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Thank You, Roger

Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to knock each other’s block off frequently on their TV show, as shown in the provocative documentary Life Itself, that’s just been released.

arguing

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert bring it on

But their unique chemistry will always be missed, I think, because they brought to the screen two very different (and often opposing) approaches to the art of reviewing.

Ebert was the objective critic who emphasized reason over personal opinion. He never gave thumbs-up to a movie without offering evidence — images, themes, plot, dialogue, etc. — to support his argument.

Siskel was the subjective one. He used the “I” voice a great deal, as if to say that personalizing a movie was the only way to view it critically. Siskel saw himself as a kind of Everyman who didn’t need to prove his point — after all, if he liked something, it had to be good.

So Siskel might say, “I was impressed by the director’s decision to … ” or “I laughed out loud in the scene where … ” or “I hated it when she ….”

Whereas Ebert might say, “the suspense builds when he …. ” or “she’s in love because … ” or “a strong foundation is laid early when ….”

On the set of 'Siskel and Ebert and the Movies'

On the set of ‘Siskel and Ebert and the Movies’

Of the dozens of great examples you can find on YouTube, a favorite of mine is the navy courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, Ebert turned thumbs-down on the film because, he said, “the script fatally undermines the key scene in the whole movie.” His evidence:  Tom Cruise’s character tells us exactly how he’s going to trap the bad guy (played by Jack Nicholson) before Nicholson takes the stand.

“Now why would a screenplay give away a surprise like that?” Ebert asked. “Why didn’t they figure we were smart enough to see the courtroom scene and figure out for ourselves what it was Cruise was trying to do, and then see if Nicholson falls for it or not?”

Siskel conceded that A Few Good Men was “a predictable movie” but gave it thumbs-up anyway. “The screenplay was surprising for what it didn’t do,” which he found delightful: This movie brought together two gorgeous Hollywood actors, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, whose characters don’t fall in love or end up in bed. Watching Ebert try to hide his revulsion over what he saw as indulgent and foolish on Siskel’s part is half the fun.

Sometimes Ebert got so personally offended by a movie that he sounded more subjective than Siskel. This was the case with Blue Velvet, a controversial film that was called “a masterpiece” by some and “sick and depraved” by others.

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signal

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signs

Siskel took his Everyman approach to the film by saying he was thrilled by the movie’s sexually kinky, often perverted theme.  “I sat there and this (movie) did for me … what Psycho did when I was a lot younger, which is, ‘eyes open and oh, my god, we’re really getting in over our heads.’ And that’s an experience which is challenging, shocking, but mesmerizing. And I liked the picture.”

Ebert blasted Blue Velvet for being “cruelly unfair to its actors.” He criticized director David Lynch for “asking [the star] Isabel Rossellini to be undressed and humiliated on the screen as few actresses ever have been, certainly in non porno roles.”

Siskel scoffed at this, saying that Isabel Rossellini was a big girl who could get over any embarrassment she felt from the movie, just as Janet Leigh had after the shower scene in Psycho.

Ebert believed that at the very least, the director was inconsistent. By the end, “[Lynch] tries to take the edge off [Rosselini's] shocking scenes by turning the whole thing into some kind of a joke. Well, either this material is funny, in which case you don’t take advantage of your stars, or it isn’t funny, in which case it shouldn’t have so much campy and adolescent dialog along with the really powerful sexual scenes.”

In a dismissive tone that makes you realize why he could irritate Ebert so easily, Siskel intimated that a critic’s job is to review the movie, not worry about the actors’ or viewers’ reactions.

“We can’t divorce our reactions,” Ebert said hotly. “It’s not how Isabel Rosselini reacts to the fact she’s standing there nude and humiliated on the lawn of the police captain’s house with lots of people watching.  It’s how I react, and that’s painful to me to see a woman treated like that, and I want to know that if I’m feeling that pain, it’s for a reason the movie has, other than simply to cause pain to her” (my italics).

Wow.  It’s tempting at this point to think of Roger Ebert as a budding feminist rather than an objective critic, but then, his use of the “I” voice refers less to himself or the audience and more to the integrity of the movie. To Ebert’s mind, every viewer has the right to demand that a film tell us which way it’s going to go — from cheap manipulation to creative vision — especially when the emotions we feel because of that movie are painful. If the director is going to equivocate around and debase his actors for no artistic reason, everyone should be infuriated.

last photo

Thank you, Roger

Ebert wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime, but I think he’ll be remembered as a true film scholar with a genius for critical conversation. Siskel had a gift for talking about the movies, too, but he never reached as high or took as many risks as Ebert did. It was only when the two were sniping and griping at each other that they hit a nerve between art and commerce, and then we all got to pitch in.

 

A Glorious Mess, But a Mess

When my book group read the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, we were surprised at how breathtakingly beautiful it could be, yet how “boring and muddled” at the same time.

Eng’s book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won the Man Asian Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This seemed incredible to us.

“What were they thinking?” members of the group asked about judges of these awards — and about critics who praised the novel but never mentioned its serious flaws.

Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng

This is why I love book groups — we get to take the book apart put it back together again. We talk about what works and what doesn’t, and by the end, so many points of view are expressed that the book changes — deepens, opens, enlarges — before our eyes.

On the Good Side

One of Eng’s talents lies in capturing a moment so vividly that you can almost hear the camera click. This is one, set in the stillness of a Japanese garden deep in a Malaysian forest:

            “In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”

Reading quotes aloud lets us sink collectively into the gorgeousness — pardon my teenage hyperbole — of the author’s writing style.

This one below prompted gasps of admiration, even though everyone had already read it. On a makeshift runway at the end of World War II, when Japan knows it’s lost the war, a reluctant kamikaze pilot revs up the engines for a suicide mission.

            “The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. paperback edition

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” U.S. paperback edition

These quiet reflections can be missed in the heat of a violent story, but what pops out over and over is Eng’s unbelievable vocabulary.  He seems to have a gift for inserting a single, sometimes exotic, always completely unexpected word in an otherwise matter-of-fact sentence.

Here, for instance, is what happens when Yun Ling, the narrator of the novel, takes a breath in cold weather:

“I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath shape this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me  …”

There’s nothing unusual about watching one’s breath take shape in the chilly air, but the word “cobweb” is so visual and unusual that it transports us right into the scene.

Eng tosses these linguistic bon-bons into sentences all over the place — “the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops,” for example. Or “the lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.” Rather than refer to the sides of mountains, the narrator chooses a more tactile, even voluptuous word:

            “The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of morning melting down their flanks.”

Here’s the last glimpse of a morning sky: “The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.” At twilight, “above the trees, the line of mountains serrated the sky.”  Water pouring over a cliff “broaden(ed) into a white feather as it fell ….”

