Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Little Word Music

What are the chances? Two poetic book reviews, back-to-back, and neither book is about poetry.

I already wrote about The Cadillac Man, now Thursday's Wall Street Journal comes through with a review of a book about pain, The Body Broken, by Lynne Greenberg.

The review is by the Journal's health reporter Laura Landro, and at the outset looked like something I could easily skip. Woman's neck hurts. I don't feel so good myself.

But there is more poetry, literally, in the book review, and I suspect in the book itself, than I've ever encountered in a book review that is not about a book of poetry. But that's me. I don't read books for a living. Even given that, by all measures, there's a quantity.

I'm no expert on John Milton, but he plays out prominently in the review. What I always thought was an original Winston Churchill utterance is really a lifted line from a Milton sonnet, "they also serve who only stand and wait." And I'm sure neither Milton, nor Churchill had the Starbuck's crowd in mind.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are also woven into the book. And it's not an anthology.

Much was made of Auden's poem September 1, 1939 soon after the 9/11 events. I must admit that perhaps I've been like the author of the reviewed book and have used poetry to kill some pain and salve some wounds. Even before 9/11 I was holding Auden's, "show an affirming flame," inside my head and using it like something from the medicine cabinet. I still do.

Yeats created poetry and said it makes nothing happen. I can't agree. I'm sure I've saved a good deal of co-pay by allowing a few lines to cross my mind.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Cadillac Man

As previously mentioned somewhere, obituaries don't hold all the phrase gems. And it's a good thing they don't. We'd have to wait for the right people to die so that someone could turn a nice phrase and say something poetic. Book reviews are a good source too.

Consider today's book review in the New York Times on Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Street by Cadillac Man. No, it's not written by Robin Williams, but rather by Cadillac Man, whose real name is Thomas Wagner.

The reviewer, Dwight Garner writes:

Cadillac Man--his real name is Thomas Wagner--began living on the streets in 1994, when he was 44. His descent into homelessness was gradual, and then quite sudden, the way a canoe is tugged downriver and then eventually drops over a waterfall.

How neatly put. My two visits to Niagara Falls were from the Canadian side. And each time it amazed me that the stream just before going over the falls, was moving quite slowly, almost as if stuck in traffic behind an accident. Waiting its turn to get to the edge, where it would suddenly become helpful in producing electricity by going over that ledge with tremendous force, completely unable to reverse itself, headed in the only direction left for it--down.

The review tells us of Cadillac Man's descent, and for him, his partial reversal.

The book sounds interesting. The review certainly is.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Bar Car

John Grisham's book, The Rainmaker, is set in Tennessee. I always thought the movie was one of those rare efforts that allowed it to be better than the book. But books still give you the chance to dwell on details, and for some reason I dwelled on the husband Buddy Black, who came back from Korea with some hardware in his head and who does a good deal of anti-social drinking in the Ford Fairlane parked in the yard. At one point in the book, I think the wife Dot refers to her husband as the "nut in the Fairlane" parked out back. Something like that. The line still makes me laugh because it is so succinctly put.

In the 1950s we had tenants in our two-family house in Flushing, NY who had a Ford Fairlane. Since we didn't have a car ourselves, my father let them park it in the driveway. It was a '57 Fairlane, I believe, big, and black and white. Huge whitewall tires. Especially big to someone who only walked around them and wasn't yet 10.

The tenents didn't use the car much, so it didn't come and go. It remained in one spot for a good deal of time They didn't however drink in it.

Fairlanes were popular and were everywhere. I never associated them strongly with Tennessee until I read an obituary in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Stephen Miller tells the story of a legendary moonshiner, Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, who rather than start serving a Federal prison sentence on Friday for moonshining, apparently asphyxiated himself with carbon monoxide poisoning in his green Ford Fairlane. A car, his wife said, he called "his three-jug car," because he gave three jugs of liquor for it. In Tennessee.

In my world, Fairlanes: Tennessee 2, New York 1.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Books and Their Titles: How the Front Page Started to Land on the Cover

Quite a few years ago Russell Baker pointed out that he thought books were getting bigger. They were longer. There were novels that were stretching hundreds of pages beyond what he thought was normal. He attributed this to the advent of computers and word processing. Writing was no longer as fatiguing as it had been. Physical effort was diminished, so people were writing more. Thus, books emerged in need of diets.

