Monthly Archives: July 2007

Dead letters

It says something about the state of the publishing industry that some of its most successful authors are the dead ones. J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, was just on the fiction bestseller list with The Children of Hurin, a cobbled-together work that will take its place just behind The Silmarillion as one of Tolkien’s most purchased and least read works. Poor old Ernest Hemingway’s papers have been picked over as thoroughly as a carcass on the Serengeti, with steadily diminishing returns. (Have even hardcore Papaphiles gotten all the way through True at First Light? Let’s see some hands.)   

It’s one thing for an author’s heirs to pick through his leavings, or even commission brand new works (cf., the estates of Margaret Mitchell and Ian Fleming), but I didn’t realize there were living authors who set out to turn themselves into posthumous brand names: horror writer V.C. Andrews and most notably Robert Ludlum

I’m no snob about thrillers — I read plenty of them — but it seems this arrangement favors writers whose work relies more on gimmicks and plotting than character and voice. I could imagine somebody churning out more Travis McGee books in a pastiche of John D. MacDonald’s style, but I don’t see George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane lending themselves to this sort of treatment.

It does give the term “ghost writer” a whole new meaning, though, doesn’t it?   

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Passages: Graham Greene

Wormold, a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, is playing checkers with Captain Segura, a Cuban military officer and torturer:

      “Did you torture him?”

      Captain Segura laughed. “No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.”

      “I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.”

      “Dear Mr. Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.”

      “There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing . . . ?”

      “One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.”

      “Who does?”

      “The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.”

      “You always win, don’t you? That’s an interesting theory of yours.”

      “One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or in the prisons of Lisbon and Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.”

      “We’re not shocked by that any longer.”

      “It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.”

Thanks to one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers for reminding me about that passage. I trust the relevance to our current situation is obvious.

Hand me my listenin’ phones

I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell to wing its way across the Atlantic. But I can listen to him talk about his book and Blind Willie McTell on BBC Radio 4, and now so can you.

A little touch of Harry in the night

Not to sound impolite or anything, but Harold Bloom and every other Harry Potter naysayer can go take a long walk off a short pier. Having squired the kids to the local Potter party for the midnight unveiling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I spent the weekend devouring the novel because (a) I wanted to read it before some dipstick spoiled the plot twists for me, and (b) I genuinely like the series and wanted to see how everything would turn out.

I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to spoilers: when reviews of the new book started cropping up at Salon and the New York Times, I had to forcibly restrain myself from clicking the mouse and scanning the articles, like Dr. Strangelove fighting to keep from being strangled by his own leather-gloved hand. But the fight paid off, and I got to see how everything turned out.

So, how did it turn out? Very well indeed. I won’t indulge in any plot talk just yet. Suffice to say that despite the overwriting and creaky plot devices that are as much a part of the Potter series as brooms and magic wands, it is now clear that J.K. Rowling has been fully in control of her material right from the start, and that all the little details sown through the previous six books were there for a reason. In Deathly Hallows, Rowling pulls them all together, throws in some new characters and conflicts for good measure, yanks several rugs out from under her readers’ expectations and brings everything to a deeply satisfying conclusion. She has also presented the film production team adapting her books with nearly insurmountable storytelling problems, and tough luck for them. Some of the Potter films are better than others, but not one has equalled or improved on Rowling’s work, and in Deathly Hallows she guns her engine in their faces and leaves them eating dust.

There are some blowout set pieces here, but the real magic is in the culmination of the themes that give the series its toughness and heft — particularly the theme of how our choices (including our friendships) shape us and guide us. There are some bitterly gloomy passages in this story, but there is also a spirit of generosity that extends even to formulaic characters like the Dursleys while giving the most evil ones their moments of pathos and grandeur. There are also some very obvious references to The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but they come across as Rowling tipping her hat to the greats as she prepares to take her place among them.

