Posted in Baseball, Books, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Golden September

September always reminds me of that staple of old movies—pages falling from a calendar, dramatizing the passage of time. Today’s the first day I could really feel autumn in the air. It’s not just because the cooler temperature made me change from shorts to jeans, or because the rain from a passing shower no longer smelled like summer. The angle of the sun now turns the air golden in late afternoon, a sight you can only see in September.

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After slogging through Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I can only say Tay Hohoff, her editor on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Go_Set_a_Watchmanwas a genius. It was Ms. Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott Company who evidently convinced the young Ms. Lee to refocus her story on the few passages in “Watchman” that come alive, all of which consist of Jean Louise (we know her as Scout) reminiscing about her childhood. Even more impressive is how two throw-away references to Atticus Finch’s defense of an unnamed black man were fished out of the manuscript, only to become the tragic story of Tom Robinson’s trial and its aftermath.

I was never a huge of fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I didn’t not like it—as a novel it just didn’t seem to deserve the reverence in which it was generally held (The movie didn’t impress me either, except when Boo Radley was finally revealed. The young Robert Duvall is so otherwordly in the role that he stayed with me far longer than any other character in the film). Yet “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so far beyond “Go Set a Watchman” that the former’s reputation can only be burnished by its origins.

“Go Set a Watchman” primarily consists of its characters lecturing each other about race, politics, compassion, understanding and other matters of import. As has been widely reported, the heroine is an adult version of Scout, the central character of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The only carryover, so to speak, is Atticus Finch, now a somewhat infirm 70-year-old; Dill makes a cameo appearance in flashback, but Jem, sadly, is absent, having died young of a heart attack. When Jean Louise recounts a story from her childhood or adolescence, the narrative finally becomes vibrant; otherwise, it’s truly D.O.A. And matters are not helped one iota by the sort-of engagement of Jean Louise and Hank Clinton, the attorney who works with her father. Their relationship never rings true for a moment; you have to believe this was the first plot point that Editor Hohoff made it her business to toss.

There is some historical value in “Go Set a Watchman” in its expression of various Southern viewpoints of race during the early 1950’s. To that extent it serves the same purpose as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and “Babbit,” the literary value of which have far been outshone by their documentary-style depiction of middle class values in the early 20th century. But “Go Set a Watchman” fails as a novel; it’s not even interesting as a blueprint in the way that “Trimalcchio,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early version of “The Great Gatsby,” is.

This is one manuscript that should have remained buried.

The Heart of
The Heart of “The Fosters”

A few words about a show I still watch: When “The Fosters” is good, it’s great. When it cranks up the teen angst, it’s time to head for the hills.

What I admire about “The Fosters” is its insistence on dealing with situations that other shows won’t touch. This past season featured a budding romance (kiss included) between Jude and his now-more-than-best-friend Connor, both of whom are 15, if memory serves. The show continues to explore the many problems of the foster care system and matters of race, heritage, homophobia and sexuality.

Yet the show loses so many points by continuing to dwell on the “Will they or won’t they?” of foster-brother and sister, Brandon and Callie (Well, they finally did, so now what?). He’s the dreariest wet blanket around and while she means well, the girl can’t stop screwing up. The twins Marianna and Jesus aren’t that much more interesting, but at least he’s been away on scholarship at an exclusive school for most of the season.

But fundamentally there’s a distinct imbalance in this show and it has to do with talent. Among the kids, Hayden Byerly as Jude is a standout; there’s honesty in his performance though the actors who play his brothers and sisters can be as mannered as Bette Davis (whom I love incidentally, but on her it looks good). And every time Teri Polo and Sheri Saum, as moms Stef and Lena, have a scene together, they make you want to yell “Zip it!” at the kids. The ladies have such great chemistry that you wish Stef and Lena would ditch that brood (except for Jude), desert ABC Family and just head on over to Showtime.

Written-on-Skin_2278230a
Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta: “Written on Skin”

I finally found the time to watch the DVD of George Benjamin’s opera, “Written on Skin,” and I have to say it stands up to (almost) all of the hype it has received. On the one hand, there’s no denying that the work has benefitted enormously from two extraordinary performances, those of Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, who originated the roles of Agnès and the Protector, and whose appearances in each subsequent production of the opera only increase its stature (While Bejun Mehta, who appears on the DVD, created the role of The Boy, other countertenors have succeeded him). But “Written on Skin” is more than sheer theatrical razzle-dazzle, even with its “Let’s put on a show” framing device (with angels, yet). After you watch the DVD, listen to the recording of the work. The score is intriguing in its reliance on unearthly sounds: the intertwining of soprano and countertenor voices, a countertenor aria accompanied by glass armonica and the prominence of contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, all aided and abetted by a huge range of percussion instruments.