I once read that William Faulkner wrote a novel, in longhand, on the reverse side of pages from a previous novel he had written, also in longhand. I don't know what either of the novels were, or, if they ended up being of nearly equal length. But the man was Green before Green was a political party.

It is quite possible I'm noticing something that's been going on for a while. But when I test my theory with the daily book reviews, if it is not something new, it certainly is something that is continuing. Book titles are getting longer. At least for non-fiction works.

A book just came out Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa.

Another book I read about today, has the sub-heading on top of the title:


The book The Dead Beat came out in 2006. It is a highly entertaining account of the artistry that's going on in obituary writing and how our lives might some day be summed up by the practitioners of the art. (There are however no clues in the book on how we might spiritually stick around and somehow read just who wrote what about us. And perhaps get even.)

Like all good books, it does have a cover. The title is on the cover. But it is surrounded by lively text, in different fonts that additionally tell us:

proudly sets forth under the title of:
will gratify
with a survey both humorous and poignant
of the wonders enfolded in the pages of an ordinary newspaper,
and including many marvelous tales to
and the
As witnessed and faithfully recorded by

The Lost Souls/Lucky Stiffs words surround a picture of a raven, which of course is saying something. The point is well made. You can buy a book just for its cover. I think I did. It is advertising.

Ms. Johnson has another book forthcoming, this one about librarians, or cybrarians, depending on who you encounter. The cover has not yet been designed, but the title does seem to continue with the come on in, barker approach.

How Librarians and
Cybrarians Can Save Us All

Compared to the other book's title, this one's been to the gym. But either way, with titles this good, the books won't disappoint.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Southwest Tangent

Perfect example of the "handshake of time." The connectivity to the past.

Initially I thought the obituary on Mary Warburg would be just something about a rich woman who lived a long life. That part was true. But the byline was from Margalit Fox, so I suspected there might be something to this. There was.

Mary Warburg grew up on a ranch in New Mexico. She was born in 1908. New Mexico wasn't even a state then. Nor was Arizona. They were territories. The flag had 46 stars in it.

When I think of those two states I think of The Wall Street Journal story that started off in 1980 by wondering if Ronald Reagan was too old to be president. After all, when we was born, the flag over the courthouse had 46 stars in it.

Reagan is another story altogether. It turns out that Mary, at age 7 hauled out a shotgun and fired at Pancho Villa as he was raiding the ranch. She missed.

I couldn't help thinking of a recently departed 100 year old woman who once took a shot at Villa at age 7. One wonders how close she got, and did she land on her rear end after pulling the trigger? She had to, right?

Anyway, five lines of doggerel came to be before the train got to Jamaica. I shared them with an appreciative Margalit. Mary, this one's for you.

Southwest Tangent

Pancho Villa on a horse
Was missed by Mary's shotgun force.
And on that raid he rode away,
And lived to fight another day.

But not a lot longer.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Social Networking

Social networking is very much in the news today. If Marshall McLuhan were alive today he'd likely have something fairly incomprehensible to say about it. Which come to think about it, is pretty much what a good deal of the people who pretend to know something about this are saying now anyway. I can't understand them either.

At the back of the flower shop we had a desk. It was a fairly giant roll top desk with no roll top. It always reminded my father of another reason he didn't like his oldest brother. It seems Uncle Andy at some point removed the top and just left the rest of the desk. Now, neither man would ever challenge the Keno brothers on Antiques Roadshow on furniture aesthetics, but I did side with my father that if the roll top were there, it would at least be a better desk. I missed it, and never even saw it.

I did my high school homework at this desk. And nearby we had a small bookcase. Mostly in the bookcase were white page telephone directories of the five boroughs, along with the granddaddy of all phone books, the Manhattan Yellow Pages. Some of my school books were shoe-horned in there as well, but phone books dominated. I remember the Manhattan phone book being my booster seat at Easter dinners at my grandparents. I never remember any kind of progression, that as you got bigger you sat on less populated boroughs. I think you were just big enough one year and no longer needed Manhattan.

The phone books were stacked like library books, vertically. I always remember looking at the Manhattan phone book and realizing, one, that all the letters in the word can be formed with straight lines. It might be the longest straight-lined word there is. I've never tried to challenge it. I settled then, and now, that 9 letters is the record.