Sometimes Eng changes the point of view — as below, from human to insect — before we realize what’s happening:

        “At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.”

At other times, Eng deliberately confuses visual and audible words so that the sound of a bird’s wings, which humans almost never hear, inspires the sight of natural forces we never see. This occurs when a pair of storks fly off a treetop as the narrator watches:

           “It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.”

On the Bad Side

So while we admired Eng’s artistic precision, it was a huge disappointment to watch this potentially stunning work of fiction turn clumsy, amateurish and awkward.  Eng’s characters are at times stiff and wooden, the story ragged, the dialogue inauthentic and the writing so heavy-handed that it drags the whole novel down.

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. hardcover

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” hardcover edition

Most irritating to me, the stickler of the group, is Eng’s dependence on sentences that begin with present-participle phrases (the “ing” version of a verb), like this:

Going behind a stand of bougainvillea trees, I enter a bower of low-hanging branches … ”

Wincing at the pain in my knees, I kneel at the oldest gravestone … ”

There’s nothing wrong with one or two of these “ing” phrases in a novel, but Eng has developed a kind of addiction to them that lands two or three on a page.

Soaking my hands one evening, I heard..”

Wrapping a hand towel around my left hand, I went…”

Gesturing them to the rattan chairs, I went …”

I’m not saying that readers throw up their hands and say, “Oh no, participial phrases, shoot me now!” Quite the opposite — most people don’t see the problem and just keep reading. In time, however, a sing-songy rhythm emerges that makes the best writing sound childish. Our eye grows weary of sameness of style; even poetic writing will sound as sluggish as mud.

For Eng the problem gets worse when he breaks the rules of grammar by creating that bad boy of English grammar, the DDM (Dreaded Dangling Modifier).  This is simply the “ing” word describing the wrong thing, as in this sentence: .

Turning (the envelope) over, a thin wooden stick…fell out onto my desk.”

Well, it ain’t the stick that’s turning the envelope over, it’s the narrator. A simple fix, following the author’s sentence construction, might read like this:

            “Turning (the envelope) over, I saw a thin wooden stick fall out onto my desk.”

Again, most readers aren’t conscious of the Dreaded Dangling Modifier, but they’ll stumble over it just the same, and after a while, confusion will register.  The sad part here is how easily Eng’s sentences could be corrected, perhaps like this (again following the author’s sentence construction):

            Mistake: “Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital filled me with disquiet … ”

            Suggested fix: “Entering Tanah Rata, I was filled with disquiet at the sight of the former Army Hospital … ”

            Mistake: “Being the only child…my father’s main purpose in life was cultivating the fortune… ”

            Suggested fix: “Being the only child, my father discovered that his main purpose in life was to cultivate the fortune… ”

            Mistake: “Sinking lower into the tub, the stiffness in my body slowly dissolved… ”

           Suggested fix: “Sinking lower into the tub, I felt the stiffness in my body …”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," British paperback

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” British paperback

Some book group members looked at these sentences and said, “Sheesh! Where was the editor?” Who could blame them?  DDMs are fixable problems that a professional should spot and correct immediately.

Still, I’ve always felt that question isn’t  appropriate because in a way it’s none of our business. As critics and readers, we don’t know how bad the manuscript was when the author turned it in. It could have had a thousand DDMs, most of them caught and fixed by heroic editors, but a few allowed to remain since they were cherished by the author, who refused to have them corrected. Hard to believe but this happens.

Or it could be that the publishing house just doesn’t care. In the midst of huge upheavals facing the book industry, especially the corporate-takeover era that initially cut editorial budgets and inflated marketing departments, fewer and fewer editors get to read the manuscript all the way through, let alone try to maintain editorial standards.  Typos should never exist in a published book. But in the paperback edition with an Author’s Commentary in the back, this sentence makes to sound as though nobody’s even decided on British or American spelling:

Yun Ling realises realizes this when she leads a group of visitors ….

To me, the greater tragedy is the trickle-down effect. In the current issue of Essence, a magazine for young African American women that I’ve admired for years (it’s way too commercial now but that’s another story), two bylined columns about the subject of “body love” begin with DDM mistakes:

            Mistake: “As a kid, my feet seemed to grow faster than my body.”

            Suggested fix: “As a kid, I noticed my feet growing faster…”

            Mistake: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, people naturally assume I’m an athlete.”

            Suggested fix: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, I am often mistaken for an athlete.”

These are the lead sentences in an important feature for the magazine, and sure, readers may not notice the tiny bit of confusion created by DDMs, but the lack of clarity will have an effect. In magazines, you have no time to horse around! If you don’t sweep every story clean of mistakes, readers will go off and play Candy Crush in a second.

Eng's first novel, "The Gift of Rain"

Eng’s first novel, “The Gift of Rain”

The great joy of the Internet, I think, is that we’re all writers of record somehow. We send out a tweet or text or an article or a book as do millions of others, and one way to separate our message from the chaos around is to write clearly and accurately, even gracefully, with our readers’ needs in mind.

Premature Awards

For book industry observers, this brings up a related problem concerning judges of literary prizes who want to encourage young writers by giving them prizes too early.  These judges forget that awards exist to celebrate excellence, not to help authors get better.

In fact the reverse is what happens. You can’t expect promising writers to improve if they’re given the kind of accolades that Eng received when his first book, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  Maybe that’s the reason The Garden of Evening Mists is such a mess — a glorious mess, mind you, and well worth reading, but in terms of literary awards, a mess that shouldn’t even be in the running.

And Yet

And yet, how my book group rooted for Tan Twan Eng!  We loved his potential so much that we’d like to sit him down and say, “No more dangling modifiers for you! Get rid of those participial phrases and concentrate on your friggin’ gifts!”

P.S. I can’t leave The Garden of Evening Mists without providing one delicious chunk of Eng’s stunning narrative, warts and all (with a real beaut of a DDM in the middle). It’s too long at the end of this already too-long column, so i’ll post it next time.

 

Use Your Words, Not Your Fists

Let’s say you’re the publisher at the New York Times and you know that an executive editor is slamming her fist into the newsroom walls so hard that holes appear in the plaster. These holes are so unsightly that other employees have placed wall maps over them to cover the damage.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

It’s not a rumor — the editor is known for this behavior, and you know it keeps happening. The company has a Workplace Violence Prevention Program* that  states even the threat of violence can be grounds for dismissal, so of course you, the head of the New York Times, are gravely concerned.

*Note to reader: These days just about every major company has this kind of policy. I’m assuming the Times does, too, but don’t know for sure.

So: to the question: Should you fire this person?