That’s why I was happy to be up at midnight with The Divine Miss T and Dances With Mermaids, watching them dressed up as house-elves and shooting magic wands at each other, knowing full well that there would be a weekend of readjustment and crankiness from disrupted sleeping schedules. I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would get to see a phenomenon in which a book — a book! — excited kids so much that they would gladly stand in line to get their hands on a copy, and I don’t know if we’ll see its like again anytime soon. But I’m glad I was there for it, and doubly glad that J.K. Rowling delivered so fully on the expectations she created.           

Scream and scream again

Even if you’re not a hardcore film geek, you may have noticed that a particular highly identifiable scream often crops up in different movies during violent action scenes. Turns out that “The Wilhelm Scream” is a particular sound effect from a 1951 western that has become sort of an in-joke for sound engineers, who have planted it in everything from Star Wars to Toy Story. This YouTube assemblage of Wilhem Screams from various movies is a real hoot, as is this brief history of how the scream became a Hollywood legend.

Me and Johnny MacD

For many years, I didn’t consider a summer to be complete unless I had (a) ridden the Cyclone at Coney Island at least once, and (b) read a few of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime novels. Something about a hot, mosquito-humming summer, cold beer and Travis McGee just seemed to go together. Maybe it was the fact that most of the novels are set in Florida. Whatever.

I’d always heard that the audio book editions read by Darren McGavin were in a class by themselves. I just heard a cassette set of McGavin’s reading of Bright Orange for the Shroud and it was good enough to send me scurrying to track down his recordings of the other novels. Looks like this season will mark the return of the McGee summers, adapted for the late-model version of me that needs something to listen to during a lousy commute.

McGavin’s low, borderline growly delivery, with its occasional theatrical flourishes, turns out to be perfect for MacDonald’s style. He’s not a wizard of voices like Jim Dale — whenever another character speaks, McGavin alters his timbre just enough to let you know it. Since the books are written in the first person, this makes sense. It also spares us the sound of McGavin trying to do a Southern accent, which judging from his few attempts at down-home speech appears to have been well outside his skill set. I look forward to getting McGavin’s version of The Long Lavender Look, which stands with  Bright Orange for the Shroud as the best of the McGees. (Yes, the color-coded titles can sound pretty cheesy; no, that doesn’t entitle you to write the books off.) 

My only beef is that these are abridged recordings, and when the action skips forward we get an anonymous sounding narrator instead of McGavin. Not only does this break the mood, it seems unnecessary — the McGee novels typically ran to 200-plus pages, which ought to fit comfortably on two or three cassettes.

One of Tom Wolfe’s favorite complaints, aired whenever he’s doing his I Am The Reincarnation of Balzac routine to hype a new novel, is that American writers have lost the zest for research and realistic detail — that they’re writing academic, isolated literary works in cork-lined rooms instead of taking to the streets and wrestling with the billion-footed beast, or something like that. It’s not a terribly astute observation, and it’s complete nonsense when it comes to the best crime fiction, which thrives on realism. Most of MacDonald’s novels, and the McGee books in particular, add up to a composite portrait of mid-20th century Florida before the feverish postwar development boom really started to kick in. It’s no wonder that Carl Hiaasen is a MacDonald devotee: the plundering of Florida, with its attendant environmental and social ills, was central to MacDonald’s work at a time when many people were just getting around to to reading Silent Spring. That he did this while delivering solid, engaging crime stories makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

MacDonald also had a knack for scarily convincing bad guys and semi-bad guys who might just tip over all the way under the right conditions. Boone Waxwell in Bright Orange for the Shroud and Lilo Perris in The Long Lavender Look are rustic psychopaths who would make short work of Hannibal Lecter, and unlike the ghoulish gourmandizer they’re entirely believable. Bright Orange turns on the kind of land-development scam that’s probably being played out in a hundred different ways right now, and the effort to turn the tables on the con-men proves a lot more difficult, and a lot bloodier, than anything those jolly scammers in The Sting could have handled.

