…Feather Crowns, by Bobbie Ann Mason. I’d liked Mason’s early short stories. I’d liked In Country, book and movie, too. But I hadn’t read anything by her since, until I plucked this out of a take one/leave one box. (I left one on ESP, which someone else took.) Anyway, this was quite fun. No brain twists or jolts but many affectionate sounds and smiles. One momentous event happens and then a second and lives are shaken and stirred. Most of the action takes place in rural 1900 Kentucky, with one dip back in time, and two brief, separate ones ahead. Mason imagines her way through this for her central character in ways that left me shaking my head in appreciation of her skill. A fine reminder of the pleasures a well-done, traditional novel can provide.
My latest is up: http://broadstreetreview.com/art-architecture/misleidys-pedroso-musculatura-viva-at-galerie-christian-berst
Maybe 30-years ago the jazz pianist Jessica Williams speculated to a Downbeat interviewer about what she did. It couldn’t be a profession, Williams said. It didn’t pay enough. Was it a disease, she wondered. A mania? A curse? A calling imposed by heredity or the gods? I suppose most artists who can’t keep up the Honda payments ask themselves that in one form or another. Misleidys Pedroso may not, but her work, tempura and watercolor on paper, displayed through the rest of this month at New York City’s Christian Berst Gallery, raises the question of why one creates with a unique volume and clarity.
Pedroso will turn 30 in September. She has lived her entire life, with her parents and older brother, in Guines, a city of 70,000, 30 miles southeast of Havana, in a Soviet-era concrete apartment building, which faces the sea. Born deaf, she does not speak, read or write. She expresses her needs or feelings through the simplest signs. She spends most of each day at home.
…Tom Clark’s biography of Charles Olson.
Lately, I’ve been letting randomness influence my reading selections by picking the Best Available out of the Free Little Library boxes that have sprung up around my neighborhood, and this was the first I finished. It was instructive enough that some of my thoughts influenced and were incorporated into a piece I just submitted for publication, but here is where they began.
Olson was a terrible husband, and awful father, and not much of a friend. He had a good stint with the OWI, as a civil servant during WW II, but he flopped as an academic, and while attracting a small swarm of acolytes, his stint as an administrator at Black Mountain College led, through his whacky ideas, to its demise. He doesn’t even seem to have had it together enough for social welfare benefits, preferring to leech off those he knew for support in his final years.
I know Olson is considered a great poet, but I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the selections Clark presented, nor of the prose which is highly regarded (esp. by other poets I don’t read). Clark never makes clear, either by his own words analysis or the words of others, what is important about Olson’s work, so I was left absorbed by the calamity of his life.
The man was unable to find help for himself and he didn’t exist within a community which could find it for him. That was more compelling to me than his work.
My latest is up at http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2015/04/the_chocolate_s.html
One recent afternoon, I found myself in front of the TV, its sound muted, watching an NCAA basketball championship semi-final between Michigan State and Duke. Ten young men ran back and forth, right-to-left, left-to-right, upon this court. It occurred to me that I had been watching this game for sixty years, and I did not feel that, oh, the last semi-infinity of this exposure had added to my stores of wisdom or emotional depth. Basket upon basket had been scored or defended, and civilization did not appear to have advanced one whit. The activity upon my screen, and my bothering to view it, seemed particularly pointless on this occasion. Perhaps that was Truth being presented like a flaming sword. Or maybe it was the not-quite quarter-square of the medicinally prescribed, blackberry-flavored, dark chocolate Kiva bar I had ingested a couple hours earlier speaking.
I sent this as an e-mail. But I liked it enough — certainly more than the poetry of Phillip Olsen — to put it here.
“How was the fight?” I asked.
“What fight?” Jose, the barrista at my morning’s café, said. “Pacquiao fight. Maywether run.”
Mexicans may not appreciate the “defense” part of the manly art.
Me, all I knew was Pacquiao was “good” and Maywether was “evil,” and I am for the good.
Liston – Patterson was my first indication this may not work out.
THEN I GOT THIS REPLY FROM THE EXCELLENT MILO GEORGE
Ha! Mexican fight fans aren’t happy unless both fighters are pissing
blood and tiny chunks of vital organs the day after a fight. If
Mayweather ran so much, how did he land more power punches on Manny
than Manny threw on him? He was walking Manny down toward the end; if
it had been a 15-rounder, Floyd would have knocked him out.
For our 55th high school reunion, my class made a gift in honor of a former English teacher, Berenice Woerner. We were also asked to write a reminiscence about her. Here is mine. But first some background for those of you her weren’t at Friends Central with me.
