Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Wise Up"

Described this sequence to the offspring while on vacation and today went looking for it. A movie that probably holds up pretty well.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Aamir Khan on...

...among other things, masterminding India's first $100 million+ global blockbuster.


Thursday, January 28, 2010


The New Yorker has graciously opened the archives for twelve stories, including the extraordinary and once ubiquitous A Perfect Day for Bananafish as well as the jaw-dropping (for different reasons) Hapworth 16, 1924, his last story, never published other than here.

If you haven't read these, or if you haven't read them since you were a kid, you should read them here, in context, ads, cartoons, and all.

I find it eerie, myself, since he was hugely influential in my life, to see these bits and pieces of thoughts and dialog, long internalized, appearing again.



Here in Maine, I'm attempting for something like to the tenth time in my life to become a "gamer" in the only sense that has enough snob appeal to seem worth pursuing: by learning to play chess. Going at it in my usual slow-grind fashion by reading a book on the subject. Soaking up just enough jargon to be able to b.s. about the game, if not actually play it. Which has been my approach, pretty much, to every field of knowledge I've ever explored. Luckily, writing is one of the few professions the practice of which is actually enhanced by the magpie accumulation of superficial knowledge. A chicken and egg problem that probably shouldn't be squinted at too closely.

UPDATE: It's snowing!


"Alan Turing loved chess and played all the time, though he wasn't nearly as adept on the chessboard as he was on the chalkboard. At Bletchley Park he was fortunate to be surrounded by accomplished players, and the chess pieces were always handy. The onetime British champion Conal Hugh O'Donel Alexander was Turing's deputy. Future British champion Harry Golombek was also on the staff. Golombek's chess superiority over Turing was such that he could overwhelm Turing in a chess game, force Turing's resignation, and then turn the board around to play Turning's pieces against his own original position--and win."


Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Airlines now charge an additional fee for the pleasure of sitting in an exit row.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Cat Philosophy

“When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.”

Montaigne said that. And the quote surfaces in a discussion on Radio 4 this morning during Start the Week, which is usually entertaining, but which this week is celestial, possibly because it includes Sarah Bakewell, who has written a book amusingly titled "How To Live – A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer", and Will Self, novelist and provocateur, discussing the discursive and non-dogmatic french essayist.

I can remember making fun of Montaigne, as a very callow and drunken 19-year-old, in a conversation with a teacher. I called Montaigne 'the old fool-osopher' and said that he was a contentless purveyor of feel-good cliche.

Not for the first time or the last, I was told that I was an obnoxious and pompous moron.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Another cat video

This was shockingly easy to find.


Kat video


Not tone deaf

No more on this particular subject, except to say that in my view Denby gets it exactly right. For people who can still respond to movies as such, Avatar is the equivalent of an opera that has glorious music strapped to a silly libretto.

As James Cameron, working in 3-D, thrusts us into the picture frame, brushing past tree branches, coursing alongside foaming-jawed creatures, we may be overcome by an uncanny sense of emerging, becoming, transcending—a sustained mood of elation produced by vaulting into space. This is the most physically beautiful American film in years. It’s set on Pandora, a verdant moon, a hundred and fifty years from now, where the long-waisted, translucent-blue Na’vi live on turf that contains an energy-rich mineral that an American corporation, armed to the teeth with military contractors, wants to harvest. An ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) in the shape of a Na’vi—an avatar—is sent to spy, but he falls in love with a warrior princess (Zoë Saldana), and he winds up leading a defense of the Na’vi against the armed might of the military. It’s the old story of Pocahontas and John Smith, mixed, perhaps, with “Dances with Wolves.” The Na’vi, who are connected by neural networks to all living things, are meant to remind us of Native Americans; the military is meant to remind us of the shock-and-awe Bush Administration militarists. The story may be trite, but Cameron creates an entire world, including magnificent flying pterodactyls and a bright-red flying monster with jaws that could snap an oak. The movie is as much a vertical as a horizontal experience; its many parts cohere and flow together. With Sigourney Weaver as a high-minded biologist, Stephen Lang as a testosterone-pumped military leader, and Giovanni Ribisi as the cynical head of the corporate expedition.—David Denby (Reviewed in our issue of 1/4/10.) (In wide release.)


