Posted in Books

Of Time, Stephen King and Jack Finney

I once counted myself a Stephen King fan—not a major one, though I thought “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Dolores Claiborne” were excellent reads. But over the years I began to lose patience as his novels grew longer. My last attempt was “Duma Key,” which I tossed aside after the first hundred pages. Yet when the New York Times included “11/22/63” on its Notable Books list last December, I went “hmmmmm.” I’ve always loved time travel fiction, and was intrigued that King had written a novel in that genre. Although it took me another ten months, I finally picked it up, gobbling the last quarter of the book as quickly as I did my Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a spellbinder.

“11/22/63” is not without flaw. Its premise, a travel back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, is, ironically, the least interesting part of the novel. Lee Harvey Oswald, his Russian wife, his overbearing mother and the people around him pale in comparison to the fictional characters who populate time traveller Jake Epping’s world during his journey from 1958 through 1963. Most memorably these include the folks our hero meets in Jodie, Texas, where he settles as a high school teacher two years before the assassination and falls in love with the unforgettable Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian.

There are some problems in the narrative. I would have liked a more detailed (and earlier) explanation of the mysterious Yellow Card Man who seemingly ushers Jake into and out of the past. I don’t buy the altered universe King spins as the aftermath of changed history, though I have to say it’s eerie to see how accurately he captures the rhythm of JFK’s speech in a telephone conversation between Jake and the President. Ultimately what makes “11/22/63” such a great read is the detailed journey King takes us on through the landscape of the late 50’s to the early 60’s. The author has created a remarkable world that should have been the subject of its own novel, instead of taking a back seat to the Kennedy assassination. The end of the story is the most poignant conclusion I’ve read in years.

King long ago revealed his admiration for Jack Finney, a writer whom he again praises in the “Afterword” of “11/22/63.” Best known as the author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Finney is the generally acknowledged master of the time travel story (And before anyone sends me a nasty email, yes, I’ve read Richard Matheson’s “Bid Time Return” aka “Somewhere in Time.” A great book, but Finney did more with the genre). His best short fiction—“Second Chance,” “Where the Cluetts Are” and “The Love Letter”—is unsurpassed and unforgettable. Finney’s preoccupation with escaping into the past culminated in “Time and Again,” his 1971 “illustrated novel” about Simon Morley’s visit to 1880’s New York. The book is a gem. In addition to the excellent mystery that serves as its core, the novel features a host of wonderful photographs from that era, along with Si’s drawings—he’s a commercial artist—vintage advertisements and other ephemera.

I became a Finney fan in high school after reading several collections of his short stories. When “Time and Again” appeared, I grabbed it from my college library and read it through every class I had until I finished it. After many years it’s again being developed as a film, but this is one book I had always hoped would never reach the screen. Its magic lies in those lovely black and white photographs of old New York, the wonderful details of life in that era that Finney so lovingly shares and Si’s “think it and you’ll be there” method of time transport. Occasionally you come across something that simply can not be improved upon, and “Time and Again” is a perfect example.

So if you need a quick vacation (albeit to the 1880’s), just settle in with Jack Finney. The journey should not be missed.

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Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

Style

In dressing, the blessing is not all the attire
It’s the way that you wear the clothes
And bear the clothes upon you
It’s the way that you air the clothes
It’s all in the poise and pose…

It is never the thing that you wear
It’s the way it is worn.

George M. Cohan, “All in the Wearing”

The Yankee Doodle Dandy may or may not have been an opera fan, but his lyric has time and again proved to be as applicable to musical performance as it is to fashion.

Maria Callas as Norma

Here’s an example: a number of years ago I saw Jane Eaglen sing “Norma” at the Met. You’ll recall that for a while at least the lady was pure “go to” for all the leading Wagner soprano roles. But she had another idea, as many dramatic sopranos often do, and became infatuated with one Vincenzo Bellini. Well, suffice it to say that Norma sure deserved better that night—Ms. Eaglen had absolutely no sense of line, the Number One prerequisite for singing this composer. It sounds odd, but matters were actually made worse by her Adalgisa, Daniela Barcellona, whose tremendous bel canto style blew Eaglen’s Norma right off the stage. The capper came at intermission when I dropped by the Lincoln Center gift shop. There the staff was bitchily lovingly playing Maria Callas, in all her glory, singing “Casta Diva.” Ouch. You’d have to be unconscious not to hear the difference between a mistress of the genre and one who had absolutely no idea how to sing this type of music.

This happens more often in performance than you’d think, though fortunately not as disastrously as the night Vincenzo was done wrong. Baroque opera is of course very popular these days, but while many singers are called, few are chosen. It demands excellent musicianship and a certain style. As an illustration, one of my favorite opera recordings, Handel’s “Ariodante”, conducted by Alan Curtis, features a roster of singers who know precisely how baroque should be performed. They seem to ride the music the same way a surfer rides a wave. It’s exhilarating. Although other singers can sing the notes, they lack the sense of rhythm and phrase that Handel demands.