Is it the masterpiece some critics proclaim? Well, it’s definitely a great story. Though based on a 13th century tale, “Written on Skin” is timeless in its clash of a tyrannical husband, an unsatisfied wife and the artist hired to write an illustrated family history on “skin,” or parchment. It’s got a shocker of an ending that’s greatly enhanced by some terrific stagecraft. Above all, its music not only serves the story well, it makes you want to listen. Whether “Written on Skin” will live beyond the moment is yet to be determined, but I for one hope it does.

Same for Us, Captain!
Same for Us, Captain!

As a die-hard Mets fan, I can’t tell you how much I’m relishing their stretch run to a pennant. After an incredible April, only to be followed by David Wright’s spinal stenosis and a slew of injuries to Travis d’Arnaud and others, not to mention the ineptitude of the “not ready for prime time” minor leaguers the Mets were subsequently forced to play, we finally saw hope in July with the acquisition of Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, true pros who know how to play the game. Then, wonder of wonders, that Big Bat, which we’d been screaming for, finally arrived in the form of Yoenis Cespedes, aka Superman. With the return of David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets took off like a rocket. As of this writing they’re 10 games up on the Washington Nationals, whose coming off-season I wouldn’t wish on a dog.

But much as I’m looking forward to the post-season, there’s something I want more. Even if they have to float a bond issue, the Mets have got to sign Yoenis Cespedes to a long-term contract. They haven’t had a big bopper since Mike Piazza, and it’s high time to end the lean years. They’ve got to support that young staff of pitching phenoms that’ll be working at CitiField for the next several years (Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz), but more than that, we fans need him. The past few years have been excruciating—it was bad enough to see things come to naught in 2006 and (ouch) 2007, not to mention what came after. We’ve waited long enough.

So Let’s Go Mets!

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Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for a Hot July

The weather is definitely turning steamy and tempers are running short. Patti LuPone has emerged as the Anti-Cell Phone Avenger, to which I say loudly and emphatically “AMEN.” Is there a regular theater-goer or opera or concert attendee who hasn’t been disturbed by some moron who refuses to turn the infernal machine off or worse, texts during the performance? (Incidentally, that was me about to strangle the young idiot sitting next to me who drank beer and texted throughout that performance of “Wozzeck” at the Met).

So thank you, Ms. LuPone, for sticking up for the rest of us, who revel in that quaint concept of live performance uninterrupted by the Electronic Age. By all means, steal as many cell phones as you need to stop the madness.

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Nurse Jackie finale
Even God needs medical help at times

One by one my favorite shows are ending their lives on the tube. First “Mad Men,” now “Nurse Jackie.”

After seven years and several stints at rehab and jail-induced detox, our last image of Jackie Peyton was as an OD’d junkie stretched out on the floor of All Saints’ ER. “Nurse Jackie” ended as it should have—despite her lengthy penance in the Diversion Program, she remained an Incurable addict. She seemed incapable of comprehending how her addiction and the accompanying lying and cheating impacted the lives of people she seemingly cared most about. As Eleanor O’Hara (thank you, Eve Best, for returning for the series finale) told her point-blank “You make it so damned hard to be your friend.” Truthfully the reality of her situation made it so damned hard to watch. The last straw came when, after fighting so hard to get her nursing license back and enduring one humiliation after another in doing so, she pops a mouthful of pills seconds after donning those blue nursing scrubs again.

In a sense the end was foreshadowed from the first episode of this season. I was never on Team Eddie. No matter what she did, he remained King of the Enablers—they consistently brought out the worst in each other, and their being together was one huge amber light. On the other hand, Dr. Bernie Prince, Coop’s replacement, was an intriguing counterbalance. The fact that he was played by Tony Shalhoub made it even better. I so wish the showrunners had introduced his character at least a season ago–he and Jackie would have made a great team, whether in the working or romantic sense, or both.

