my day, just about every day. Struggling to get through doctoral programs; turning over every stone in creation to find possible tenure track jobs; being humiliated in the interviewing and selection process; settling for crappy jobs at lesser institutions; dealing with publish or perish, political correctness, departmental infighting, and a hundred other indignities; sweating through the tenure process if one should be so lucky as to get that far -- it is all there, in excruciating detail, and it should be read by every academic aspirant. Although I doubt that the folks at the Chronicle consciously intend to promote such an unflattering picture of academe, the fact is that I know of no other "official" organ of a profession that is so nightmare- and nausea-inducing. Upon sufficient exposure to the Chronicle, one would have to be a fool to think that higher education provides any sort of refuge for gentle intellectual souls from the cut-throat machinations of the corporate world.

And so I'm glad that I topped out at a master's.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


A dear friend of mine had to put down his beloved dog of 14 years today, just a few weeks after having to do the same with one of his cats. He has another dog and another cat, but that scarcely makes the losses less difficult. I've been there.

I can't imagine life without animals, honestly. I have had many companion animals over the years, some more successfully than others (not every relationship works!), but the best of them have been among the great pleasures of my life: Cooper the Border Collie mix, Piper the cockatiel, Pickles the orange tabby, Tommy the ferret, Snowball the white bunny, Roger the brown bunny.

My current housemate is a preposterously adorable Birman named Claire. I am not sure how old she is: probably around 12 or 13, but she doesn't seem a bit old, and I hope she has many years left. I got her as a rescue cat and the vet guessed her age to be about 7 or 8, and identified her as a purebred Birman (a very beautiful one, too, with smoky coloring and the characteristic four white paws). She was a very scared cat and must have had difficult younger days; her breed is typically gregarious and gets along well with other animals, but Claire is still frightened of all people but me and probably would not do well except in a one-pet household. I cheerfully oblige her, because she is a great cat!

In her one-on-one relations with me, Claire is very much like other Birmans. They bond strongly to people, greet their "owners" at the door and follow them from room to room like a puppy, and take a strong and curious interest in human doings. They are calm and sweet-natured, very gentle and loving, and, unusually for cats, enjoy making eye contact.

It continually surprises me that this breed is not better known. When the sad day comes for me and Claire as it came for my friend and his dog today, I will be certain to make a home for another Birman, because I've never run across a more thoroughly companionable pet.

How Not to Win an Election

Actual headline on today:

McCain predicts Iraq war over by 2013

Somehow I just don't think that line is going to win him any votes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mike D'Angelo

Mike D'Angelo, like so many film critics, has hit hard times:

Despite my feuding relationship with MD'A going way back, I was moved to read about this, and I commented in his blog:

"Mike, you and I butted heads regularly during my time in the web-group Cinemasters... Nonetheless, I am very saddened to read of this development. No matter my disagreements with you, you are a fine professional writer, and it is quite disheartening to read what has been happening to you and other similarly situated critics. Having been a freelance writer and film critic myself long years ago, I thoroughly understand the economics of it; including the necessity of living in one of the world's most expensive cities (NYC, LA, London, Paris) in order to maintain any pretense of being connected to the main flow of cinematic events. (Not sure how Rosenbaum has gotten away with being Chicago-based all these years, it's a decent movie city but not really in the top tier.)

It's ironic that with the Internet, there are more opportunities to write about movies than ever before, and less chance of making money at it -- especially with the veritable replacement army of potential writers for any given commercial assignment.

I guess I made my peace with this situation some time ago by taking corporate employment (not "secure" -- what is, these days? -- but decently paid) in one of the more affordable reaches of small city America. It has disappointed me that I was not able to make my real interests "pay," but such is life, I guess.

I really do hope you find some decent regular gigs and can keep at it, Mike. I have always continued to read your work with interest."

UPDATE (5/1/2009): I now feel I was too kind. There was a plaintive quality to this one post of Mike's which drew my momentary sympathy, but basically he has stayed as abrasive and prima donnish as ever.