Let’s add that you call this editor into your office and say, “Your admirable work here means nothing now!  Don’t you realize we have a policy against any violence in the workplace, and that this policy  leaves me no choice? Personally, I can’t believe you’ve been slamming your fists in the walls here, at  America’s newspaper of record! People here are dedicated to the power of words (not fists).”

I bring this up because as we know, it isn’t a woman who’s been slamming her fist in the walls at the New York Times — it’s Dean Baquet, the former managing editor who worked for Jill Abramson, and who’s now replaced Jill as top editor.

Dean Baquet

Dean Baquet

Of course, nothing was said about Dean’s fist-slamming when publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill a few weeks ago. No, most of the talk (some of it by Arthur) concerned Jill’s behavior  – she consulted a lawyer over salary matters; she hired a co-managing editor without checking with Dean; she was “difficult,” “stubborn and condescending,” and so forth.

When people questioned whether Jill was fired because she was a woman, Dean came forward. He granted an interview to National Public Radio to assure listeners that this was not so. The “turmoil” surrounding his promotion was over, he said. And he wanted to make an unequivocal statement.

“I do not believe Jill was fired over gender,” he said.

So there you have it, and thank you, Dean.

More important, here’s what he really meant:

“I get to stay because I’m a man.”

Oh, excuse me, did my finger slip on the font-size key?  Well, let’s leave that statement as big as it is, because what other reason could there be?   Dean admitted  he’s been throwing fits as well as fists in the newsroom for some time now, and everybody knew about it.

Am I going out on a limb here to say out loud what we all know is true?  That a woman would never have been able to get away with actions like that?  Shoving your fist through a wall because your boss overruled you?  And doing it a LOT?  And not being embarrassed by a newsroom covered with wall maps to hide behavior that’s in direct contradiction to workplace policy?

Oh, all right, Dean says. Now that punching walls is out in the open, he’s going to be a good guy and open up about it.

“I feel bad about that,” he told Politico magazine. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.”  Gee, ya think?

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Then, coming to Jill’s defense like the fair-minded man he sees himself to be, Dean said:  ”I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer. That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”

Isn’t that sweet.  He’s not saying Jill’s the “bitchy woman” — that’s what others have said. He’s the humble guy accepting that second role, the one where he’s the … well, he’s characterized as … Wait a minute, Dean sees himself as The guy who is sort of calmer?

Maybe Dean is just a selective puncher.  When it comes to why he’s sometimes capable of slugging things and sometimes not, he says this: “In each case, I was mad at somebody above me in rank. It’s not an excuse, but it is a fact.”

Well, Arthur, you old publisher on the top of the Times’ power chain, I’d watch my chin if I were you.

 

Reading the News Critically

I’m not a fan of former Secretary of Labor (2001-2009) Elaine Chao, but I don’t like snarky put-downs masquerading as news stories, either.

Elaine Chao and then president George Bush

Elaine Chao with president George Bush

Take the front-page article in the New York Times last week by Jason Horowitz about Chao and her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who’s currently up for re-election.

“At Harvard Business School,” it begins, “Elaine L. Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers.”

Fine. Not sure what it means, and “kept tabs” is never explained, but okay.

Sentence #2: “As labor secretary, (Chao) had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief, and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag.”

Goodness. Somebody carried her bag when she was a Cabinet member? I wonder if Secretary of State John Kerry ever tells an assistant to carry his briefcase when he shakes hands with, you know, the Pope or Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. I bet his career would topple.

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

The word Veep in the article refers to the TV comedy show about the Vice President of the United States, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as petty, narcissistic, manipulative and incompetent.  Because she’s followed around by silly and obsequious assistants, the NYT’s mention of Chao and her “Veep-like staff member” is meant to be disparaging.  There are no quotes, no sources, no photos to support this contention because hey, this is gossip disguised as news. It’s simply too catty for attribution.

As to the “gold colored coins,” these were given out at a competition among rescue teams at the Mine Safety and Health Administration — an agency Chao directed as Labor Secretary. I doubt she “minted” these souvenirs like a despot starting a new currency. But putting her name in “bas-relief”?  I dunno, maybe it was an act of hubris. If so, let’s see it!  How many taxpayers dollars were spent on the things? Show us the budget!

In fact, the purpose of this piece is not to provide proof of any claims but to show, according to the headline, how Senator Mitch McConnell is “Girding for a Fight” in his reelection campaign and “Enlists His Wife” to help him.

No news there, right?  A lot of politicians ask their spouses to help with campaigns — it would be odd if McConnell didn’t.  And it must be a plus that Chao, “renowned for her strong sense of self,” whatever that means (and “renowned” by whom?), “can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband – and how much they gave, friends say.”

Oh, those friends, how they gossip.  “Those who have encountered Ms. Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

In the context of the article, this has an accusatory ring, making Chao sound ruthless and Machiavellian. But why?  For someone in politics, isn’t being “an unapologetically ambitious operator” a compliment? And as to “a short fuse,” everybody from Bill Clinton to John McCain is said to have one of those, so it  must be okay for a woman to have one, too, right? (Why, look at Jill Abramson, the first woman editor of the New York Times! Or wait a minute….)

But then we learn the worst. Elaine Chao may attend football games at Louisville, but “she wears dark sunglasses so that she can furtively doze off.”  Whoa, who said that?  Would you call the source reliable?  Is there a source or did the reporter make it up?

At a time when newspapers are dying, and journalistic standards continue to fade into the chaos of Internet voices all shouting at once,  it’s important to recognize “news” stories that replace fact with innuendo and sources with generalities like “those who,” and “friends say.”

Most of the time,  I’m grateful for the New York Times. Regardless of its own management chaos, it’s accurately portrayed as the nation’s newspaper/website of record. But that means you don’t put a hit piece on the front page of the news section.  If you do, you should be called on it.

 

On Language: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Changes the World

Is it possible to change the language?

Can you convince the world to stop (or to start) using certain words? Or does the culture have to evolve by itself, and take a long time doing it, before old words filter out and new words filter in?

I used to think you could never tell people how to speak or what to say. In the street, for example, you can’t say, “Stop calling me a bitch,” and expect the men following you to apologize and stop using the word. They’re more likely to laugh and use it again, or taunt and heckle, or move closer.  Better to just look down, say nothing and get out of there fast.

Until, that is, something like the image below appears out of nowhere with an unequivocal message, Stop telling WOMEN to smile.

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: 'Stop telling WOMEN to smile'

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: ‘Stop telling WOMEN to smile’

It’s one of a series of posters by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that began showing up on buildings throughout Brooklyn in 2012.  I saw my first in Oakland, California, a month ago, and it took my breath away.  The gaze is unapologetic, direct, powerful and as clear as its challenge-in-print.

