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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.

More than 20 versions of the book exist, this one from Skyhorse Publishing

More than 20 versions of the book exist, this one from Skyhorse Publishing

Northup has told us earlier that alligators are known to leap out of the swamp so fast that “swine, or unthinking slave children,” are seized right off the banks. Now in the murk with them he realizes that shouting and slapping the water startles the alligators enough so they “moved and plunged into the deepest places” away from him.

A Fast Learner

“Sometimes, however,” he writes, “I would come directly upon a monster before observing it” and have to jump away in the nick of time. This happens several times, and soon the always curious Northup notices why the alligator doesn’t simply twist in mid-leap and snap its jaws around his body before landing.

Alligators may lunge in a “straight forward” direction toward their prey, he learns, but out of the water, their bodies “do not possess the power of turning.” This gives Northup a fraction of a second to engage in a “crooked race” that allows him to “run a short way around, and in that manner shun them.”

What a great tip for the next time we’re stuck in an infested bayou!  It’s typical of the way Northup’s curiosity enhances his experience for the reader that, right in the middle of one life-and-death scene after another, he pauses to explain in the most exquisite detail how life works for slaves in the South — how, for example, they learn to slice bacon with an ax (“slaves have no knife, much less a fork”),  hunt ‘possum, survive whippings without infection (dab the lesions with melted tallow) and trap fish without a net or cage.

From Hesperus Classics

From Hesperus Classics

And so hour after hour, as the sun fades from the swamp, Northup plunges through the quagmire, one foot now shoeless and more exposed to water moccasins, clothes in tatters and body cut and swollen everywhere. The only sounds (after the barking and yelping have faded) seem to come from Northup’s own breathing and deliberate noise-making as he’s gradually swallowed into the giant, insatiable bog.

An Existential Moment

As midnight approaches, the swamp becomes “resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks,” and Northup, nearing death from exposure and exhaustion, suddenly realizes how far he’s come:  “Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp.”

It’s an incredible existential moment. Here in what he learns later is Louisiana’s Great Pacoudrie Swamp — 30 or 40 miles of lethal marsh — Northup is no longer the powerless slave, the forgotten husband and father or the despised threat to white owners. He is rather the free man he knows himself to be, surviving adversity on his own terms and discovering a universe known only to himself.

This recognition seems to spark an even greater cacophony in the swamp. Suddenly “hundreds of thousands” of birds rise up all around him in the darkness, screeching and plunging and flapping their wings in such “clamor and confusion,” he writes,  “that I was affrighted and appalled.”

A 'retelling' for children from Pelican Publishing

A ‘retelling’ for children from Pelican Publishing

Affrighted and appalled. Another joy for the reader is Northup’s easy flexibility with formal language. Reading this rich narrative reminds the modern reader that average people in the 19th century often demonstrated a better command of English than, say, many graduate students in the 21st.  While it’s true, Northup’s style can verge on the ornate (“their garrulous throats poured forth multitudinous sounds”), he also reveals, in words such as “affrighted,” a vulnerability we might not see otherwise.

And so we readers become witness to that moment in the swamp that convinces Northup to survive at all costs — to turn back from “one of the wildest places on earth,” where death is certain, and make his way back to the questionable civilization of plantation life.

There he’ll do something else we don’t see in the movie: He’ll explore with other slaves every possible chance at insurrection and escape, including hideouts for escapees in the swamp. And, too, as the movie does show, he’ll wait for a white benefactor to rescue him legally (about a million-to-one chance), if he can only get word North.

The Movie’s Transcendent Scene

I don’t know why director Steve McQueen omitted the swamp episode in the movie — it could have been as thrilling as the cover photo promises — but I do want to give credit to one scene whose transcendence is so cinematic, it might not have similar impact in the book.

Photo from 12 Years a Slave

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

This occurs when Northup looks slowly around the plantation without appearing to react to it at all. I think it’s due to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s skill as an actor that he remains a nearly passive character in many scenes — since any reaction could get Solomon killed — yet somehow registers a mixture of emotions that range from heartbreaking acceptance to dogged resolution.

Then his gaze slows and stops right in front of the camera, so it seems as though Solomon Northup is looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. Surprisingly, we see in his face no judgment or accusation, no appeal, no recognition or salutation. It’s simply his humanity that comes across.

We don’t want to interpret the significance of this moment. Those eyes coming at us across a century and a half are too riveting for thought. Maybe we are the future audience that finally wants to look back. In any case, that gaze will follow us for a long time.