The endless way he rolls out the annual "Skandie" awards of his band of acolytes (this year it took twenty days!), and his own top ten lists, you would think he was awarding Nobel Prizes. "The world waits with bated breath..."

UPDATE (5/16/2009): Robert Kennedy at Confabulation noted that Mike D'Angelo was reporting from Cannes for The Onion, and provided the link; to which I responded:

I've got to say, although I know that I can be a little obsessive on this subject (but we all need a hobby-horse or two, right?), that reading md'a's Cannes dispatches is enough to make me think about forswearing irony for the rest of my life. I won't, of course -- but that's how bad it is, I don't even want to share the use of a technique with the guy. I am waiting patiently for a serious, elevated critical movement called The New Earnestness, or something like that; I feel that it must be coming, as a necessary reaction and corrective to all the snarking.

The Simple Joy of Driving

I came to driving later in life than most, which is perhaps one reason I enjoy it so. And say what else I might about Northeast Wisconsin, this is a great place to be a driver. There's almost no traffic, so you can plan your trips practically down to the minute -- it's 38 minutes on the average from my apartment in Appleton to my workplace in Green Bay, for example, and I'm usually within a couple of minutes of that. People on the whole are polite, decent drivers (even on a couple of highways that get speedy). Parking is ample everywhere -- I haven't had to parallel park in my six years here, and frankly I've pretty much forgotten how. There is seldom a charge for parking, and even downtown ramps are at most a buck. For all the above reasons, road rage is pretty much non-existent. The only driving challenges here are related to winter conditions -- one does have to take some care with those. Otherwise, it's driving heaven.

Of course, with $3.75 gas (the new record here, yesterday), the simple joy of driving is apt to become an un-affordable joy. I may start working from home one day per week to keep my commuting costs down.

Middle America Blues

Sometimes the Middle American-ness of Middle America gets me down. That could partly be because I live in Appleton, Wisconsin, which is practically an epicenter of that Middle American quality. It's a nice, affordable city in the nice, affordable Northeast Wisconsin region, but there are times I feel out of whack with my surroundings -- single in the land of the coupled, childless in the land of the prolific (really, four kids around here is nothing), intellectual in the land of...well, the non-intellectual, gay in the land of the straight, summer-lover in the land of long winters, etc. (Of course, I'm largely out of whack with my era, too, and I know that.)

All that said, I've lived all over the United States, and I don't know of a better place to live in America: the bigger cities have certainly priced themselves out of my market. I rather think my next move is going to take me away from the United States, permanently, to spend the second half of my life elsewhere. Puerto Vallarta, perhaps? (a city I just love). I turn 50 in August and I'm thinking about such things.

UPDATE (5/1/2009): I have started within the past year to feel badly bored by Northeast Wisconsin. That doesn't mean it's the worst place I've lived or that I couldn't continue to live here, but since I'm between jobs at the moment (long, economy-based story), I'm concentrating on the sun belt (Texas, Florida, North Carolina) in my current high school teaching job search. That's where all the teaching jobs are these days, anyway; Midwest schools are laying teachers off in large numbers.

West Virginia

I don't think that Hillary Clinton's big primary victory in West Virginia says much about her or about Barack Obama, but it does say a lot about West Virginia seizing the opportunity to be known as a state of (a) racists, and (b) cretins who believe that Obama is a Muslim, a terrorist, etc. (as was widely reported in the press). This is an unfortunate strategy for a state that is already among the most looked-down-upon. Kentucky, your chance is coming up!

Lest anyone construe my remarks as elitist -- hey, I am an elitist, I cheerfully admit it. Unlike Obama, I don't have to answer to anyone for it. I know there are great minds and noble souls in West Virginia, but that won't be the take-away here.

Speaking of (reverse) elitism, Hillary's attempts to re-brand herself as "jes folks" provoke great mirth in my quarter. I think a degree from Yale Law School, let alone occupancy of the White House, disbars one from common man status ever after. I always kind of liked Hillary and thought she was unjustly maligned, but my regard for her has been slipping rapidly during this campaign. I don't think any of the three possible Presidents before the electorate is a bad choice, and all are much better than what we've had lately, but I think Clinton has really damaged herself -- and it was entirely her choice.