Fazlalizadeh has made dozens of these posters by now. The process usually begins, she told The Guardian in a video interview, with a conversation in which she asks women how it feels to walk in the street alone (“uncomfortable and unsafe” is where most of them start). She takes a photo and draws their portrait, pulls a concise statement out of the discussion and creates the poster so fast that she’s out pasting up copies before the ink dries. (She also makes her own paste.)

The women in these posters turn to confront their adversaries directly.  My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma, says one. The message is so bold and so true that the paper and the wall behind it tend to disappear.

'My outfit is NOT an invitation'

‘My outfit is NOT an invitation’

You are not ENTITLED to my space, says another.  The words have their own power, but it’s the gaze that nails you.  No, you can’t talk to me for a MINUTE. Without a physical body to threaten or diminish, the poster arrests, shocks, resists and lingers in memory.

We know this because men began trying to reply, in writing and on the posters themselves, almost as soon as Fazlalizadeh began putting them up.

The poster on the left reads: 'WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation'

The poster on the left reads: ‘WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation’

“Really,” the exasperated women in these posters seem to say, “do I have to make this message so obvious?” Many of the handwritten responses are angry and combative, but the project hit a new dimension when male feminists picked up on Fazlalizadeh’s subtle humor.

'STOP telling women to smile' 'START giving them reasons to!'

‘STOP telling women to smile. START giving them reasons to!’

This young man to the right takes her point, for example, and suggests a way to have fun with it, too. Soon Fazlalizedah began collecting what might be called DIY poster-selfies from a new and responsive fan base.

Today you can buy posters and t-shirts from Project STWTS to help support Fazlalizedah’s work, and the Internet has already done its job by spreading the word internationally.

But she is still a lone person trying to change the world. Which brings us back to the question: Can you tell people to stop using certain words because it’s just the right thing to do?  I still think the answer in most cases is no.  (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? We won’t go into that now.)  But there is this:  Every time a person chances upon the unwavering stare and message of one of her posters, Tatyana Fazlalizedah shows us the power of art. And art, as we know, can change the world.

Future posts: More On Language from Pussy Riot to BanBossy.com

You could try co-opting the power of words like “bitch” or “dyke” by embracing them as your own, but when they’re hurled at you in hatred, these words still have the power to hurt and offend.

The Art of the Movie Tie-in — Part II

Here we are again looking at the movie tie-in edition of 12 Years a Slave, which shows actor Chiwetel Ejiofor running for his life as the slave Solomon Northup. The photo so beautifully communicates Northup’s excruciating fear that it was chosen as the “brand” for both movie and tie-in edition.

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in from Penguin Books

It’s okay with me that this specific scene isn’t in the movie (more about this later), but I wish the publisher had at least hinted on the cover that the original book is more than an extension of the movie experience.

To me, that’s the art of the movie tie-in, showing that print can sometimes be better, wilder and more adventurous, more escapist and engaging, more colorful and even more intimate and immediate than any movie on a screen.

A Pivotal Episode (Not in the Movie)

What’s in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie?

No motion picture can capture the entirety of a book, but in the case of 12 Years a Slave I was surprised to see a key passage omitted that occurs about 90 pages in. This occurs when Northup clashes for a second time with the vicious white carpenter, John Tibeats.  The movie shows us the first conflict (Northup’s near-hanging) but leaves out this more riveting episode, when Tibeats comes after him with a hatchet, and Northup has no choice but to run for it.

Behind him Solomon hears Tibeats release the plantation’s dogs — each a “savage breed” of hound and pit bull “trained to attack a negro” and capable of running faster than a slave can run.

We’ve learned by now that the swamp is eerily silent, so it’s doubly terrifying for Northup to “hear [the bloodhounds] crashing and plunging through the palmettoes, their loud, eager yells making the whole swamp clamorous with the sound.”

The dogs are 80 feet behind him when Northup reaches the swamp, hoping they’ll lose his scent in the murky green water. “Most slaves are not allowed to learn the art of swimming,” he writes, which is why plantation owners used swamps to keep slaves from escaping. But Northup learned to swim as a child in the North and is relieved to feel his ankles, knees and chest sinking into the thick marsh water as he plows ahead.

But now the real danger begins. “Great slimy reptiles” loom out of the water everywhere — poisonous water moccasins slithering over every “log and bog,” and “alligators great and small, lying in the water or on pieces of floodwood,” inches away. Continue reading

The Book That Is Not ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Movie

I was so sure Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio missed the point of their own movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, that I decided to read the book to see what author Jordan Belfort is all about.

Movie tie-in edition of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Movie tie-in edition of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

DiCaprio has defended the movie by saying that critics missed the “irony” of the script, which he molded and shaped “for years” with screenwriter Terence Winter. But one glance at the book shows whole sections of text lifted nearly intact and inserted into the movie, the better to show us such realities as the-camera’s-on-your-crotch-honey scene, the give-that-candle-a-push-back-there scene and the-quaaludes-made-me-crawl-for-it scene, among others.

A deeper, more conflicted and actually interesting Belfort does come through in the book, but Scorcese and DiCaprio apparently wanted only the snorting-and-cavorting Belfort so they could more imagesdramatically film a fuck-and-suck movie without calling it pornography.

I’m not saying that Belfort as an author shows any conscience about cheating his investors or sending his colleagues to prison. I mean that even when Belfort portrays himself as charismatic, the book reveals torturous self-doubts building inside.

Short, Unworthy and Not WASP

From the early pages, for example, Belfort worries about his height (“on the short side” at 5’7″), his “status as a lowly Jew” in the land of WASPs, his lack of confidence with women (“What a fucking embarrassment I was!”) and his passion for “loamy loins” that strangely evade his grasp (“No choice now but to jerk off”).

Belfort also shows us a mean-spirited, trashy side we don’t see on screen. He describes hiring prostitutes “who could only say hello and good-bye! My favorite!” until a ringing phone in the room makes him think,  ”OH, FUCK! MY WIFE! THE DUCHESS! SHIT!” at which point he puts his forefinger to his lips, “the international sign language known to all hookers, which in this particular instance translated into: ‘Shut the fuck up, you whore! My wife’s on the phone, and if she hears a female voice in the room, I’m in deep shit and you’re not getting a tip!’ ”

Movie tie-in cover of Belfort's book

Movie tie-in cover of Belfort’s book

There are glimpses of cruel humor in the movie, as when DiCaprio coldly discusses dwarf-throwing contests, but generally nothing is exposed of the demons deep down that send Belfort over the edge. Maybe it’s because DiCaprio usually plays fallen heroes (Howard Hughes, Jay Gatsby) that he didn’t want to portray Belfort as a loser.  Perhaps he’s only comfortable acting the role of entitled, knowingly handsome and tall (6 feet) leaders of men — for a brief while he even made J. Edgar Hoover look conventionally attractive.