Friday, January 22, 2010

Throwing in the towel...

I don't have the heart to fight with old friends.... Thank God that there are things on which we can all agree.


A cat telling jokes

With a British accent, for those who prefer it. (It was shockingly easy to find this.)


Fallout from the population explosion

That's us, according to Walt Kelly, celebrated daily in the 'where has this been all my life' blog Whirled of Kelly. Pogo, Churchy, and Howland take the yacht on a shakedown cruise. "This ain't a yacht, it's a yak...."

Click to enlarge.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

A regular guy

I've been accused of being a pompous self-conscious sort who lacks joie de vivre and the ability to appreciate the fine things of life like cat videos, American Idol, and NASCAR.

Just to prove I'm a regular guy, I link to this video (which is really just a picture with an audio clip) of the late Sir Clement Freud telling what the Telegraph believes might be the funniest joke ever.

And if you don't like it, I'll find a video of a cat telling the same joke.


First catchphrase of the new decade

"You'll need to find something to cauterize that wound."


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Anything but cats

In hopes of not having to look at cat pictures ever again, I offer my favorite Astounding cover from the great Kelly Freas. There are readers of this blog who have probably fantasized about this very thing. I'm afraid it's a null set....


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Why gloom makes us feel good

Via Sarah Weinman, an excellent WSJ article on the Scandinavian crime fiction boom. Key quote:

Despite the existential malaise that frequently afflicts the characters of Nordic noir, the stern, bare-bones simplicity of its problem-solving methods is one of the form's austere pleasures. Like the arctic cold, the rigor is bracing. It transports us to a world where charm and glamor barely exist and count for little when they do, a world refreshingly free of flimflam, hype or irrational exuberance. What matters is putting one foot in front of the other and not stopping. There's something reassuring about this faith in sheer perseverance when your surroundings are in a state of bewildering flux. It's the kind of calm you get from the simple act of sitting down to make a to-do list in the wake of an incalculable loss.


Flashback: The Sponge and the Jellyfish

Originally posted March 30, 2008

Back in my college days, during the grim summer I spent in Baltimore borrowing four or five Simenon novels a week from the downtown public library, I came up with the theory that this natural born novelist, who seemed to write as effortlessly as breathing in and breathing out, breathing in details and sense impressions and breathing out stories, had created in Maigret a detective who solved crimes with intuitions strikingly similar to those of a fiction writer; moving into a new environment, absorbing impressions, coming up with a narrative.

This week I finally got around to a Maigret written in 1943, but first translated only in 1979, L’Inspecteur cadavre, which contains the following dead-on passage:

”…at that moment Maigret was living in a world of his own and not in the present at all, and he answered [Louis] half–heartedly without really knowing what the question was.

Many a time at the Police Judiciare, his colleagues had joked about his going off into one of these reveries, and he also knew that people used to talk about this habit of his behind his back.

At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.

“So, you’re concentrating your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.
And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:

“I never think.”

And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.

It was Sergeant Lucas who had described him thus, and he had worked constantly with Maigret and knew him better than anyone.

“There comes a time in the course of an investigation,” Lucas had said, “when the patron suddenly swells up like a sponge. You’d think he was filling up.”

But filling up with what? At present, for instance, he was absorbing the fog and the darkness. The village round him was not just any old village. And he was not merely someone who had been cast into these surroundings by chance.

He was rather like God the Father. He knew this village like the back of his hand. It was as if he had always lived here, or better still, as if he had created the little town. He knew what went on inside all these small, low houses nestling in the darkness. He could see men and women turning in the moist warmth of their beds and he followed the thread of their dreams. A dim light in a window enabled him to see a mother, half-asleep, giving a bottle of warm milk to her infant. He felt the shooting pain of the sick woman in the corner and imagined the drowsy grocer’s wife waking up with a start.