Menswear Moments: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Doreen: This is a nice room, are all them clothes 'yorn.
Arthur Seaton: Ah, just a few rags.
Doreen: They must have cost you a pretty penny.
Arthur Seaton: I get good wages.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, another of the British New Wave films about an "angry young man" (based on a novel by Alan Sillitoe, directed by Karel Reisz), Albert Finney's Arthur works at a factory but has assembled a very nice going-out jacket-and-tie wardrobe. To think that men who didn't wear ties for work wore them to socialize in -- those were the days!

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

I usually have a 19th century novel in progress, and I came to Can You Forgive Her? straight from Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit. The Dickens/Trollope juxtaposition is instructive. As great as Dickens is, you certainly get more of a feel for "normal" human life and relations from Trollope. This includes romantic and sexual matters as well as the political and economic practicalities that Trollope is famous for illuminating. Can You Forgive Her? hinges on women's choices in the marriage arena, which is (if you think about it) rather outside Dickens's range even when plotting forces him to touch on it. There is also a touch of the grotesque about most of Dickens's memorable characters; Trollope is good precisely with the non-grotesque.

Two of my favorite (and quite well-known) passages about Trollope are from American novelists. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that Trollope's novels

...precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.

Henry James noted that Trollope's

...great, his incontestable merit, was a complete appreciation of the usual...he felt all daily and immediate things as well as saw them; felt them in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable meanings.

The title Can You Forgive Her? has always invited punning. Henry James answered Trollope's question, "Of course we can, and forget her, too, for that matter"; the satirical magazine Punch re-dubbed the novel Can You Stand Her?; Stephen King later came up with Can You Possibly Finish It? (it is a long book, but no longer than most Victorian three-deckers). Can You Stand Her? is perhaps the most apropos joke, since there is no doubt that the ditherings of the heroine Alice Vavasor between her two suitors can dispose the reader to exasperation with her. The analysis of her uncertainties is beautifully nuanced, somewhat Jamesian in fact; but there is also something a shade comic in her plight:

...could she permit it to be said of her that she had thrice in her career jilted a promised suitor, -- that three times she would go back from her word because her fancy had changed?

To which the answer would be, "Yes." But Alice's indecision also makes her a fascinatingly modern figure; and although Trollope's own sexual politics, which come across forcefully in the omniscient authorial commentary, are scarcely what we would call modern, he has put his finger on a sort of dilemma (played out in Lady Glencora Palliser's situation in this same book as well) that would continue to be central in novels that followed him. Can You Forgive Her? strikes me so far as a great book -- I have completed 37 of 80 chapters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Wardrobe: Tan and White Spectator Loafers

These are Cole-Haans: I've called them suede but they might actually be nubuck, the look is finer-textured. The style is penny loafer, the main color is a sandy tan and the vamps are white. Very summery and comfortable, these beg to be worn without socks -- as I did today. (I'm taking a few days off from work.)

Menswear Moments: The Rubber Band

Horrocks looked sturdy and wholesome in a sack suit that hung like a dream, and I got so interested looking at it that I almost forgot it was him inside of it. (Archie Goodwin, Chapter 18)

Archie is a clothes-horse, and his attentiveness to what he and others wear is one of the delights of the Nero Wolfe series.

Fiction Finished Recently

Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto -- Eleven books down, two to go in A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of the drollest productions in the English language.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End -- This recent acclaimed novel about a Chicago advertising agency during a time of layoffs is a real disappointment. Written mainly in the first person plural ("we" did this and "we" did that), but the book's somewhat inventive form can't make up for its deficits. It has a manner, a definite bag of tricks, but whatever point that manner can make is made early. The lapses in realism seem purposeless, the "characters" are cardboard, and there is no plotting to speak of, only observation. There are funny bits, to be sure, but those are not hard to come up with in depicting the business world.