Secondly, I always looked at the book and realized there were a lot of people in there that I didn't know. Manhattan probably never had less than 2 million people when I was growing up, and here I was, not knowing very many of them.

But I also knew no one knew all the people in the phone book. Not even the phone company. They just listed the names. Meeting them was not required.

And no, I didn't try and get to know all the people in the phone book. That would have been stupid. And I didn't feel bad about it, either. We used the phone books to find telephone numbers of people who we might have to make a delivery to. We checked the address, and sometimes would call to find out if they'd he home at the expected time of delivery. (We never had to call funeral homes. We knew someone would be there.) I never made a delivery to Staten Island, so why we had that book I never knew. Maybe you got a set.

So, when Schuyler Chapin recently passed away I was reminded of all this. I didn't know the man, but I did know of him. I never met him, but I did see him, rather up close, and did hear him speak. And not too long it turns out before he passed away.

There was a fairly recent story about social networking in either the Times or the Journal about how despite the reach of the Internet, etc, Face Book, My Space and "friend" counts that we really don't know many more people than we ever did. I'm not surprised.

It's been studied, even given a name by a famous researcher and their index, that we seem to know maybe 120 people or so. I think that was the gist of it. People are really "broadcasting" on these Web sites, but not really reaching people they know, or ever will know. Sounds about right to me. I knew my "acquaintance" count was significantly lower than the sum of all those names in that Manhattan phone book.

I encountered Schulyer Chapin at a New York Pops concert in 2005, right after Skitch Henderson died. I was with my younger daughter, who had been with me to other concerts and who liked Skitch. She liked that he made fun of late-comers, and just plain liked the shows.

Well, this particular night was a Veteran's Day concert on November 11 and we were in the front row at Carnegie. This isn't always the best place to be, by far. The stage is too high at that point and you can't see the back and who's on it. But you are in the front row.

Well, Skitch had just died earlier that month, but the show goes on. My daughter was disappointed because what better place to be than the front row (on time) when Skitch embarrasses a late-comer?

The Purdue University Glee Club is there. Not that we can actually see them from our vantage point, but we can hear them. They were great. At one point, Walter Cronkite came out, somewhat haltingly to the microphone, but in a voice that never seemed to change, and said some words about his buddy Skitch. Skitch's widow came out as well and said some things. Front row was pretty good then.

Then there's this guy in a wheelchair being brought out, being pushed by someone who has to be his son. The son looks to be in this 50s, and the guy in the wheelchair must be 80 something, I figure. He's introduced as Schuyler Chapin. Means nothing to me, but I figure he's a WWII veteran because he's the right age. Plus, he's in a wheelchair.

He reads something. The glee club sings White Cliffs of Dover. Beautifully. Schuyler is going to continue reading something but breaks away from the paper and offers that what we just heard was a good as he's ever heard the piece sung. And he sounds and looks like he means it. I remember he seemed a little watery-eyed when they were singing, and thought maybe this guy was a pilot or something back then.

I always read the names throughout the program at Carnegie. Well, now the name Schuyler Chapin means a little more to me.

But we're not done yet. In one of those New York Times James Stevenson Lost and Found New York illustrated history lessons he does on the Op-Ed page, Stevenson does a piece titled, The Actress, The Millionaire and the Met. It appeared this year on January 31. The piece is about Eleanor Robson, who became rich and socially famous by marrying August Belmont II. She attended operas. She probably had to.

The illustrated story goes that in the 1930s she invited a friend's teenage son, a lover of opera, to be her escort at the Met. He went to several operas with her, and fondly remembered sitting in Box 4 in the middle of the Diamond Horseshoe. (Good seats, apparently.)

The teenage boy was Schuyler Chapin, who grew up to become a General Manager of the Met. He also flew cargo planes in China-Burma during World War II.

The Times obituary is a great piece, stretching a full 6 columns. How they missed the part, in their own paper, of his teenage association with the Metropolitan and Mrs. Belmont is completely beyond me.

They didn't network.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Too Much of A Good Thing is Wonderful

Even before yesterday's Wall Street Journal story on Art Linkletter I knew he was still with us. Toward the end of each year I go through newspaper clippings I've saved. I trim them, date them and then stack them somewhere else. I'm never current, but I do enjoy rediscovering something I once read. Only occasionally do I wonder what I had in mind that made me save them in the first place. Not there yet.