He was in the café. Men holding grubby cards and totting up red and yellow counters were seated at the brown, polished tables.

He was in Genevieve’s bedroom…”

And with this Maigret is back in the main narrative, spinning out his mystery-solving account of what must have happened that night, the only thing that could possibly have happened.

There can't be much doubt that Simenon is writing about himself, here. I remember reading back in the day a magazine article about Simenon, I think in Life, that described his working methods: spending six or eight weeks at a stretch just wandering around Paris every day, soaking up impressions, swelling up, until it was time to rush home and write a novel in as little as two weeks. (I suppose a comparison with the process of gestation and birth would work also.) The Life article can now be read online.)

When I finished Inspector Cadaver I decided to give Fred Vargas a squeeze, if only to test my assumption that France’s current bestselling rompol author could hardly help owing a thing or two to her legendary predecessor. The first few chapters have been enough to confirm this, although they also suggest a more au courant debt to some popular Scandinavian imports.

There are some significant differences, of course: The second in command to Vargas’ rumpled and absent-minded crime-stopper, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, also compares his patron to a deep sea invertebate, though not to a sponge; rather to “a primitive species of jellyfish, without feet or tentacles, top or bottom, a sort of transparent being, floating in the water…”

Remains to be seen how much deeper the similarities run.

May 31, 2009

In an earlier post I argued that novelist Georges Simenon modeled the methods of his signature character, Inspector Maigret, on those of a novelist. A corroborating passage turned up today in an excellent biography of the writer:

"...Maigret and Simenon did have a parallel understanding of their principal activities. They saw police work and writing as uncomplicated crafts. Both had an aptitude for living the lives of others and for immersing themselves in a milieu. The policeman felt uncomfortable between cases, the novelist when he was between books.

"...Maigret reasons as Simenon writes. Both tend to have more sympathy for the perpetrator than for the victim. The investigator often says that he knows the murderer only by getting to know the victim well, and the novelist builds his tale in exactly the same way. In the investigation itself, as in the writing that engenders it, atmosphere, milieu, and characters are more important than plot, clue and suspense."


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Folksy Fruits

Another amusing find from "A Journey Round My Skull": Illustrations from "Folksy Fruits: Amusing Adventures in Opal Orchard" by T. Benjamin Faucett, from 1924. God only knows what happened to the unfortunate children exposed to these Thornton W. Burgess meets Aubrey Beardsley drawings.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Better - certainly more important - than the Kindle

The Thumb Thing, which you can buy here


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Flashback: Tulkinghorn discovers the secret of anti-cool

Roger Scruton carries the anti-cool gene, and with an instinct for contrarian ideas has just written a short book about beauty.

He gives a taste in this morning's Times:

This search for aesthetic order is not just a luxury; it is essential to life in society. It is one way in which we send out signals of humility, and show that we are not just animals foraging for our needs but civilised beings who wish to live at peace with our neighbours. That is why we adopt dress codes; it is why we are guided by taste in our language, in our gestures and in our ways of looking at other people and inviting them into our lives.

Beauty is not popular among professional architects, just as the pursuit of beauty is not popular among visual artists: it suggests costly sacrifices, and a scaling down of pretentions for the sake of people whom they don't need to know. But the controversy over modern architecture remains real and important: for it reflects the need of ordinary people that appearances be respected, so that the place where they find themselves can also be shared as a home.


"...a tone that was new to me..."

More lines I would quote in my critique of Ross Macdonald's The Doomsters (1958), if I was writing one:

The rest of it happened in ten or twelve seconds, but each of the seconds was divided into marijuana fractions.


Sheriff Ostervelt: "I still don't like to kill a man. It's too damn easy to wipe one out and too damn hard to grow one."