I entered FCS in 4th grade in 1951 and graduated in 1960. It had a Lower School (K – 6th) and an Upper School (7th – 12th). Mrs. Woerner headed the Upper School’s English Department. She also supervised the school paper, whose editors, as I recall, she appointed, and the yearbook, whose editors were elected. Mr. Farraday, whom I mention, was the Dean of Boys and taught biology and, I think, religion. The grading system ran O (Outstanding), A (Above Usual), U (Usual), BU (Below Usual) and SBU (Seriously Below Usual). Now that that’s clear…
After I was elected co-editor of my class yearbook, a position I hadn’t contemplated seeking, a pal in the English section that Mrs Woerner taught, besides the one in which I sat, explained that she had touted my qualifications to it. Those votes that endorsement swayed had swept to victory a candidacy I hadn’t known existed.
But I owe Mrs. Woerner for more than that.
For one thing, by selecting my 6th grade, Mad-comic-influenced story, “Dog Net,” for inclusion in The Literary Supplement, she gave me my first publication credit, a fact omitted from my official CV. Then when I reached the Upper School, she became, with Mr. Farraday, one of my two champions. And, boy, in adolescence, did I need champions.
Mrs. Woerner always liked my writing, but she set tough standards for me. Never gave me a final grade of “A”… I mean, “O.” Told me to read Hemingway and Kerouac, when my idea of a café was the Hot Shoppe, and “The Road,” for me, ran no further than the Schuylkill Expressway.
But when my college Hum. II instructor suggested I take a Creative Writing class, and between me and it loomed this praetorian guard of aspiring Creative Writers, uniformed in black turtlenecks and wielding green bookbags, past whom I could see no way to slip, I thought, Well Mrs. Woerner liked my writing too… And in that class, I found, not only this calling, but more importantly, I met my wife. Sure, it took a couple years to bring all that together, but nevertheless…
Life turns on luck and effort and corners turned, left or right. Remove one straw and the entire structure changes.
I understand that, since she had by then lost her sight, Mr. Farraday read my first novel to her. Hearing of that continued caring touched my heart, and thinking I had fulfilled a promise that she had spotted before it had occurred to the awkward kid in whom she saw it made me feel, yeah, proud. Though I must admit, there are passages in that book, at which my image of this reading, makes me softly cringe – and smile.
About two years ago, an on-line journal that shall remain unnamed said it would be putting this up as soon as it had the mix right with which to include it.
I’d forgotten all about it until I was scanning one of my folders. So while the general public is waiting, so sense delaying things for my ardent fans any longer…
Making Them Like They Used To
Boy, they set the bar for screenplays low. Take “The Unholy Three” (1925), a Tod Browning-directed silent film.
The premise – three ex-circus performers form a jewel-robbery ring – is fine. The cast is solid. Victor McLaglen, who will win a Best Actor Oscar for “The Informer” a decade later, plays Hercules, the strongman. Three-foot, three-inch Harry Earles, best known as the cuckolded Hans, in Browning’s landmark, though near career-destroying “Freaks” (and less well-known as a member of the Lollipop Guild in “Wizard of Oz”), is the midget Tweedledee. And Lon (“The Man of a Thousand Faces”) Chaney stars as Echo, the ventriloquist.
Chaney was a major talent, who dominated screens with the ability to convey a poignant inner self trapped within a powerful, often twisted, commanding physical presence. He had already appeared in over 140 films. In jus6t the prior three years, his portrayals had included a tragic clown, two mad scientists, a cripple, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a blind pirate, and Fagin in “Oliver Twist. Browning was a talented, if clinically disturbed, cinematic trailblazer. (“Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi, was probably his finest work.) But you have to wonder how Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s head, kept from biting the end off his cigar when pitched the idea of a silent movie with a ventriloquist as its central character. (When Browning shot “Freaks,” Mayer’s patience finally snapped at the director’s fondness for the bizarre. Rather than expose the rest of his studio to the presence on the lot of a troupe that included carnival sideshow stalwarts such as Schnitzie, the Pin-head, Koo-Koo, the Bird-Girl, Johnny Eck, the Half-Boy, Prince Randian, the Living Torso, and the Siamese Twins, Diana and Violet Hilton, Mayer erected a separate-but-not-quite-equal commissary where they were required to eat and bussed them to their own hotel immediately after each day’s shooting concluded.)
The cast of “Three” also included Mae Busch as the pickpocket Rosie O’Grady, Chaney’s girl friend, and Matt Moore, as a shop clerk, Hector McDonald, who falls for her. Busch went on to a long run in Laurel and Hardy comedies as the latter’s shrewish wife. Moore appeared in over 200 films, and though his cinematic career is little remembered, two of his cats earned stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Oh, I almost forgot. There is also a Giant Ape. It looks on close-up suspiciously like a chimpanzee; but you know what Chekhov said about having a Giant Ape on stage when the curtain rises on Act One.