Belfort, on the other hand, makes no secret in the book that he’s more of a strutting-and-rutting bantam who takes on the big guys but never really wins. Interviewers have noticed his self-doubt, as when Belfort told Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, “Hey, being played by Leo is better than being played by Danny DeVito!” Her response: “At 5-foot-7, Jordan would mortgage his soul for [DiCaprio's] kind of height.”

Scorcese directing the crotch-shot scene

Scorcese directing the crotch-shot scene

DiCaprio believes he’s given a warts-and-all portrayal of Belfort. He’s told critics over and over that the movie is “an accurate reflection of (Wall Street people who) have been so incredibly corrupt.” His defense of the movie goes like this: As with Goodfellas, Casino and others, the job of a Scorcese movie is not to punish the criminals or dwell on the victims. It’s to show “the absurdity of the world that [criminals] created for themselves, where they just didn’t have any respect for anyone except themselves.”

That accounts for the sleazy side of Belfort, but it doesn’t really look into his complexity. Belfort is a gifted con artist and an inspiring salesman, so of course he’s going to be lying half the time. He wants to look heroic on the page, but he’s not a good writer, so he inserts a “braggadocio” spirit into the text that critics found superficial and tiresome when translated to the movie.  Though dazzled at times by DiCaprio’s shenanigans, the audience wonders: Isn’t there more to Belfort than this?

So here is my question: Since Belfort exaggerates everything to make a good story in the book, how did Scorsese and DiCaprio know what was “accurate” about Belfort and what was imagined?images-1

‘The Prettiest Girl, the Richest Man, the Most Rip-Roaring Drug Addiction … ”

Only one person has tried to answer. This is celebrity pothead Tommy Chong (of the weed-smoking duo, Cheech and Chong), who was doing 9 months in federal prison for selling drug paraphernalia when Jordan Belfort arrived to be his “cube mate” (no cells in this country-club prison) during his own term of 22 months for fraud.

According to Belfort’s sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Tommy Chong was so entertained by the “totally hysterical”  Wall Street stories that Belfort told him in their cube night after night, he suggested that Belfort write a book.

“I started laughing,” writes Belfort. “How am I gonna write a book? I don’t know how to write! I mean, I can write, but not a whole book.”

Tommy Chong, Jordan Belfort (composition)

Tommy Chong, Jordan Belfort (composition)

So Chong laid it on the line: “There are two things about writing you can never forget,” he’s quoted as saying. “First, it’s all about conflict. Without conflict, no one gives a shit. Second, it’s about the most of. You know what the most of means?… It means you always write about the extreme of something. The most of this, the most of that, the prettiest girl, the richest man, the most rip-roaring drug addiction, the most insane yacht trip. Now that was what your life was all about: the most of. You get the picture?”  (Italics added.)

Oh, lordy, did he. Belfort says he read Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, “two dozen times,” then troweled on the hyperbole. We can see Tommy Chong reading the pages in a cloud of smoke and saying, “Great, man, keep it up. Love that yacht-sinking scene, let me at those loamy loins … Or did I dream that part?”

Enter Aunt Patricia

A deeper, more complicated Belfort begins to surface in the book when the author meets his wife’s Aunt Patricia, a future co-conspirator, in London. Her savoir faire and refusal to judge Belfort for his mistakes inspires him to unload the secrets he’s hidden from everyone else.

“I’m a fucking liar and a cheater,” he blurts out, “and I sleep with prostitutes the way most people put on socks — especially when I’m fucked up on drugs, which is about half the time … What can I say, Patricia? I’m a drug addict. I’ve never admitted that to anyone before, but I know it’s true. And everyone around me, including my own wife, is scared to confront me about it.”

This could be another case of Belfort conning his readers, but the admissions sound sincere the more he pours them out. “I’ve spent my entire life trying  to fill a hole that I can’t seem to fill,” he confides to Aunt Patricia. “And the harder I try, the bigger it seems to get.” Even at the peak of his success, “I live the most dysfunctional life on the planet,” he says. “I’m a successful failure. I’m 31 going on 69.”

Jordan Belfort and his fiance, Anne Koppe

Jordan Belfort and his fiance, Anne Koppe

In the movie, DiCaprio’s Jordan unceremoniously dumps his first wife, Denise, to continue his affair with future wife #2.  But in the book, his guilt about Denise has been roiling painfully for years. “I should have been horsewhipped for what I did to Denise. I don’t care if it’s Wall Street or Main Street. What I did was in-fucking-excusable. I left a kind, beautiful girl, who’d stuck with me through thick and thin, who bet her future on me. And when her winning ticket finally came in — I canceled it on her.”

The book touches upon Belfort’s hardships in childhood — in particular his father’s bouts of paranoia that tyrannized the family. But only to Patricia does Belfort describe the terrifying panic attacks that struck at age 7 or 8 (“like your heart is coming out of your chest”),  or the “terrible insomnia” that kept him staring at a digital alarm clock all night, every night, year after year.. An insatiable drive caused Belfort to make use of this time, learning that he could “multiply the minutes times the hours” obsessively. We believe it when he says, “By the time I was 6 years old, I could do four-digit multiplication in my head faster than you could do it on a calculator.”

This became the kind of “gift from God” that Belfort believes he wasted.   ”Everything in my life became accelerated. I missed my twenties and thirties and went straight to my forties.” Finally a success in his own eyes, he  was “an adolescent inside a man’s body …. an accident waiting to happen.” He remained “a scared young kid who’d gotten himself in way over his head and whose very success was fast becoming the instrument of his own destruction.”

I can’t remember much or any of this in the movie (and friends, please correct me if I’m wrong since I’m not going to watch it again). We do see Belfort on drugs trying to kidnap his small daughter, Chandler, after slugging his wife (huh? where did domestic violence come from?), but little foundation has been created to show what kind of father he wants to be. In the book, when Belfort mentions Chandler, it’s the first time he’s interested in anybody but himself.

“In a way, (Chandler is) what keeps me going,” he tells Patricia. “She’s everything to me. I swore I would stop doing drugs after she was born, but who was I kidding?  I’m incapable of stopping, at least for very long. I wonder what Chandler’ll think when she finds out that her daddy is a drug addict?  I wonder what she’ll think when her daddy winds up in jail?”

Belfort doesn’t open up for long in the book, but come on, Marty. Come on, Leo. Shouldn’t  the more complicated Jordan Belfort have been investigated and written into the script for that “accurate reflection” of the real Wolf of Wall Street?