What made “Nurse Jackie” unique was its unapologetic portrait of a female anti-hero (and kudos to Edie Falco for having the guts to portray her). Jackie could be insensitive and irresponsible, but at some level she was never uncaring. And she excelled at her profession, though her addiction was making it more likely that this would eventually—and conclusively—be lost to her. Another major plus of the show was that none of the characters ever turned into a cartoon. They sometimes exasperated you, and several times you may have wanted to smack Coop upside the head, particularly in his early days, but most of the time they behaved in a realistic manner. Zoe grew, and to her credit outgrew Jackie. And so, in her oddball way, did Dr. Roman. Coop finally matured and moved on. And Dr. Prince, with his massive brain tumor, ended up in Death’s waiting room. Only those with addictions—Jackie to her pills, Eddie to his love for Jackie—remained stuck in their repetitive, destructive behavior.

Such is life.

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A God in RuinsEven after finishing Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” a month ago, I’m still thinking about it. This is her “companion volume,” not a sequel, to her wonderful “Life After Life,” which featured the many possibilities of the life of Ursula Todd during England’s twentieth century. While the two novels feature many of the same characters, the tone is quite different. And the conclusion is somewhat maddening.

“A God in Ruins” is a biography of Teddy Todd, Ursula’s adored younger brother. In “Life After Life” he’s a golden boy—the model for Augustus, his aunt’s scamp of a literary creation, his mother’s favorite and ultimately the heroic RAF pilot seemingly lost during World War II. “A God in Ruins” presents a more detailed portrait of Teddy. He’s still a caring young man, though it’s clear his father, not his mother, is his favored parent; his affection for sisters Pamela and Ursula remains the same. He’s somewhat at loose ends when the war begins. Teddy’s two attempts at a career have failed—his year in France as a would-be poet ends when he concludes his work is trite, and a stint at a banking job is utterly soul-killing. In actuality this gentle young man’s best talent is killing as he pilots a Halifax bomber in countless runs over Germany.

Unlike “Life After Life” with its magical changes in Ursula’s path, “A God in Ruins” shows us a protagonist who, after flying so high, becomes utterly grounded. His post-war life seems to be one grind after another, both in career and in his personal life. He no longer shines except perhaps later in life when as a grandfather he provides love and shelter to his grandchildren when their own mother is unwilling to do so.

At times you may feel Kate Atkinson deliberately set out to contradict what she created in “Life After Life.” In the earlier novel the romance of Teddy and Nancy Shawcross seems to be deep and eternal; in “A God in Ruins,” we learn that while Teddy’s love is present, there’s little passion. Although the revision may be closer to reality since they grew up as neighbors with little left to reveal, you don’t want that version. You want the magic. And while the nature of Teddy’s end is easy to foresee, Ursula’s final word at the conclusion of “A God in Ruins” may make you want to demand a refund.

But what makes “A God in Ruins” so engrossing is Atkinson’s account of Teddy’s war: the close calls, the camaraderie with his crew, his miraculous surviveability, his being the “old man” of his squadron at the age of 23. I don’t think I’ve seen a novel drive home what was actually at stake during that time so completely, epitomized by the Morse coded dit-dit-dit-dah (V for Victory) transmitted to Teddy’s plane from a Dutch civilian (“It was a message of both faith and comfort that they saw frequently”), capped by “You could sometimes forget that there were entire nations for whom you were the last hope.” Atkinson does well by these young men who undertook what was in essence a last stand.

“A God in Ruins” is a novel well worth reading due to Atkinson’s artistry. If you haven’t read “Life After Life” yet, I suggest you read the later novel first just so you can move from reality to fantasy rather than the other way around. It’s so much more fun that way.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Music, Television

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano
© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost).

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for
At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller.

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lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Books

In Cold Blood

in cold bloodNo book ever frightened me as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Merely reading the New York Times review caused me a sleepless night. I was 15 when I first read it, and the story of a family murdered in their Kansas home was an inexorable horror show. But the quality of Capote’s writing was undeniable. Many readings since have only caused my admiration to grow for his stark prose and the detail of his observations.

At the time of publication, Capote, who seemingly couldn’t live without stirring up controversy, boasted that “In Cold Blood” represented his invention of a new format: the “nonfiction novel.” He detailed how he had adapted the techniques of fiction to the reporting of true events, though in truth this format was not new. The New Yorker had prided itself on this style of reportage for years, and in fact John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Lillian Ross’s “Picture,” both of which had originally appeared in that publication, were frequently cited by reviewers who maintained that others had gotten there long before Capote.