So, when I came across the somewhat recent clipping about the passing of Art Linkletter's son, Jack, at 70, and that dad still survived him, I knew Art was still with us. Especially, after checking the Internet and confirming that no, I hadn't missed an obituary, Art was still here. Yesterday's story, besides confirming his breathing, also told me a few things I didn't already know.

I didn't know he was Canadian. I knew he'd have to be in his 90s, but I didn't realize he is 96. I didn't know he's married to Lois for 73 years now. I didn't know he would admit to a reporter his feelings for Sophia Loren.

Art is apparently recovering quite well from a mild stroke he suffered last year. He told the reporter, Stephen Moore, that his friend Cary Grant admitted to his affair with Sophia and basically gave her a glowing review.

Mae West is credited with saying at some point, "Too much of good thing is wonderful." If by some turn of events Art did manage to entice Sophia there is always the chance his stroke might be the last thing he'd recover from, not to even mention that his wife Lois would find out.

But honestly, how long could she stay mad at him at this point?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Come On Down

Another adult who had influence over what I was seeing and reading as a teenager in the 1960s has now passed away.

James Bellows, 86, a newspaper editor who shaped the design of three major metropolitan dailies, and most memorably for me, The Hearld Tribune, passed away on March 6th. He was credited with starting a new Sunday supplement, New York, a separate magazine now that has long outlived the paper by several Olympiads.

He brought increased white space to the Trib's pages, and arranged stories across columns. The paper had a totally different look than its rival, The New York Times, while still being a broadsheet. There were comics and an editorial cartoon. A paper that could boast Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, Our Miss Peach and B.C. was clearly my favorite. The sports was also great. The whole layout, front to back, was airy and easy to read. Without being dumb.

And then there were those guys that seemed to appear in the lower left, front page, of the second section. The New Journalism people. I don't remember Breslin, or Wolfe as much as I remember Dick Schaap. He wrote about Mr. Pam, the Kosher butcher who had to contend with the city's blue laws that required delis, etc. to close for a few hours mid-day on Sundays. I remember those closing. To imagine that New York City less than 50 years ago was guided by blue laws would, I think, astound people. Delis, etc. were required to close between noon and three, I think, after already opening up in the morning. This was to observe the Sabbath. However Mr. Pam's Sabbath was Saturday, not Sunday. He seemed to run afoul of the blue laws. Dick wrote about that.

Then there was Candy Mossler. She was on trial in Florida, along with her nephew/boyfriend, for knocking her husband off, somewhat of a very rich and famous guy. It was a trial that attained national attention.

Florida, always known for sunshine, had a tourism spokesman on television at the time, Jim Dooley, who was always seen somewhere near those oranges soaking up the sun. Jim looked tan, even on black and white television. By all measures, he looked good.

Well, Jim was enthusiastic about Florida and had a bit of a pitch, or talk-song it seemed that always ended with Jim waving his arm and telling us to, "Come on down." Neither I ,or any members of my family ever did, but by all accounts many others did.

Well, Candy's trial is getting press, and of course attention from that nascent medium, television news. Her first name correctly implied there were decades of difference in her age and her husband Jacques. She was blonde and a former model. She was every stereotype you can pile on when you hear the name Candy. It all added entertainment value to the news. But, like most trials, it does come to an end, the jury deliberates, and a verdict is announced. The jury acquits Candace and her boyfriend in the murder of her husband.

There are always opinions about jury decisions. Dick Schaap's opinion was that the acquittal meant there was still a killer on the loose. Dick urged them to, "Come on down."

I don't know if this was New Journalism or not. It is however still funny to me. I still miss the Tribune.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Flowers and Fish

Over the years I've heard a few people say that "today's newspaper wraps tomorrow's fish." The implication is that there is little permanence to the newspaper. It is rather quickly put to other uses.

I remember a Russell Baker column quite a few ago that was spawned by his realizing how he catches up on items he might have missed when he starts a project around the house and spreads out old newspaper. As he's creating a drop cloth, he's finding himself reading about something that he either forgot about, or missed. Or, given the elapsed time, now has a particular ironic meaning.