From Wiseguy to Wolf

Back in 1986, I reviewed a memoir called Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, a terrific book about growing up in the Mafia as recalled by Lucchese crime family member Henry Hill.  Pileggi worked with Martin Scorcese on the screenplay for Goodfellas, and the result was that huge chunks of the book were transferred to the screen, mostly intact.

Mug shot of Henry Hill

Mug shot of Henry Hill

In that case, no one complained that Goodfellas the movie omitted back stories of the Mafia’s victims, or celebrated rather than condemned the wild excesses of mobsters, or created a cardboard character out of Henry Hill. Goodfellas was praised as a brilliant film showing the mob members’ point-of-view because Pileggi had thrown out the hyperbole and gotten the real story out of  Hill in the first place.

I think Scorcese didn’t realize the huge difference here. Belfort says he turned in a 1200-page manuscript that I bet was pure shouting on his own behalf (an editor carved it down to 500+ pages, which is still a lot of shouting). We’ll never know how much either the book or movie provides that “accurate reflection” of Belfort’s story, because Scorcese needed a Nicholas Pileggi, a professional writer determined to start with facts on the page.

I know I would never have read Belfort’s book if it hadn’t been for the 3-hour mess that Scorcese put on screen, but  I’m glad I did. It just goes to show you that when somebody like Belfort bares his soul in book form — even if he disguises it at the same time — some kind of truth comes out, simply because he’s trying to express himself in writing.

A movie, on the other hand, can have a more powerful influence on people who don’t read books as a habit, which brings up that audience Hollywood loves to exploit.  As Joshua Brown of TheReformedBroker.com noted, “100% of teenage boys who see this movie are going to want to grow up to be Jordan.” Wonderful.

Perhaps that’s why Scorsese and DiCaprio like to say the movie “pushed the envelope” on limits and taste — the more outrageous the image, such as DiCaprio felating his microphone in front of adoring onlookers, the more that audience with its disposable income is going to want to see the movie again and again.

The brand is everywhere.

The brand is everywhere.

 

 

A ‘Super Bowl Moment’ for the Book Industry

Listening to Anjelica Huston read the audiobook version of A Story Lately Told, the haunting first volume of her memoir from Scribner, I wished the world could see this Hollywood survivor tell at least a part of her story in some kind of live presentation.

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Then I thought (as frankly I do every year), wouldn’t it be great if celebrities who publish memoirs each year could present awards and read from nominated books at a televised event like the National Book Awards?

Call this literary show the Bookies, or something. Spread the cameras out as they do at the Oscars and Tonys so viewers feel tension slithering through the audience. Use a big Broadway theater and also bring in actors currently in New York to present awards, act out dialogue, read excerpts and bring alive history, criticism, poetry and children’s literature to a national audience.

I thought this was just a daydream of mine since I’ve made quite a stink about the present NBA ceremony, an exclusive black-tie dinner at an insanely lavish restaurant (Cipriani Wall Street) in New York. There publishers spend obscene amounts of money to congratulate themselves while across the country independent bookstores (the core of the industry!) are hanging by a thread.

Cipriani Wall Street - interior

Cipriani Wall Street – interior

But it turns out I’m not alone. “Can Book Publishing Have a Super Bowl Moment?” writes Brian Feinblum at BookMarketingBuzzBlog.  Considering the Super Bowl, where TV ads sell for $4 million and 75,000 people pay thousands of dollars per ticket, he sighs, “Big game, big money. Can book publishing ever have such a high-priced moment?”

It could if an event like the National Book Awards stops fiddling while the book industry burns and seizes that “big-stage moment, like an Oscars,” Feinblum writes, “or a Hall of Fame, or a theme park, or even a day to celebrate its contribution to society. Bring in corporate sponsors and put some money behind it. You need a televised event, some type of packaged show that gets the media talking about you. Give out awards, lifetime achievements, feature bestselling authors, highlight movie connections, take us behind the scenes of book publishing and hold contests that invite consumer participation.”

Whoa:  contests, movie tie-ins? That’s going way too far, young man.  I love it.

It’s kind of hilarious that last year the NBAs attempted “an Oscar-style red carpet inside the ballroom to welcome celebrity guests like the former teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald,” according to the New York Times. Well it’s a start, but a naive one — who will see the red carpet, let alone Molly Ringwald, if there are no cameras?

We  have to remember that without media coverage, the NBAs sink into oblivion every year. In 2013, for example, nobody outside the banquet room saw a moving and historic moment when Toni Morrison awarded the Literarian Award (for lifetime achievement) to Maya Angelou. 

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

And let’s not allow publishers their usual we-have-no-money excuse. Perhaps the only benefit to corporations ruining (pardon, I mean ruling) the book industry is that connections to the entertainment world are all over the place. It’s worth spending money to hire a professional production company to produce a big celebrity blowout with bankable stars from movies, television and literature, and considering how these things are run, there might even be a profit.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

So stop backstepping, dear Mainstream Publishers: If you don’t assert your dominance in the modern literary world, there’s a guy named Jeff Bezos who’ll push you all aside with a hot-ticket, book-oriented celebrity-filled Super Bowl event of his own, and he’ll finance it with the change in his back pocket.

P.S. Which celebrities 1) are recent authors (say 2012-13) who could draw terrific TV audiences, and 2)  are just as recognizable as Molly Ringwald?  Here’s a brief list of some great candidates I would have loved to have seen on that 2013 Super Bowl/National Book Award stage:

Billy Crystal

Tina Fey

Christopher Plummer

Madeleine Albright

Rob Lowe

Ellen Degeneres

Anjelica Huston

Patti Smith

Jane Lynch

Anthony Bourdain

Sarah Silverman

Sidney Poitier

Mindy Kaling

Lewis Black

Betty White

Keith Richards

Bill Cosby

Shirley MacLaine

ON LANGUAGE: MISTAKE OR BREAKTHROUGH BY JANE LYNCH?

I admire actor Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show) for many reasons –  her comic timing, her touching memoir Happy Accidents, and her courage to come out as a lesbian when it was still dangerous to be gay in Hollywood.

So I don’t know whether to blame or forgive this dear funny celebrity for making a statement on her popular TV show, Hollywood Game Night, that I appreciate yet find appalling.

Jane Lynch

Jane Lynch

Hollywood Game Night features celebrities who compete in what we used to call parlor games, except the contests are so ridiculous and the contestants so wild that chaos fills the screen.

In one game, the stars sing melodies of songs by substituting DO for lyrics (as is in do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do … that’s Tea for Two, see) until a teammate guesses the title. In another they look  at pictures of two famous faces (or cereals or junk food) mashed into one photo and guess a name that would combine the two.   In another they’re given six famous magazine covers from, say,  People or Rolling Stone, which they have to arrange from earliest to most recent.