So this is the difference between the two narrative forms: The movie shows Solomon Northup as a compassionate and even heroic man who never gives up in his quest to return home.  But the book reveals Northup to be a larger presence, a kind of Everyman who reflects our own hope for ourselves, an eternally free being whose slave’s body is soon to be ground to dust.

The Book’s Survival Story

The movie tie-in could also allude to the fact that 12 Years a Slave has its own million-to-one history. A nonfiction bestseller in 1853, Northup’s book was celebrated by abolitionists as “proof” that Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t lying about slave conditions in her fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, however,  it disappeared for 75 years and would have been lost to obscurity if a 12-year-old white girl named Sue Eakin hadn’t discovered one dusty copy in the back of a plantation library in 1931.

'Enhanced Edition' by Dr. Sue Eakin (Telemachus Press)

‘Enhanced Edition’ by Dr. Sue Eakin (Telemachus Press)

Eakin went on to become a historian specializing in the antebellum South and devoted her life to publishing both “the first authenticated edition” of 12 Years a Slave in 1968 and an “enhanced edition” in 2007 at the age of 88. When Steve McQueen won an Oscar for the movie, he thanked Sue Eakin, who died in 2009, for her “life’s work preserving Solomon’s book.”

So this is not simply “the best written of all slave narratives,” as the text on the back of the book calls it. (By the way, could we dispense with the term “slave narrative” altogether? It’s just a dumpy label that academics use to take the sting out of hearing first-hand what it felt like to be owned, whipped, starved, bred like animals and worked to death in America, the Land of the Fr— I beg your pardon. Emotional overstatement in writing about slavery is one problem that Solomon Northup overcomes.)

The fact that 12 Years a Slave is now taught in schools, considered essential in libraries and celebrated as a gateway to other slaves’ autobiographies may explain why not just a few but more than 20 versions of the book are available today, some of which I’ve pictured throughout. It’s intriguing to see every publisher taking a shot at designs and illustrations that range in subject from hands in chains to Northup’s life-saving violin.

 A Word about Dover Publications

without sticker

The Dover edition before the movie

With so many versions to choose from, I read the official movie tie-in from Penguin ($16) and the reprint from Dover Publications ($9.95).

Why the huge difference in price?

Dover has been reprinting books mostly in the public domain since 1941 and is famous for keeping costs down, sometimes charging just a couple of bucks for known and unknown classics.

I think the staff cuts cost by not paying royalties and by not resetting text — usually it appears they just photograph existing pages and slap on a new cover.

In the Dover edition of 12 Years a Slave, for example, you get a chance to appreciate that sense of lead type cranked up and ready for letterpress that Dover brings with many of its titles.

with sticker

Dover’s movie tie-in edition

The old-fashioned font is a reminder that this story happened in a different world long ago. That’s why the writing is both eloquent and sometimes a little creaky.

Then, too, Dover doesn’t spend a lot of money redesigning the cover, even when a huge publicity campaign kicks in for the sure-to-win-an-Oscar movie.

The Big Challenge

Talking about movie tie-ins is another way to explore basic questions of publishing procedure that haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Even with the massive upheavals of electronic technology and corporate ownership in recent decades, publishing philosophy — the reason you publish a book, how you design it and what you can do for it — is eternal.

True, companies with strong links to Hollywood have taken over many mainstream houses since the ’70s.  But their influence fades when it comes to the challenge facing people in publishing who determine the design and marketing of movie tie-ins.

Essentially there are two different doorways to enter:

            Door #1:  If  you think publishing is part of the entertainment world, you’re going to use pictures of famous actors to sell the book as part of the movie experience, and leave it at that.

From Engage Books

From Engage Books

            Door #2: If you think publishing is part of the book world, you’re going to use the movie photos to introduce delights inside the book that come only from reading.

Just a Sentence or Two on the Cover

In terms of Penguin’s tie-in of 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s knockout comment (from the Foreword) that the book is “as important as Anne Frank’s diary” has wisely been placed on the back cover. It’s important but kind of static — an example of telling but not showing readers the wonders inside. A boring quote from historian Ira Berlin’s Introduction refers to the book’s “sheer drama” but again without examples that might inspire us to open it up and start reading.

So what could these few sentences be? I’m terrible at succinct marketing phrases, but wouldn’t it be great to see personal reactions from young readers on the cover of subsequent editions?