The few times MacDonald stumbled were when he stepped away from nitty-gritty realism and wandered into action-movie fantasies like The Green Ripper. I don’t want Travis McGee going up single-handed against a terrorist cult. I want Travis McGee tanlging with shady lawyers, sleazy developers and mangrove-swamp drug dealers who can’t afford to have any skeletons shaken loose from their closets.

And if, along the way, MacDonald pauses to deliver one of his trademarked bits of potted philosophy, or angry lectures on the state of life in America, circa 1960s, then so much the better. I also like the potted philosophy in Moby-Dick. I also think Tom Waits should record the little disquisition on the nature of poodles that enlivens Nightmare in Pink.

If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet can get Library of America editions, then I hereby nominate John D. MacDonald for the same honor. Put in The Long Lavender Look, Bright Orange for the Shroud, and The Empty Copper Sea to represent the McGees, then round out the picture with A Flash of Green (corrupt journalist hired to dig up dirt on environmentalist troublemakers), The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear) and maybe The Last One Left. If the Library of America needs somebody to pull it together, I am available.               

Lethal weapon

Since I liked Patton Oswalt’s voice work as the rodent hero of Ratatouille, I decided to check out one of his stand-up comedy recordings. I listened to Werewolves and Lollipops during the drive home from work and I’m surprised I didn’t end up causing a 20-car pileup on the southbound lanes of the Turnpike. The guy isn’t just hysterically funny, he’s an active menace to life and limb — when played on a car stereo, at any rate.

One of the funniest bits involves his travails as a Hollywood screenwriter and the problem of realizing one is working in an industry where money, time and talent go into making a movie called Death Bed, about a demonic bed that eats anyone who lies down on it. Oswalt challenges the audience to “IMDB it” and sure enough, the movie’s there. He gets the subtitle wrong: the movie isn’t called Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People, it’s called Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, which manages to be even worse. 

Better still (or maybe not) the cast includes Dave Marsh, the Elvis- and Bruce-obsessed rock music critic who in 1977 had just graduated from Creem to Rolling Stone. I’m almost tempted to see if Marsh does for acting what he’s done for music criticism. If so, then it’s no wonder Death Bed took three decades to see release.       

Chillin’ with der Fuhrer

Simon Waldman, who nowadays styles himself 50 Quid Bloke (spotlighted by 3 Quarks Daily) has dug up and scanned in some pages from the November 1938 issue of an English magazine called Homes & Gardens. The article has the same genteel starfucker tone recognizable to anyone who’s read Architectural Digest, with the creepy difference that here the subject is the country retreat of a statesman named Adolf Hitler.

It’s a quick read, and the pictures are fascinating. Bear in mind that the vapid, fawning descriptions of Hitler and his mountain abode were written after Germany’s participation in the Spanish Civil War, with its aerial bombardments of defenseless civilians (commemorated by Pablo Picasso in his painting Guernica, unveiled the summer before this article ran, at the International Exposition in Paris); less than a year after the Anschluss with Austria and only two months after the annexation of the Sudetendland districts of Czechoslovakia. Remember also that Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom throughout Germany and Austria, took place during the month this issue hit the news stands:

It is a mistake to guess that week-end guests are all, or even mainly, State officials. Hitler delights in the society of brilliant foreigners, especially painters, musicians and singers. As host, he is a droll raconteur; we all know how surprised were Mr. Lloyd George and his party when they accepted an invitation to Haus Wachenfeld.The guest bedrooms are hung with old engravings. But more interesting than any of these to the visitor are the Führer’s own water-colour sketches. Time was when a hungry Hitler was glad to raise a few marks by selling these little works; none measures more than about eight inches square, and each is signed “A. Hitler” – unmistakably, if also illegibly!

With the benefit of hindsight, even the most fatuous paragraphs give off a little chill of premonition:

Nor must I forget to mention the archery-butts at the back of the chalet. It is strange to watch the burly Field-Marshal Göring, as chief of the most formidable air force in Europe, taking a turn with the bow and arrow at straw targets of twenty-five yards range. There is as much to-do about those scarlet bulls-eyes as though the fate of nations depended on a perfect score!