Anger stung my eyes and made me clench my fists. I hadn't been so mad since the day I took the strap away from my father. [First reference to Archer's childhood in any of the novels.]


My voice sounded strange: it had broken through into a tone that was new to me, deep as the sorrow I felt. It had nothing to do with sex, or with the possessive pity that changed to sex when the wind blew from the south. She was a human being with more grief on her young mind than it was able to bear.


"I don't hate you, [killer's name]. On the contrary."

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn't want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I'd been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool's errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape.

It was time I traded the picture in on one that included a few of the finer shades.
Worth noting that the book was serialized the same year under its original title, Breakthrough -- a fact that is not even mentioned in Tom Nolan's supposedly definative biography.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Joy of Lists

I know all the reasons why 'best of' lists are stupid, but I can't resist a good list, like the Guardian's list of the fifty best television dramas: an especially interesting window into the views of the British chattering classes concerning US and British series, and a good cheat sheet for those who haven't seen many of the British honorees...

The top ten:

Our Friends in the North
Mad Men
A Very Peculiar Practice
Talking Heads
Singing Detective
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit
State of Play
Boys from the Blackstuff

I disagree with so much of this: "Wire" at #14 is appalling, for example. But I will say this: If you haven't seen "Our Friends in the North" or "State of Play", you really should.


Our Friends in the North is seemingly lost to the world of home video. The above picture, however, will amuse Daniel Craig fans.


Monday, January 11, 2010

French kids learning the arts of violence

From the extraordinary French ephemera site, Agence eureka -- insight into how les enfants had fun before the days of television.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

On the list

I've got "Blood's a Rover" on the stack -- the third in the Ellroy trilogy that began with American Tabloid -- and I'm also reading the Red Riding Quartet by David Peace, who is definitely School-of-Ellroy.

I was accordingly interested in the interview of Ellroy by Peace in the Guardian the other day on the occasion of the publication of Rover in the UK. Peace behaves himself and exhibits almost no personality -- Ellroy, of course, does not.

For some reason, I loved this quote from Ellroy:

JE I like to lie in the dark, Mr Peace. I just lie in the dark and I . . . think. And history has been kind to me. I am a good thinker. I am a single-minded man. I spend so much time . . . do you have a family?

DP Yes, I do.

JE I don't have a family. I've never had a family. It's the strangest thing. I am 61 years old. I'm very healthy. I am more obsessed with women than I've ever been. And I've finally met the woman. I've finally met her. But I'm the guy with no place to go on Christmas and Easter that ends up getting, you know, some pitiful invitation, shit like this. So I spend a lot of time alone, thinking. And I avoid the culture. I don't go to movies. I don't read newspapers. Here's what I mean: I'm not a rich man. I pay alimony. I pay taxes. But I don't have to support a family. So I have this assistant. So I don't have to go to the fucking store. I don't have a computer. She does my email.


I wanted to write a book about ideology, about bad men cracking up ... and I saw that this kid Crutchfield ... this dipshit kid is the voice of American history. He is malleable. He is politically naive. He's never been laid. He spends four years tracking one woman to have 20 minutes with her and then spends the rest of his life looking for her. It's fucking heartbreaking. The last hundred pages of this book are heartbreaking.



"It seemed that my life had dwindled down to a series of one-night stands in desolate places. Watch it, I said to myself, self-pity is the last refuge of little minds and aging professional hardnoses. I knew the desolation was my own. Brightness had fallen from my interior air.

"A boy and a girl in a hand-painted lavender Chevrolet coupé made me feel better, for some reason. They were sitting close, like a body with two ducktailed heads, taking alternate sips of malted milk from the same straw, germ-free with love."
--Ross Macdonald. The Doomsters, 1958.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The turning point...

Reading all the books in a series in order of publication, including the supposedly lesser early ones ("Why would you want to read those?"), does pay dividends every so often.