The gang’s method-of-operation leaves something, imaginatively speaking, to be desired. Chaney, in white wig, shawl, and long dress, poses as “Mrs. O’Grady,” the owner of a pet store. Earles, in baby clothes, becomes her grandson, “Little Willie,” and McLaglen lumbers about as… I’m not sure what. The credits list him as “the son-in-law,” presumably the husband of Busch, who is also on the premises. But Busch’s character was an “O’Grady”before the gang formed, so Chaney’s sharing of her name means that, unless Busch is portraying a before-her-time, maiden name-retaining, liberated woman, both her relationship to McLaglen and Little Willie’s legitimacy is placed in question.
Anyway, aside from the ape, the store’s stock seems to consist entirely of amazingly verbal parrots. (Ventriloquist? Parrots? You may sense where this is going.) Sure enough, when the customers get the birds home, the damn things won’t talk. This requires Grandmother O’Grady to make house calls, to which she wheels Little Willie in his stroller. No one seems to wonder why he wasn’t left with Hercules or Rosie; nor does any police officer become suspicious of a string of robberies that occurred shortly after visits by an old woman with a child, and a succession of parrots who have been struck dumb.
During the only home-visit depicted, Chaney is called away to attend the silent bird while Earles is left unattended in the very room at the very moment a minor character is examining a valuable necklace. (Note that Earles is not required to do anything as subtle as observe the combination to a wall safe. He just spots the jewelry.) That is enough for he and McLaglen to return and steal it. Now anyone who has seen “Riffifi” or “Topkapi” would expect this heist to involve, at least, great strength on the part of McLaglen and great squirming through narrow apertures by Earles. But the entire escapade occurs off-screen, leaving one to wonder why the gang required a strongman, or why Busch – or even Rin Tin Tin – couldn’t have been left idling about to spot the necklace. (Rinty could have barked – or wagged – to note its existence.) For that matter, it’s unclear why Chaney didn’t masquerade as a grandfather. It certainly would have been less trouble.
Eventually, the thieves, as is their want, fall out. And here the ape obeys Chekhov. (Incidentally, its gargantuan size was established through early motion picture technical wizardry. At one point, the beast is seen standing next to Chaney, appearing to be his equal in height and breadth. Only it wasn’t Chaney. It was Earles, in a wig and shawl, photographed from the rear.) Two deaths seemingly result, though again the camera cuts away before any chests are crushed or windpipes shattered. The delicate sensibility behind this cutting may explain why fewer school children were slain by madmen overstimulated by media violence in 1925 than there are now, but it also makes for diminished dramatic impact.
None of this hurt “The Unholy Three” at the box office. It was so successful, it was remade as a talkie in 1930. Chaney and Earles reprised their roles. The chimp was replaced by a man in a gorilla suit.
What explains it? The novelty of seeing Chaney in drag? The miracle of Earles smoking a cigar like a normal-sized fellow? The horrifying ape, even though it was only three-feet tall? The lack of competition from TV and the Internet? Deficiencies in the public school system? I attribute it to the fact that the same audience that was spinning the turnstiles had elected as successive presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and okayed Prohibition.
It may just be that H.L. Mencken had the intelligence of the American people nailed.
…”Voltaire in Love,” by Nancy Mitford. It’s a neat little book, a history that’s not a history, a bio that’s not a bio, a romance that’s not a romance. Maybe it’s a novel. Certainly it’s a work of art. It has humor and intelligence and perspective and courage. It’s a picture of artists and royalty in 17th century France, with excursions into German and Polish courts, as wecourse freshman yearll. It has lovers and mistresses and literary feuds galore. The character who grabbed me the most was the previously-unknown-to-me Mme du Chatelet, who was unaccountably omitted from my History of Western Civilization, though, while carrying on several affairs, and gambling away Louis upon Louis, she also translated Newtonian physics into French, upsetting Descartes’s apples.
My father had this joke, usually employed when my brother and I were stuck inside by the rain, being pests, complaining we had nothing to do. “Well,” he’d say, “you know what the Chinese do when it rains?”
They don’t, so I tell them.
My father, an early Jewish Buddhist.
“No, dad,” we’d say. “What’s that?”
“They let it rain.”
So when someone says to me, “What’re we going to do about this drought?”, I say, “You know what the Chinese do when it doesn’t rain?”
…”Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. It’s my fourth Pynchon and the most accessible. It’s pretty funny in parts and studded with passages of rich prose. About half-way thru, I decided to watch the movie on pay-per-view, whose release made me want to read it in the first place, since, as I recall, my friend Bud, not to be confused with my friend, Budd, whose areas of expertise are entirely different, hadn’t liked it much. Anyway, from what I knew of Pynchon, I figured seeing the movie wouldn’t spoil the plot and might even help.
The movie’s good too, but you’re better off with both, if you know your Raymond Chandler and done, even a little, drugs.