Waldman first posted the pages in 2003 and got himself into a copyright dispute with the publisher that swelled into a cause celebre. Read his take on what happened here.

Snob Squad in kamikaze mode

Waking to the realization that soon they won’t have J.K. Rowling to kick around anymore, the Snob Squad has gone into full kamikaze mode against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Nicholas Lezard, for example, can’t believe he still has to explain why so much of Rowling’s prose is second-rate:

If I do, then that means you’re one of the many adults who don’t have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn’t make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost.

This is the kind of prose that reasonably intelligent nine-year-olds consider pretty hot stuff, if they’re producing it themselves; for a highly-educated woman like Rowling to knock out the same kind of material is, shall we say, somewhat disappointing.

Children exposed to this kind of writing aren’t learning anything new about words, or being stretched in any way; as Harold Bloom said, they’re not going to be inspired to go off and read the Alice books, or any other enduring classic.

People go hoopla because they’re delighted that Rowling has got children reading books – big, fat books without pictures at that. Can’t argue with that: and maybe they will learn something about sheer reading stamina in the process. But it’s all too easy.

A common thread in the complaints of the anti-Potter jihadis, it’s that the kids reading Potter should instead send their time reading . . . well, something else. For Harold Bloom, it’s The Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. For John Dolan, it’s Diana Wynne Jones, whose books — judging from Dolan’s description — do in fact sound pretty good. But they’re ultimately no more convincing than the fundies who deplore the books for mingling “satanic” themes with quotidian settings, or the literary hall monitors who automatically assume that any adult who reads the books must be forced to grow up, preferably through a regimen of Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer.

As much as I like the Potter books, I can recognize that ambition and bestsellerdom have had a baleful effect on Rowling’s prose. Are the later books overwritten? Yep. Could they benefit from more discipline and sharper editing? Yessir! But I hardly ever put down a book without some cavils. I also hardly ever pick up a book with as much pleasurable expectation as I will Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.    

Flipping over the Bird

Brad Bird is the new god of animation. I offer this considered opinion after a weekend viewing of Ratatouille, which has all the warmth and storytelling sophistication that Bird brought to his first two films: The Iron Giant, the last great traditionally animated film; and The Incredibles, his first for Pixar.

Even though Ratatouille began under another director, the finished film’s thematic preoccupations (chiefly being permitted to strive for greatness, regardless of circumstances) are of a piece with The Incredibles, and the attentiveness to detail are on par with both films. Brad Bird is now in a class by himself.

(The previous titleholder, Hayao Miyazaki, may yet win it back from Bird. Howl’s Moving Castle, the last Miyazaki entry, played like a hash of leftover material from Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but he’s at work on a new film and that’s always cause for optimism.)

The story (a rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a master chef in Paris) is part of the long tradition of tales about animals that want to rise above their station in life, but by the end of the film I wasn’t thinking about Babe. I was reminded of Babette’s Feast and the way it showed the humanizing effects of pleasure — the pleasure of a fine meal, the pleasure of working at a peak of artistry, the pleasure of being able to prove oneself in a way that benefits everyone.

The visuals are superb — that’s a given with Pixar. But Bird has a highly individual, uncannily apt instinct for picking out vocal talent for his characters. It was one thing to match up Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter as Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, but getting NPR correspondent Sara Vowell to do the voice of Violet was a masterstroke.

Bird pulls off a similar coup by getting stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt for the voice of Remy. Even the celebrity voices — Brian Dennehy, Ian Holm, Janeane and, best of all, Peter O’Toole as a ghoulish restaurant critic named Anton Ego — are so perfectly matched to their roles that they blend into the story. It’s only later, while reading the credits, that you realize how many big names were in the cast.

Unlike many of the movies that catch the attention of my kids, Ratatouille is a flick I look forward to seeing and hearing over and over once it hits DVD.