This was nowhere more evident than yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall when Joyce DiDonato took the stage to present her “Drama Queens” program with Il Complesso Barocco. Notice I said “with” and not “accompanied by” when referring to this wonderful group of musicians. This was a total collaboration between singer and orchestra, led by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. The concert, featuring arias from DiDonato’s new CD, began somewhat slowly—too many lamentations by too many bereaved ladies—but the last selection on the first half, a wickedly a tempo aria by Orlandini, found Joyce in terrific form and busting some moves during the orchestral sections. (Baroque is irresistible for dancing—it swings. My friends and I used to do the Jerk to Handel in junior high music appreciation class when Mr. Asprey wasn’t looking). The second half of the concert was pure magic, featuring back-to-back Cleopatra arias by Hasse and Handel. For those like myself who grew up on Beverly Sills, DiDonato’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” is a revelation. Her singing of the sicilliana, “Madre diletta,” from Giovanni Porta’s “Ifigenia in Aulide,” seemed to suspend time. What a musician. And for the fashionistas who may be reading this, she wore the above red dress, which was accessorized by a matching shawl, a short jacket, a bustle and epaulets (for Cleopatra) at various points during the concert. And speaking of style, the men of the orchestra wore red socks to match—a lovely touch indeed.

It’s not just opera or classical music that requires this type of skill. The other day I listened to the original Broadway cast album of “1776” featuring one of my favorite actors, William Daniels, as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and a very young Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson. Check out Betty’s version of “He Plays the Violin.” No one has ever done it better. Yes, she’s helped by that suggestive violin spiccato, but her phrasing, her sense of going with the music, the way she colors certain words—that’s an artist who can sing not just the notes but who can create the musical experience the way it should be heard. The “way it should be worn.”

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations, Television

Post-Storm Brain Bits

What’s left of the Keansburg Carousel

It’s been quite a week for those of us in New Jersey, especially people like myself who live anywhere near a body of water. As of today, seven days after the effects of Hurricane Sandy could be felt at the Jersey Shore, thousands are still without electricity, many are left homeless, gas is being rationed and transportation (therefore the ability to work), will be hampered for weeks to come.

I’m a native New Jerseyan, and with the exception of time spent out-of-state at college and law school, I’ve lived here all my life. I have no doubt the Jersey Shore towns will rebuild. Tourism is one of our biggest industries, but more than that, for people who grew up here the Shore is in our DNA. When you were a kid, your parents took you to Asbury Park or Seaside to go on the rides. When you were a teenager, you headed to the beach after the prom. If you fish or sail, that is the place to be. And if you just want to escape the summer heat for a swim, a walk on the boardwalk or a lobster dinner, you always go, as we locals say, “down the Shore.” You don’t give that up easily.

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Despite all the havoc wrought by Sandy, it’s comforting to know that some things just don’t change. Although I was without electricity for four days, I did have a portable radio which enabled me to hear the audio from our local ABC-TV station. At some point I realized this was actually being carried on ESPN radio; as a public service they were streaming news coverage for 48 hours. Nevertheless, ESPN definitely stayed on the beat. In the midst of reams of stories of flooding in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the loss of every boardwalk from Long Branch to Cape May, the crippling of the entire New York metropolitan area, it was somehow comforting to hear an ESPN reporter scream on the air: “JETS!!! You STINK!!!!!” Proof positive that life does indeed go on.

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Absorbing something as big as the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy tends to leave the brain in a muddle. I have a slew of random thoughts circling around in my head, so in no particular order:

–Maybe the rush to e-books isn’t such a hot idea. I was about 100 pages into Stephen King’s “11/22/63” on my Kindle app when the power went out. With the ability to recharge my Droid Razr limited to plugging into the car battery, continuing on was dicey. So there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned bound paper, even if you can really tone your upper arms by schlepping King’s novels around.

–Hot showers are lovely, but nothing refreshes like clean hair.

–A gas-powered burner is worth its weight in gold. God bless my neighbor for having one, because nothing warms you up like hot tea or soup.

–I had no idea I cook so many meals with garlic. After I emptied the now-defrosted food containers into the garbage can, my entire house smelled like a pizzeria.

–Two cats on the bed is better than a space heater. And purring is the best tranquilizer ever invented.

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Making up for lost TV time after the power returned, I saw two extraordinary performances in one day. It had been a long time since I had seen “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but I was absolutely riveted by Judy Garland. In the midst of so much “acting”—with a capital “A”—by everyone else (especially Maximilian Schell), her portrayal of a victim of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws was one for the ages. And later that night, at long last, I finally saw “The Help.” All I can say is Viola Davis was robbed.

Oh, Gillian!

Before the lights went out, I was impressed by both the good and the bad of “Sunday Best,” the latest episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” The cross-cutting between Easter dinners chez Eli and Julia was illuminating: the differences in the Nucky/Margaret and Eli/June marriages, the growing relationship between Richard and Julia, the rapprochement (however tentative) between Nucky and Eli. The gulf between Nucky and Margaret, despite their charm for each other, was beautifully drawn. On the other hand, there was more than a bit of shark-jumping in what went on at Gillian’s ( I know she needs a dead Jimmy lookalike, but how is she going to get this corpse past Richard?) And Joe Masseria has become a knock-off of Fanucci in “The Godfather, Part II”—all he needs is the white fedora. His scenes are eating up the landscape, and Gyp Rossetti has likewise become a cartoon. It’s amazing that so much nuance and so much hot air could coexist in the same episode.

And then there’s “Homeland,” which continues to amaze week after week. By my count, Claire Danes has already copped enough Emmys to keep her in statuary for the next five years. Definitely television at its best.