The fun of Hollywood Game Night is not watching the games  but scrutinizing stars like Amy Poehler, Ray Romano, Minnie Driver or Martin Short (and a lot of younger stars I don’t recognize) being unaffected and sincere while they race around hitting buzzers and making faces and shouting instructions.

Part of the show is deliberately phony — all that self-conscious applauding and high-fiving can drive you nuts — but for the most part, the point seems to be that stars can’t be divas. They have to at least try to show genuine enthusiasm and spontaneity even if the pressure to win puts them in awkward situations.

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

(It was very funny,  for example when Brooklyn Decker, the actress/model wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, correctly answered every question within seconds while Andy stood there dumbly trying to figure out how the game worked. Later he pretended to glower at everybody while saying how great it was to be emasculated on national TV “BY YOUR OWN WIFE” — a risky joke that he pulled off as the good sport he seems to be in real life.)

The show moves at such a crash pace, with the (unnecessary) live band too noisy and the (unfortunate) open bar too boozy and the (white-gloved) stagehands too quick to bring in one stupid game after another, that the center of the action falls to Jane Lynch herself.

Hollywood Game Night

Hollywood Game Night

I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at stopping arguments and explaining rules while joking with contestants and having so much fun, fun, fun in the chaos that you wonder why she took this gig in the first place.

Which brings us to that thing she said.

It happened at the start of a game in which six poster-sized Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues were randomly placed on easels in front of the two celebrity teams. Most of the models’ faces were recognizable, so the celebrities found it relatively easy to rearrange the magazines chronologically (i.e., a young Heidi Klum would be #1, a more recent model #6).

Now you have to say that in most TV game shows, the emcee would overlook the fact that here were nearly naked models, so bosomy and posed so suggestively that looking only at their faces (not their bodies) proved difficult  for everyone, stars and audience alike. And this was not a cable channel — it was NBC, which has formal “standards and practices” policies about such things — so not a lot of, you know, trashy T&A talk was going to be allowed.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Still, Jane Lynch is not somebody who’s going to let an opportunity for humor pass by, so as the magazines were positioned and before the game started, she said this:

“Can I just say that as a feminist, I am appalled by these images. And as a lesbian, I am delighted!”

(Reporting on the remark, Page 6 of the New York Post spelled the last word “de-light-ed” because she did emphasize each syllable.)
The comment was so bold and unexpected that I laughed out loud, perhaps more in astonishment than anything else.  Never in my whole life have I heard a gay woman wisecrack on TV about how much fun it is to be a lesbian, let alone a bawdy one.

Plus I’m also a feminist and come on, Sports Illustrated, enough with the soft porno!  Quit looking like an outdated Playboy and celebrate women swimmers for athletic achievement  the same way you do male swimmers.

At the same time, I wondered if Jane Lynch realized what a huge faux pas she had just made. I can’t speak for other gay women (as she shouldn’t have), but I don’t know any lesbian who would say that pimped-out female bodies with their chests and haunches in your face is appealing, let alone arousing.

Maybe if she had phrased the second sentence differently — instead of “As a lesbian,” which includes all gay women, she could have referred only to herself, as in, “But I’m a lesbian, and I’m de-light-ed!” — it wouldn’t have sounded so smarmy. But then, some of the rhythm and a lot of the humor (I guess) would have been lost.

Then I got to wondering if retail stores still cover up Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions like they used to so that children won’t see these images and assume that women exist to be objectified. Nobody wants that, and yet here is Hollywood Game Show coming on early enough and accessible enough

Playing Charades

Playing Charades

(by On Demand services) for all to see! How many families tuned in for some old-fashioned Charade-like fun only to see a bunch of tits filling up the screen?

That’s when it struck me that Jane Lynch might have pulled off quite a stunt. After all, she IS a feminist and she IS a lesbian. If she had said nothing about the Sports Illustrated magazines, then yes, all those kids and families and American viewers might have regarded the almost-nude models as acceptable, everyday fare.

But if she had said only that as a feminist she was appalled by the covers, a lot of people would have looked at her in horror because these days, as we all know, feminists have no sense of humor and spoil the fun for everybody.

So Jane, I’m still adding up what you accomplished by that remark:

1. You refused to let the swimsuit images go by without some kind of comment.

2. You sneaked in two references (feminist, lesbian) that were (I feel) more controversial than humorous.

3. You sacrificed a tiny bit of respect from nit-pickers like me for making all lesbians appear to “de-light” in objectifying women’s bodies. BUT in terms of stopping the show and making us all think more deeply about such matters than before, Jane, bravo.  You pulled off a genuine breakthrough.

Jane Lynch on the set

Jane Lynch on the set

 

 

 

“When You Get to Age 91, Just Skip It”

Whenever I see the term “Alzheimer’s Disease,” I wonder how people tell the difference from, say, everyday forgetfulness and the start of senile dementia that leads to Alzheimer’s.

            Most books about Alzheimer’s address this question, but rarely have I seen a more succinct description of that “different kind of losing” that begins long before anyone — family or patient — figures out what’s really happening.

       “It started out as the kind of losing we all know well,” writes Doris Ober in The Alzheimer’s Years: A Mother and Daughter Reunion.

The Alzheimer's Years cover

The Alzheimer’s Years cover

  “You put (something) down somewhere and walk away from it and can’t remember where or when. But if you add some paranoia to the formula, it becomes a different kind of losing: You hide it for safekeeping and don’t at all remember having done so. The only possible explanation is a theft.

            “And the more it happens, the more things disappear, the cleverer and more creative you become about your hiding places. Even if you could remember your intention to hide a particular item, which you can’t, you’ve hidden it so well, you’ll never find it.”

            And so we watch as Doris searches for the things her mother Betty is convinced someone has stolen.

            “Lost mail, lost glasses, lost tin in which she kept quarters for the laundry machines,” writes Doris. “Lost hearing aids, lost dishes, lost ice cream, lost poetry.” Doris finds them in the most ingenious places, like under the toilet plunger, where, of course the “blonde thief” that Betty insists has been sneaking in all along, hid  them until the next time.

            The most valued item — a pint of ice cream — is uncovered weeks later in a pot at the bottom of a closet where it’s hardened into the consistency of Styrofoam.

            Doris is the independent book editor in Point Reyes, California, who transformed Randy Shilts’ mammoth 1000-page manuscript about AIDS, And the Band Played On, into the succinct and moving bestseller it became in 1987. (She sat by his hospital bed helping him write the last chapter of another groundbreaker, Conduct Unbecoming, about gays in the military, before he died in 1994.)

