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.

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!

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for the End of July

It’s nearly 4:00 p.m. on Sunday as I write this, with aching back and Bar Keeper’s Friend Cleanser streaked over my nose. Why, you may ask? Well, three days ago I had new windows installed in my condo, and I’ve just spent several hours trying to determine what is just goop on the panes as opposed to what are cracks which would necessitate replacement sashes. Get this: out of eight new windows installed, three are damaged. And that’s just what I can see from the inside; the installer is returning next week to check the outside. Can’t anything ever be done right the first time?


© The New Yorker
© The New Yorker

It’s been a great couple of weeks for lying and self-delusion, hasn’t it? First up was Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers star outfielder, who beat the steroid rap last year only to meekly cut a deal with Major League Baseball over the Biogenesis mess. Then there’s Eliot Spitzer, forced out as Governor of New York when his connoisseuership of call girls came to light, now running for Comptroller of New York City. And best of all, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, Mr. Show-Off himself, running for Mayor of New York, but once again caught displaying his assets on social media long after his resignation from office.

Let’s dissect these one by one, OK?

Braun irks me the most because I defended the guy last year when his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test was overturned on appeal. People were screaming that he got off on a technicality, but I stuck up for him. As an attorney I believe in due process, and it bothered me that so many thought Major League Baseball should get a pass for not following its own rules regarding the collection and transmission of test samples. Of course there’s a concept called “harmless error,” but Arbitrator Shyam Das rightly didn’t buy it (My guess is Braun’s sample wasn’t the first that MLB ever mishandled, and Das may have just been fed up with Big Boss arrogance).

But Braun’s behavior in the ensuing months caused more than a few eyebrows, including mine, to be raised. Verbally tarring and feathering Dino Laurenzi, the urine sample collector, for one. Playing the martyr for another. And then the inclusion of his name in Biogenesis’ records comes to light. With no way out, Braun cut himself what seems to be a sweet deal with MLB: a 65-game suspension which ends his 2013 season so that he can report to Spring Training all refreshed and ready to play ball. But of course the stain is now permanent, his credibility with his teammates, friends and fans is shot, and no matter how well he plays for the remainder of his career, he’ll never make Cooperstown. Some say he should be stripped of his 2011 Most Valuable Player Award. They may be right.

I wasn’t planning on wasting my time on Eliot Spitzer—after all, I live in New Jersey and he’s New York City’s headache—but one of his TV ads nearly caused me to blow a gasket. Get this for arrogance: after relating several examples of how he stuck up for the Little Guy, he says “Everybody should get a fair shake. I would hope that New York City voters would do the same for me.” Hello? You got your fair shake when you were elected Governor. The fact that you blew $80,000 on call girls and were forced to resign is on you, not the voters. But you know what? I bet he wins in a walk—dumbed-down electorates exist everywhere these days.

And last but not least, we have Anthony Weiner, former Congressman, who literally can not keep it in his pants. His candidacy for New York City Mayor is now a sarcastic joke. It’s hard to believe that after this week’s revelations there are still people who are saying his sex life is a private matter. You’ve got to be kidding. What privacy? This is a guy who didn’t engage in one affair that became public—he let it all hang out on social media with several women (the number of recipients he “may have” texted is increasing daily). Yet he entered the race, knowing damn well that any one of the women he solicited long after he resigned could come forward during the campaign, or worse, after his election to office. And let’s not forget the nature of his behavior, which is basically a high-tech version of the old perv in a raincoat flashing women on the street. What a great face for the City of New York. Today the news broke that his campaign manager has resigned. Let’s hope that Weiner follows his example and exits the race this week.


The Fosters
The Fosters

Summer’s a great time to enjoy new TV shows and catch up on what you’ve missed during the previous months. So far I’ve seen two winners and one outright disappointment. Let’s dispose of the latter first: “Top of the Lake,” the Sundance Channel mini-series starring Elisabeth Moss as a police detective. Yes, she’s wonderful, the actors are great and the New Zealand scenery is breathtaking, BUT: (a) it should have been six episodes, not seven; (b) Ms. Moss’s character becomes unaccountably stupid as the series progresses (c) there’s a screamingly large plot-hole in the mystery and (d) you’d have to be unconscious not to get who the bad guy is, which I absolutely hate. It’s hard to believe this was Jane Campion’s creation. Spend your time elsewhere.

The two winners are “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix series which is almost as good as the raves it’s getting (Taylor Schilling, as New Prisoner Piper Chapman, is superb), and surprisingly, “The Fosters,” which has its season-ender tomorrow night on the ABC Family Channel.  This one’s gotten some press because it involves a lesbian couple whose family includes adopted and foster children. Its appeal, aside from some excellent acting by adults and kids alike, lies in being so refreshingly free of cliché and After-School Special preaching. Yes, it’s got heart, but there’s a brain to go with it. Here’s hoping “The Fosters” get to stick around for another season.