It turns out that “novel” may have trumped “nonfiction” in the case of “In Cold Blood” more than first suspected. To a certain extent this is not exactly news. Various sources have revealed over the years that Capote molded the story to an unusual degree to suit his ends, going so far as to invent certain incidents such as the book’s final scene, an accidental meeting at the Clutter grave site of Nancy Clutter’s best friend and Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective whom Capote credits with solving the case. More recently Charles J. Shields’ biography of Harper Lee, “Mockingbird,” provided tantalizing details of what Lee learned about Holcomb, Kansas as well as the Clutters while assisting Capote in his research, specifically the extent to which Mrs. Clutter’s illness cast a shadow over her daughter’s life. As per Lee’s notes, Capote feared that such information would mar the image of the all-American family he intended to portray and refused to include it in his book.

This month the heirs of Harold Nye, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who worked the Clutter case, won the right to publish his notebooks and other material relating to the murders and their investigation. For a number of years KBI agents and their survivors have disputed Capote’s depiction of how law enforcement identified and captured the murderers, so it should be fascinating to see how Nye’s contemporaneous notes gibe with “In Cold Blood.” Capote famously declined to take notes during his interviews with the various sources for his book, relying instead on memory to reconstruct what had been related to him. Logic tells you this technique is not the best to ensure accuracy, no matter how prodigious the powers of recall, so a newly revealed account should be an interesting contrast to “In Cold Blood.”

Should we fault Capote for the manner of his presentation? He never said his work was journalism, which as we know isn’t always 100% on the money as every newspaper’s “Corrections” section can attest (too bad certain cable stations fail to air their apologies in similar fashion). Aren’t works of nonfiction, not to mention documentary film, inevitably the result of choices made by the author or director to include or exclude certain material, to interpret and to present a point of view? Capote may have erred on various facts or misrepresented whether certain events took place, such as that grave site meeting, but I’d be surprised to learn that he distorted either participant’s emotions or views. And as for attributing the breakthroughs in the case to one man, Capote evidently felt the book needed a hero: Alvin Dewey, a solid family man who knew the Clutters. By doing so Capote enables us to see events unfold through the eyes of an individual whom we come to know, so that the climactic passage of the book, Perry Smith’s confession to Dewey, carries the horror that it should.

Capote’s initial impulse in writing about these events was to show the impact of a murder upon a small town. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we hear the stunned remarks of Holcomb residents and view the image of fearful townsfolk sitting up all night with every light burning in their homes. What people say and do in the aftermath of murder can be astonishing, as witness the wedding of one of the older Clutter daughters two days after the funeral of her parents and younger siblings. In a way it makes sense—her entire extended family was in Holcomb and the church had already been booked for the next month—but reading Capote’s account, it seems incredibly strange. On the other hand, I saw similar reactions many years later. When I was still living the corporate life, my boss of ten years was murdered; to date the case remains unsolved. How I saw people behave in the aftermath was no less odd, not to mention at times insulting and occasionally just plain weird. Let me just say that Capote’s observations in this regard ring very true.

“In Cold Blood” is more than a milestone in the true crime genre. It’s included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, residing alongside some fast company indeed. It remains a classic.

Posted in Books, Television

Sci-Fi Summer

extant

This summer is pig heaven if you’re a science fiction fan. “Under the Dome” has returned for Round Two of life with Big Jim. “The Leftovers” is ensconced in HBO’s Sunday night lineup. But Wednesday night saw the premiere of a show that may turn out to be the best of the lot, CBS’ “Extant,” with Halle Berry as the “how can she be pregnant?” astronaut.

Watching the pilot episode reminded me of the best of classic sci-fi, the stuff I gobbled up in seventh grade when I first started reading Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Kate Wilhelm and a host of other authors. Despite the futuristic production design (I loved the presentation to the Yasumoto board), the show hit every classic note on the genre scale. You’ve got outer space, robots passing for human (thus the “humanics” designation), possible alien life forms and suspended animation, spiced up with nefarious corporations, conspiracy and just plain old paranoia.

How can you go wrong?