Here are a few from Goodreads:

“Solomon Northup was BAD. ASS.” — Dorothea (5 stars)

“…. chilling, heart breaking, gut wrenching, atrocious and none of these words can aptly describe Solomon Northup’s experience as told in this memoir.” Angela (5 stars)

“The joy for me was the language used …. the text reminded me of the beautiful choice of words used by some of my favorite authors like Jane Austen.” — Michael (4 stars)

“One of the most revealing books about the life of a slave I’ve ever read. It was an odyssey that wrenched my heart. Many, many tears.” — Rosemari (5 stars)

Such heartfelt modern endorsements remind me that the art of the movie tie-in often involves just a few strategic words or sentences on the cover. In terms of what we want to do in publishing, which is to make reading full-length books as exciting and relevant as any other medium, choosing Door #2 can make all the difference.




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 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


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.


Here at the Trying Too Hard Sweepstakes, we’re always looking for simple answers to complicated questions.

            For example, a big problem among critics is a tendency to crowd too many descriptive words into a limited space. When in doubt, the experts say, get rid of ALL ADVERBS, but this is easier said than done.

            Take this sentence from a New York Times caption about a play on Broadway:

            “The script is neither a dramatically shapely piece of writing nor a deeply probing character study.”

            Blub, blub, blub, goodness. Now here is a Trying Too Hard cautionary tale. The unnecessary adverbs (“dramatically,” “deeply”) give the sentence a stuffed-to-the-gills feel and yet deleting them makes the sentence slightly deflated: “The script is neither a shapely piece of writing nor a probing character study.” But it’s cleaner that way, and besides, if you don’t take ‘em out, nobody will read it.

Janet Maslin

Janet Maslin

            Glib cocktail-party words are always surprising in a serious review.  Janet Maslin has a beaut when she refers to  “something funnily incongruous” in Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings.

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 Big cocky corporate book distributors who think publishing is so easy they can’t possibly botch it — but do — are a fine old tradition in the book trade.

         Back in the ’80s, Harry Hoffman of Waldenbooks wanted to shovel the blandest of house-published genre books at customers but discovered that readers actually noticed and refused to buy them.  In 2002, Barnes & Noble purchased cheapo artbook house Sterling Publishing in an attempt to undercut mainstream publishers, realized the experiment was too costly by 2012, tried to unload it (no buyers) and took it off the market “for the time being,” unsure how a chain bookstore can or should compete with its own suppliers.

         And now what a surprise to hear that former Time Warner publisher and literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum, hired by Amazon two and a half years ago to create a big cocky publishing division, not only stumbled badly (the six-figure advance for Penny Marshall’s disastrous memoir was one indication) but also took another flier allegedly into the lap and down the throat of ex-lover/colleague Teresa McCoy, who’s suing him for sexual harassment.

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I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

            For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

            True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

            But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking  (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

            Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean.  That’s it.

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Sexualized Dress Revisited

Like Meryl Streep (see below), I could have sworn that one-time celebrities Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen wore women’s suits on the 1950s TV quiz show, What’s My LIne?

That’s why in the last post, I blithely (without checking) quoted Streep’s concern about societal pressures on today’s women to dress in sexually alluring clothes, even on a hard-news political program like Meet the Press. Streep’s point was that in a previous era, TV shows (and the media in general) allowed women greater modesty, as recalled from watching What’s My Line?

Yikes, was that wrong, and thank you, reader Ed Dravecky of Allen, Texas, for spotting the error:

“Meryl Streep lives in an interesting alternate timeline,” Dravecky writes. “Suits? On this Earth’s What’s My Line, the women on the panel wore dresses and the men wore suits in the early seasons, and formal evening wear (including tuxedos for the men) in the later ones. Just do a Google Image search for ‘What’s My Line Panelists’ and you’ll turn up dozens of images like this one from the New York Times.”

Picture of What's My Line panel

Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf wear eye masks as they question the mystery guest on What’s My Line?

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A few things I think I’ll always remember from recent books:

The Hills are Alive … with the Sound of Nazis

Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer

If the von Trapp family had continued in the direction they were headed at the end of The Sound of Music, they would have “inadvertently landed in the hornet’s nest” of Nazi strongholds, recalls Christopher Plummer in his memoir, In Spite of Myself  (Vintage; 656 pages; $17.95). Hiking toward Germany rather than Switzerland was the more picturesque escape route for the movie, he recalls.

     This detail-packed charmer of a book gives us many a delicious glimpse behind the scenes. For example, Plummer writes that he and Julie Andrews had to shoot the famous gazebo scene more than 30 times because whenever they started to kiss, an off-camera device sounded like someone emitting gas. This threw them into such fits of laughter that the director finally gave up and filmed their faces only in silhouette.

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