Doris Ober

Doris Ober

            Those books, among the many dozens that Doris edited, co-wrote and ghosted from her tiny office perch in the 9-story Chinese-box house built by her partner Richard (best described in her last book, The Dogtown Chronicles), gave Doris a literary lens through which to view the stormy fading of her 90-year-old mother’s mind as Alzheimer’s set in.

            “Of course (the different kind of losing) is all a metaphor for the greater loss you’re suffering,” Doris continues. “The one no one can see. The one you get intimations of, the void that’s opening up inside and seems to be enveloping you.

            “My mother was able to speak of it in cryptic phrases, dropped into conversation or into silence. ‘You have no idea, how terrible it is,’ she said. ‘I so don’t want to go into the woods.’ Once she told me, ‘Soon I’ll be completely empty.’ “

            The great hoodwink of Alzheimer’s in the early stages, we learn, is the way it moves everyone to deny what’s really happening, and to deny it for very legitimate reasons. In the midst of her many lapses, Betty practices and plays the piano (including duets with Richard), remembers her recipe for chopped liver perfectly (Doris includes it in the book) and accurately identifies and converses with the shopkeepers she meets on her (fewer and fewer) walks into Point Reyes.

            And the great learning curve for Alzheimer’s caregivers, Doris tells us, is to accept the huge contradictions of the disease (her mother could be delightfully “clownish” yet bitterly morose at the same time;), to embrace other afflictions of the aged such as Lewy Body Disease,  which causes Betty to experience terrible “night crazies” and flailing of her arms as if batting something away; to understand how deafness can be “the perfect disguise for dementia,” and to learn “how important it was,” in the midst of one painful argument after another, “for me to win.”

Betty as bag lady

Betty as bag lady

            Along the way, though, Doris’s (now trademark) light touch often  transforms the cold reality of impending death and loss. She loves to show us the humor of Betty, who at 92, after surviving several near-death experiences, announced to friends, “When you get to 91, just skip it.”  At a costume party, Betty turned her fear of becoming homeless into a joke everyone could enjoy by taping grocery bags all over her body and on her head so she could come as a “bag lady.”

            Still, you aren’t going to see the author’s insights coming all that easily. While

Doris follows the chronology of her mother’s six-year battle, sometimes in the midst of developing a theme or story, she takes an abrupt turn to discuss something else. This doesn’t make the writing superficial or clumsy. Rather it brings an immediacy and flow to the story that pulls us in as part of the  family.

            Here, for example, is Doris realizing in a letter to her brother that something remarkable is being communicated in the many thank-yous that Betty, who’s lost 45 pounds in a year and sometimes can speak only in  “Da-da-da-da-dah” sentences, repeats to her daughter.

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

            “She tells me over and over how much I mean to her, how much she loves me, how her love for me and mine for her keeps her alive. I’m sure she’s right about this and I think it’s astonishing how such a sophisticated understanding exists in a woman who knows almost nothing else.”

            We’ve only been given a glimpse of the estrangement that once separated Doris and her mother for many years, and of the protracted fights that both experienced as shattering.  So this core moment in what the subtitle calls “a mother and daughter reunion” comes almost without previous resolution. But what we miss in back story, we gain in the present, watching their trust develop anew, page by page, as partners in one  last adventure.

            So: How do people know when forgetfulness turns to dementia, then to Alzheimer’s?  This book says there is no way to tell — no logic, no bridge, no step-by-step instruction. But if dealing with the changing needs of the elderly means that we make our own roadmap, it also means we might change radically — we might learn a new kind of love — by the time we get to the other end.

A Word about purchasing The Alzheimer’s Years

             I used to believe that critics shouldn’t tell you where to buy books, but in the face of Amazon’s ATRW (Attempt to Rule the World), let’s bypass that route and spend our CRD (Concerned Readers’ Dollars) with independent bookstores.

            You can purchase the book direct from Doris (at Villca Qutu Publishers, P.0. Box 417, Point Reyes Station CA 94956), but if you go to the website of her local bookstore, Point Reyes Books you’ll fall in love with this bookseller’s sense of community and author advocacy.   There you can buy both Doris’ books as well as one of the better literary journals in the country, West Marin Review, where Doris is managing editor.

            And let’s rejoice: It’s great to pay full price to independent booksellers whose very existence keeps First Amendment options and protections safe for all of us.

            Finally, full disclosure: I’ve known and admired Doris as an editor for 30 years and am impressed by her choice as a self-publisher to change the rules (not her standards) by recording her experience exactly as she wants to.

            For example, an  Acknowledgments page exists in this book, but the author stops the narrative several times to thank friends for their help, blast a local hospital for treating her mother “shabbily” and praise another for its compassion and care.   Self-publishing is a fine old tradition in the West. It’s often eccentric and never slick, which is why I’ve always liked it, and come to love it again in the publishing of The Alzheimer’s Years.

Meet Doris Ober December 8 at Book Passage

 

A few years ago, I had a wonderful time introducing Doris at Book Passage in Corte Madera CA when her first book, The Dogtown Chronicles, came out. Before the program began, the thoughtful staff set out about 15 chairs with a nice table in the back row to make the event look well attended if only a handful of people showed up.  When, however, 20 or so arrived, the booksellers quietly set out five or six more chairs and stood back, thinking that was it as far as audience attendance was concerned.

            Well, Doris and her West Marin Review are hugely respected in Marin, so it was kind of humorous as people arrived to see the staff race to the stockroom for more chairs, and then more chairs, and still more chairs, until the crowds (about 200 total) extended far back into the children’s section and almost out the door.

             I say I had a great time introducing Doris because I got to mention that The Dogtown Chronicles may look like a modern version of that classic urban-couple-buys-a-farm story, The Egg and I, but since it’s about raising nearly extinct breeds of farm animals (goats and sheep) in 10 acres of lush untouched nature loaded with bobcats, weasels, hawks, skunks, raccoons and other predators roaming about, a lot of raw, everyday brutality is revealed. As a result, the book teaches us how it feels to grow up in a neighborhood of serial killers always waiting in the underbrush, and how death in the larger yet more personal sense is simply one of the many events about to befall us whether we’re animals chewing a blade of grass or humans forgetting where we put the car keys.

            All this to say that I think The Alzheimer’s Story might be called a sequel to The Dogtown Chronicles and that these books could be packaged together to make a nice holiday gift for an unsuspecting friend or relative who will surely be grateful for two lessons in existentialism disguised as light end-of-life reading.

            So come see Doris at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, this Sunday, December 8 at 7 p.m.  I’ll be introducing her again and will give you my seat if the place is packed.