I loved Goran Visnjic (hello Dr. Kovac!) as Halle’s robotics maven husband who pooh-poohs the possibility of any form of robot uprising. That’s one big fat Acme anvil right there. I suspect it won’t be long before he’s disabused of that notion if only by his “son,” the humanic Ethan who, to put it mildly, has something of an aggression problem. The creep factor is enormous: Goran’s workshop with spare humanic parts, Ethan’s abrupt switch from the dead bird to complimenting his mother’s hairstyle, only to be topped by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the space station, tracing “Help Me” on a foggy window. Shudder.

The show runners certainly packed a great deal into one hour, leaving us with a laundry list of questions:

Why was Halle alone on a space station the size of a small city? And for 13 months?

Honey, if your dead first husband shows up and the only words out of his mouth are a monotone repeat of yours, you didn’t get that maybe there’s a problem here?

Why did she erase the tape? Out of fear of a bad performance review? Because good astronauts can’t be caught hallucinating?

I can’t wait until the next episode.

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The Guilty Remnant's Words to Live By
The Guilty Remnant’s Words to Live By

I read Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers,” prior to the start of the HBO series, and now I almost wish I hadn’t. While it’s no surprise that the book and TV series are very different in tone, what’s bothersome is that the show suffers for it.

The novel, published in 2011, defies categorization. It’s a stark examination of people coping with unexpected, catastrophic loss (In positing the inexplicable disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, Perrotta obviously drew on 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami). The author provides no explanation for this, though many characters think it’s the Rapture. But contrary to initial expectations, Perrotta’s people for the most part respond in understandable if not always reasonable ways. The novel’s universe doesn’t feel upended. True, there’s a cult-like movement called the Guilty Remnant (see above), which in its discipline bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and various nuts come out of the woodwork, but life does go on.

However, HBO’s version, co-created by Tom Perrotta, is far darker and dystopian. In no particular order, I don’t remember anyone shooting dogs in the book, though it’s done here, the Kevin Garvey character isn’t the chief of police but the somewhat wealthy mayor of the town, and his son is no killer. For that matter, the Wayne Gilchrist character is a nondescript middle aged man; he and his followers more closely resemble Warren Jeffs and his faction than the crew manning the armed encampment you see in the show. Perhaps the TV version’s biggest failing is the casting of Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. He’s a fine actor to be sure, but he’s a walking nerve end, a far cry from the more even-tempered Kevin Garvey we meet on the page.

But dystopia sells, which no doubt is the reason why “The Leftovers” is no longer a meditation on dealing with loss but a sci-fi thriller. I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just think it would have been more interesting to retain the book’s slant for TV, though it would have been difficult to sustain for 13 episodes. But the show is doing an excellent job with the Guilty Remnant, and Jill Garvey’s struggles remain true to Perrotta’s original vision. I intend to keep watching.

Far more fun is the return of “Under the Dome,” as the residents of Chester’s Mill continue their puzzlement over the whys and wherefores. Yes, Junior in essence saved Barbie’s life, and that was indeed Stephen King himself in the diner, asking Angie for a coffee refill. Due to my commuting schedule I’m a week behind, so I can’t wait to see how the McAlisters, Norrie and Carolyn fare under Big Jim’s roof. Just one big happy family? I think not.

 

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Busting Out June

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” looms ahead, and by my count, we have two potential shockers to go if the show runners intend to wrap up the events in “A Storm of Swords,” the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s saga, this Sunday. Can it be done in one episode? If not, I’m curious to see their choice as we’ll soon start another countdown to a new season.

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Until “Orange is the New Black” appeared with new episodes on Netflix last Friday (I’m now 5.5 episodes in, and it’s as good as, if not better than Season One), spring had me focused on books and baseball. The baseball you already know about. The books, though, unlike the New York Mets, have been more consistently rewarding.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI had been disappointed by Donna Tartt before—there are few novels with a bigger letdown than “The Little Friend,” particularly if you’ve read her first book, the riveting”The Secret History.” But “The Goldfinch,” her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is far more satisfying—that is, until 7/8ths through, when things take an oblique left turn.

“The Goldfinch” is about loss and recovery, in both the literal and figurative senses. Not to mention life’s many shades of gray, flim-flammery (both borderline and more classically criminal), loyalty and love at first sight. Thirteen year-old Theodore Decker and his mother, on a spur of the moment visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are among the victims of a terrorist bombing. Her death sets Theo off on a fourteen year journey that begins in the rubble of the explosion. A dying fellow victim urges him to salvage the Dutch master Fabritius’ portrait of a goldfinch, which becomes Theo’s talisman.