Joe Gores, Interface -- Gores is highly rated as a thriller/detective novelist, and this item from the Seventies is somewhat renowned for its brutality and its twist ending. The twist isn't bad and the brutality is real, but Gores's prose is so poor that it took me forever to get to the end of the book. In a novel of motion, the movements need to be more adroitly described than, say, this:

"[The car] went past, on toward the next intersecting lane down the garage which was parallel to that which was sawhorsed."

That's not an unfair sample, either. The novel is full of sentences like that. I'm not saying prose quality is everything -- I admire the famously clumsy (but powerful) Theodore Dreiser, for example -- but it hampered my enjoyment here.

John Braine, Room at the Top --The basis of the famous 1959 film with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, Braine's first novel is quite marvelously accomplished and compelling, a standout among the rawly realistic British novels of that era.

Rex Stout, The Rubber Band -- Anyone who reads this blog for any length of time will become familiar with my Archie Goodwin obsession. Of all fictional characters, Nero Wolfe's sidekick and narrator is the one I would most wish to be like -- both in terms of breezy temperament and sartorial panache. (Timothy Hutton is a great Goodwin in the TV series.)

I can never seem to follow Nero Wolfe plots, in print or on television, but the plots are not the real attraction, which rests for me in Goodwin's persona, Stout's excellent style, and the "world" created in the books (as compelling as the world of Sherlock Holmes). Wonderful stuff.

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit -- I am a very serious Dickensian; I've even lectured on him (the origins of "A Christmas Carol," specifically). Martin Chuzzlewit, one of the Dickens novels least known to the general public, is a marvelous novel, no less a masterpiece than (say) David Copperfield.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Blackbirder -- This reads like a Forties thriller that was made into a movie -- which happened with other Hughes titles, but not this one. It would still make a good movie; Angelina Jolie, take note, there's a plum role here for you. The weakness (unsurprisingly in this genre) is in the depth of characterization; but I was sufficiently impressed to want to take a look at other Hughes novels.

James Blish, They Shall Have Stars -- The characterization is also the weakness in this classic science fiction novel, the first in Blish's Cities in Flight tetralogy. Am I in for the long haul? Probably: I was on the fence about this novel, but it was (partially) redeemed by a surprise conclusion that pulled everything together. It is, I think, axiomatic that classic science fiction is more reflective of the past it was written in than the future it projects; more so than some fiction, it needs to be read historically.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Wardrobe: Tan Camel-hair Sportcoat

Clothing is one of my most enthusiastic hobbies (and biggest expenses). Life being what it is, I'll take whatever form of cheering up that seems to work, and dressing well has always met that need for me. I'm a guy in a tie.

I have posted on most of the menswear bulletin boards on the Web, but I have backed off the majority of them eventually, as well, because, like most male-dominated discussion groups, they tend to turn into contests and become nasty. Who needs that? I had been in the habit of posting my daily outfits in the "What Are You Wearing Today?" threads on various boards (although without the usual accompanying photographs), but have given up on most except for Ask Andy About Clothes (which is a gentlemanly place). There you can still find my daily posts in both the "Fashion Forum" and the "Trad Forum" (I'm not genuinely trad, but I like the guys in that forum).

Here at PMD, I'll post about individual items in my wardrobe because, well, it's fun for me to do.

Today I was off work (taking a little vacation time through this Wednesday), but I still wore a sportcoat as I do on almost all my off days. Today's coat was a real favorite, a vintage Brooks Brothers tan camel-hair sportcoat that I purchased on Ebay. Single breasted, three button, ventless. I had to have the sleeves taken down a bit (I have long arms even for a 44 Long). This is one of my most comfortable, companionable, and versatile sportcoats. I wore it today with blackwatch plaid trousers and an open-necked white button-down -- as well as my pinstriped Timber Rattlers baseball cap, when I went to the ballpark.

Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

One of the primary pleasures of living in Appleton, Wisconsin, is having a minor league baseball team, the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, just a couple of miles away.