"The Doomsters" (1958), according to Ross Macdonald himself, and his biographer, is the book in which family traumas first led the novelist to turn inward and enrich the psychology of his Lew Archer detective series -- although it's the book immediately following, the eighth, "The Galton Case," that's usually indentified as the beginning of his most characteristic, great period.

So as I began reading it just this morning, I was in a position to know, with appropriate tingly/scalpy sensations, that this passage in Chapter 24 of "The Doomsters" was the first statement in any of his novels of one of Ross Macdonald's key themes. Archer is discussing his client, the troubled youngest son of one of the leading families of "Purissima" (aka. Ventura?), CA, with an administrator of the mental hospital from which the client has escaped:

"The type of family a sick man marries into" (Archer says) "can be very significant. A person who feels socially inadequate, as sick people do, will often lower himself in the social scale, deliberatly declass himself."

"Don't jump to conclusions too fast. You should take a look at his own family."

"Carl's told me a great deal about them. You know, when a person breaks down, he doesn't do it all by himself. It's something that happens to whole families. The terrible thing is when one member cracks up, the rest so often make a scapegoat out of him. They think they can solve their own problems by rejecting the sick one -- locking him up and forgetting him."
In a nutshell.


P.D. James is mostly interested in Golden Age British detective fiction, but names Macdonald as her favorite writer of the American school:
Although Macdonald's complicated plots are not without violence, he is more a detached observer than a participant, resembling a secular Father Brown [!] in his empathy for human suffering. Less romantic than Chandler, his style has the vigor and imaginative richness of a man confident in his mastery of epithets and, particularly in his later novels, he attains a standard which places him first among those novelists who raised the genre from its roots in pulp fiction to serious literature.
For full effect, read aloud with fake accent.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

More pictures for children

If you like obscure book illustration, you can't do better than the amazing "A Journey Round My Skull". Today's jawdropper is a Russian health textbook from the early 90s.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

James' gloss on Forster

"In his book Aspects of the Novel. E.M. Forster writes:
'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot... 'The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.' This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.
To that I would add, 'Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.' That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.
--P.D. James. Talking About Detective Fiction.


Monday, January 4, 2010

A weakness for children's books?

Try the wonderful Curious Pages site curated by illustrator Lane Smith. Subtitled "Recommended Inapproriate Books for Kids."

Here's one that I loved, classic and simple.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Decade ten best: Two from the New Yorker

I've been poking around a lot on the New Yorker's web site recently: If you're a subscriber, you can read any issue of the magazine ever published, which is fun, and their writers and editors relax a bit and blog, occasionally posting things that are more interesting that what they publish.

David Denby and Richard Brody, two of their film critics, posted their decade ten best lists and the contrast is interesting, reflecting very different attitudes toward the medium.

Denby's list is, frankly, impeccable. From "The Lives of Others" to "The Incredibles" and "Wall-E" from "Crouching Tiger" to "Cache" and "The White Ribbon" from "Mystic River" to "Knocked Up", Denby shows why he gets the big bucks -- this is a man with good taste, who writes well, and who will not scare the children. A bit boring, of course, but there's not a movie on the list that anyone but an eccentric would complain about.

Brody, whom I don't know, contributes a list that could either be insightful or insane, with only three movies I've ever heard of (one of which was The Darjeeling Limited -- surely a unique accolade for that one -- and another of which was a Senegalese movie about genital mutilation). Lots of food for thought: Jia Zhangke is 'the best new non-American director of the last twenty years'; Ying Liang and Wang Bing are the two best new directors of the decade; Manoel de Olivera made a movie that nobody told me about; and French people still make movies in black and white starring enigmatic and beautiful women.

I'd put Denby's list in the time capsule, but I'm putting Brody's list on my Netflix queue -- if I can find them there.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

I have a bad feeling about this...

Opens January 8.


Plus ca change

Tonight is the big night on BBC America. And if you don't already know that, then this clip won't be of any interest to you at all.


Friday, January 1, 2010