“The Goldfinch” is Dickensian in event and scope; the characters, ranging from the Park Avenue family that takes Theo in, to the inimitable Boris, who befriends Theo when he later relocates to Las Vegas, are wonderfully drawn. Equally fascinating are Tartt’s excursions into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, the profession of Hobie, Theo’s benefactor. To my surprise, these digressions, rather than detracting from the story, enrich the novel and the characters to such an extent that you wish Tartt had spent more time in this world.

But it’s Theo’s mother, beautifully drawn by the author, who may stay with you the longest. In spite of her death, she’s never really gone; her character is so vividly presented that you find yourself wondering, at the various turns Theo’s life takes, what she’d think of all this. He knows what he’s lost in her, which makes her absence even more heartbreaking.

The tale is a long one but quite rewarding, even if you feel, as I did, that the climax of “The Goldfinch” is more than a little outrageous. You’ll still enjoy the journey.

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A little book-related anecdote:

Begley_UpdikeWhen I attended law school in Boston, I lived on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. It was then a rabbit warren of studio and one bedroom apartments occupied for the most part by students (It should not surprise you that since then the area has gone so co-op and condo it’s off the charts). My building was fairly standard issue with one exception—we had a laundromat in the basement so we drew a fair amount of traffic from the neighborhood.

One weekday afternoon there I sat with highlighter and law book in hand while my clothes cycled through washer and dryer. A man walked into the laundromat with a full basket of wash and I was immediately bombarded by a machine gun, rat-a-tat series of impressions: “He’s not a student” “OH MY GOD that’s John Updike!” “How can it be John Updike? He’s too short.”

I immediately put my detective mind into overdrive. He was older than average student age: I would have said late 30’s, though that in itself wasn’t unusual since a number of older, post-grad students, primarily Viet Nam vets, lived in the neighborhood. However, he was wearing a beautiful and quite expensive-looking tweed jacket (this was the height of the bell-bottom era), which would have indicated he actually worked for a living. The nose was unmistakable, but the mystery remained. Why would John Updike be doing laundry in a rundown student ghetto? I knew he lived in Massachusetts, but why would he be doing his wash on Marlborough Street?

I was still in my shy years, so I didn’t have the nerve to just go up to him with “Aren’t you…?” Part of me was afraid that if this was John Updike, I’d start gushing over “Couples” which remains one of my all-time favorite novels (and I think few works have better portrayed mid- and late-twentieth century America than the Rabbit books). Another part of me was just plain awed into silence at the thought of speaking with him. So I let the moment pass as he loaded up a couple of machines and departed. Having spun and dried, my laundry was done and I returned upstairs to my tiny studio apartment and hours of Evidence, Estates and Trusts and the Uniform Commercial Code. I never saw him again.

Flash forward to this past Saturday when I took Adam Begley’s new biography of Updike out of the library. Naturally I sought out the good parts first—how much of “Couples” was based on his own marriage and/or those of his neighbors in Ipswich, MA (answer: plenty). And then finally after all those years, I had my confirmation: the man in the laundromat had indeed been John Updike. I saw him when he was living in a small apartment on Beacon Street, right around the corner from me, after he had split from his first wife.

Long time coming, but I’m glad for the verification. And by the way, Begley’s book is fascinating.

Posted in Books, Music

The Comedian Harmonists

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The Comedian Harmonists (L to R): Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Edwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman and Ari Leschnikoff

This photograph, which I first saw in the New York Times about twenty years ago, was my introduction to the Comedian Harmonists, one of the best vocal groups of the last century. Their history, as equally celebrated as their music, is a poignant story of lives interrupted and careers cut short by the Nazi regime.

Organized in Berlin in 1927, the Comedian Harmonists had a unique sound, though one quite reflective of Jazz Age music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In descending vocal order, the group consisted of a high (lead) tenor, a second tenor, a swing vocalist who specialized in imitating musical instruments, a baritone and a bass. Mirroring the dance bands of that era, with their alto saxes wailing in the treble while a tuba or bass sax rumbled below, the Comedian Harmonists’ songs emphasized the same wide spectrum of sound. Their music featured leads sung by tenor Leschnikoff and bass Biberti, but the inner voices of second tenor Collin and baritone Cycowski were just as essential, if not more so, as were the arrangements by Frommerman, the group’s founder and faux instrumentalist, accompanied by Bootz at the piano.