Although it is sacriligious to say so here in Northeast Wisconsin, Green Bay Packers territory, I'm really not all that interested in football -- although I have enjoyed the Packers games that I have been to, and I also enjoy the sheer historical anomaly of an NFL team still existing in a small city of 100,000 inhabitants.

But baseball is my team sport. My maternal grandfather, who lived with my family when I was a tot, was a New York Giants fan and told me stories of seeing Christy Mathewson pitch in the 1910-1915 era -- you don't forget stories like that! Although I never learned to play baseball worth a lick, I have a deep feeling for the history and traditions of the sport.

That devotion was sorely tested by the major league strike of 1994 -- I was never as intense about the big league game after that. But part of me always wanted to have a Bull Durham-like relationship with a minor league team, and here in Appleton I have my chance.

Like the Packers, the Timber Rattlers have a public ownership model, so I am actually a "team owner" (one of about 200) by virtue of having purchased a share in the team. I know and am on a first-name basis with a good many of the folks in the front office, including the president, the assistant general manager, and the radio announcer -- it's the Cheers "where everybody knows your name" effect, and it's really nice.

The facility, known by the somewhat unwieldy name of Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium, is a exceptionally nice place to watch a game, have a few beers (and they've got some good micros!), and enjoy bantering with folks (in the seats, on the concourse, or in the "Leinie Lodge"). So I'm a regular during the season, even when the night games are a little cold, as they tend to be in April and early May.

The Rattlers' radio guy, Chris Mehring, who also handles corporate partnerships for the team, is a fine play-by-play craftsman and raconteur -- minor league announcers are soloists and have to carry three hour broadcasts by themselves, no easy feat. Chris is also an imaginatively inspired blogger:

This season during a string of early rain-outs, Chris introduced Carl the Rain-Hating Camel and Brick the Bad Weather-Hating Bactrian, who have already become cult figures in my household.

Reading Diary

Since one of the primary functions of this blog will be to serve as a reading diary, I ought to take a snapshot of where my reading life is this minute. I always have a lot of books of all types in progress.


Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? -- The first of the six-novel Palliser series; I'm about halfway through, and enjoying it thoroughly. The first Trollope I've read in a number of years, since the great Orley Farm (a singleton in Trollope's output, dominated in the public mind by the Palliser and Barsetshire series).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night -- Past the two-thirds point of this key Fitzgerald novel; my reaction to it is still not settled, and I should have more to say about that.

Alan Moore / Eddie Campbell, From Hell -- I have always been fascinated by the Jack the Ripper case, so I am overdue in reading this celebrated graphic novel version of it. The footnotes are longer than the text, which gives me amusement and pleasure; this is one serious book! I haven't seen the Hughes Brothers' movie version yet (and speaking of the Hughes Brothers, what have they been doing since 2001, when From Hell the movie came out? I've heard of being trapped in development hell, but that is ridiculous...).

Richard Powell, Say It with Bullets -- A revived 1953 crime novel in the great Hard Case Crime paperback series: entertaining and well-written.


Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival -- The first critical work (published in 1928) by Kenneth Clark of Civilisation fame. That pioneering television series had such a profound impact on me as an adolescent. Clark is as good a writer as he is a televisual guide.

James Harvey, Movie Love in the Fifties -- Terrific criticism, with sharp insights into directors, actors, and specific films. The chapter on Doris Day would be enough to hook anyone.

Herbert R. Lottman, Jules Verne -- Verne was the first author I took a serious interest in, and the first I read an adult novel by (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the summer after 2nd grade). This is a very entertaining biography.

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City -- This best-seller has a surefire double subject (a World's Fair and a serial killer!) and is quite absorbing; but I think that by historians' standards, Larson cheats (which is to say, makes stuff up, including dialogue and descriptions of people's observations and thought processes) in the interest of providing a novelistic narrative.

Joseph Epstein, In a Cardboard Belt! -- Epstein certainly has the curmudgeonly essayist persona down cold. His maddening flaw -- he's just too damn sure of himself -- is balanced by his great readability. However, I wouldn't want him as a friend.

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August -- Just a few chapters into this classic study of the opening month of World War I; living up to its reputation so far.