Their repertoire covered a great deal of musical ground: traditional German folk songs, marches, novelty numbers about cactuses and crocodiles, classical pieces, operetta and popular tunes in at least four languages. My favorite songs are the contemporary numbers: the tango “Gitarren spielt auf,” “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), “Du Armes Girl von Chor” (so very 20’s) and “In der Barzum Krokodil,” with a sly intro borrowed from the Nile Scene of Verdi’s “Aida.”

The Comedian Harmonists featured some wonderful arrangements, especially their version of “Stormy Weather” recorded in German (“Ohne Dich”) and French (“Quand il pleut”) with a lovely lead by second tenor Erich Collin. I’m also fond of their version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” again in French (“Tout le jour, tout le nuit),” as well as the Italian “Ah Maria, Mari” with the soaring lead of Ari Leschnikoff, seconded by baritone Roman Cycowski, who stretches quite successfully into tenor territory. But if I had to pick an all-time Comedian Harmonists favorite, it would have to be “Der Onkel Bumba aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba,” perhaps their most intricate arrangement with its breakneck syncopation and bluesy ending. So much fun and a joy to hear.

Comedian Harmonists II

While the Comedian Harmonists were a true product of Weimar Germany, they soon ran into difficulty when the Nazis came to power. Three of the singers were of Jewish origin, though Frommerman and Cycowski were not observant, and both sides of Collin’s family had converted long before his birth. Because the group was an international money-maker, it was allowed to continue, though with a dwindling performance and recording schedule. Things finally ended in 1935 when the Comedian Harmonists were banned outright, with the Jewish contingent temporarily relocating to Austria and later to Australia, restaffing and performing as the Comedy Harmonists. Although Biberti, Bootz and Leschnikoff regrouped with additional singers as the Meistersextett, issues with the Nazis continued. Their repertoire, the majority of which had been written by Jewish composers, was gutted; their remaining novelty numbers were later banned as too frivolous for the war effort.

The Comedian Harmonists never reunited as a group. Their post-war lives took divergent paths: for years Frommerman and Collin tried unsuccessfully to revive their musical careers, forming and reforming other vocal groups; Leschnikoff suffered one financial disaster after another; and Biberti became an antique dealer and master wood craftsman. Bootz remained a performing musician and club impresario, but Cycowski’s life took the most radical turn. Following his father’s murder at the hands of Polish Nazi sympathizers, he rededicated himself to his faith and became a cantor, active until his death at the age of 97.

Interviews with the then-surviving members of the group appear in Eberhard Fechner’s 1976 documentary “Sechs Lebensläufe” (“Six Life Stories”) which, sad to say, isn’t commercially available in a version with English subtitles. However, the entire film (actually a two-parter made for German television) is available on YouTube. Even if you don’t know a word of German, it’s worth watching the first several minutes just to see Leschnikoff and Cycowski react to hearing their old recording of “Gitarren spielt auf.” The tenor smilingly responds with “Schoen” (“Beautiful”), but it’s even more gratifying to watch Cycowski listen as his younger self sings. There’s a justified look of pride in his eyes as he nods his approval and echoes Leschnikoff’s appraisal: “Schoen.”

The Comedian Harmonists have been the subject of other films and books, including the 1997  feature “The Harmonists,” directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, which unfortunately suffers from Hollywooditis in its fictionalized story of the group. However, we finally have a comprehensive history in English by Douglas E. Friedman, “The Comedian Harmonists,”  and there’s even a musical by Barry Manilow (“Harmony”) which has yet to make it to Broadway.

But there’s nothing like seeing the members of the group perform, and once again, YouTube comes through. There’s a truncated version of “Veronika, der Lenz ist da,” with Bootz grinning maniacally at the piano, and an intriguing clip from a 1936 Austrian film in which the Comedy Harmonists strut their stuff with musical instrument imitations. There’s no dearth of the group on CD, but I strongly recommend the remastered “History Records: Comedian Harmonists.” The sound is clear beyond belief, the artistry superb. This one shouldn’t be missed.