I was reminded of this the other day when I brought home some branches from the flower district. I've made contact with my old haunts and now deal with people's grandchildren. So, when I opened the curly willow branches I was freshly presented with a 2005 Sunday Times story on Sandy Weill, then chairman of Citibank, and quite truly, someone on top of the financial world.

Sandy's there in a large picture, smiling away. Even though the picture is black and white, he looks tanned. He's content, and rested. I forget the date of the story. Times change.

Sandy's been out of the news lately, but his company hasn't. I would suspect Sandy himself is still quite all right and not living in a trailer, but we know things change. He knows things change. Nevertheless, there's Weill Recital Hall, Cornell-Weill Medical Center, and I'm sure a host of other philanthropic efforts I can't even name. His name is all over the Carnegie Hall programs. Sandy hasn't gone away. Isn't, and shouldn't.

But his story is wrapping today's fish and today's flowers.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Enough Said

All you really need to know is that Amanda, pictured at right, has introduced a fragrance.

It is $950 and comes from ingredients that make it smell like liquor.

And, as the reporter noted, "like Ms. Lepore, the scent comes in a sparkly round package."


Monday, March 2, 2009

When You See A Guy Reach for Stars in Da Sky

A confessed pleasure of reading obituaries has nothing to do with a fascination of death. Obituaries just happen to be where you'll find some good writing. And that can be said for book, theater and movie reviews.

Consider today's review of Guys and Dolls by Ben Brantley. Aside from the show, Mr. Brantley describes Damon Runyon's writing style that has his characters speak Runyonese, "a mix of courtly formality, tough-guy vernacular and pretzel shaped sentences." Couldn't be better said. Consider the opening paragraph from Runyon's Idyll of Sarah Brown, one of the stories that the show draws from:

Of all the high players this country ever sees, there is no doubt but that the guy they call The Sky is the highest. In fact, the reason he is called The Sky is because he goes so high when it comes to betting on any proposition whatever. He will bet all he has, and nobody can bet any more than this.

We have to thank someone that Runyon never listened to any English teacher who might have tried to straighten his pretzels out. It would have been as bad as if Nat King Cole listened to the doctor who heard him sing and told him he belonged in bed because he had a terrible cold.

Apparently, however, the show doesn't do as well as Runyon, or prior productions. That's a shame. If Ben Brantley is right (and not just mistaken) and they monkeyed with the show enough to make Miss Adelaide a stripper, then it would be no wonder that the show is not so good.

I first saw Guys and Dolls as a revival in the mid 60s at City Center. It starred Hugh O'Brien as Sky Masterson, Jan Murray as Nathan Detroit and Vivian Blaine, reprising her role as Ms. Adelaide. Also reprising were Stubby Kaye as Nicely Nicely Johnson, and B.S. Pully as Big Jule, the man who played with dice that had no spots, and therefore didn't lose. He remembered exactly where they were.

And thinking of dice, the 1992 production featured a pair of tumbling dice in the Guys and Dolls title. Only the dice were depicted wrong. Opposite sides of a die always add up to seven. Those dice didn't. I wasn't the only one who pointed that out to the producers. It seems the women in the box office knew enough from visits to relatives in Atlantic City that the dice were drawn wrong.

The 1992 production was a smash hit. The favorable review appeared on the front page of the paper of record the next day, below the fold, but prominent in size. I always regretted not seeing the production a second time. It was that good. I'm still amazed at the set and lighting for the crap game. You really felt the stage opened up and they went down where Con Ed does its best work.

So, by all accounts they might have gotten the dice right this time, but not much else. Casting a black man as Nicely Nicely Johnson might work for those who don't remember the prior productions, or have any clue about the era, but for me it would be a drawback.

Like many small businesses the family flower shop relied on money from money-lenders, otherwise known as loan sharks. Six-for-five guys. Borrow a $100, pay back $120. Soon. One fellow who came by to collect always reminded me of Nicely Nicely Johnson. The guy even looked like Stubby Kaye, but not quite so Stubby. He was always in a suit and tie, had a snap brimmed hat that he tipped when my uncle reached into the register and pulled out whatever it was that was due. Nobody ever wrote anything down, and I guess eventually we were paid up.

We had to be good payers, because the guy's business got so good he'd send his daughter down to collect. She was going to the University of Wisconsin that I remember, and had a summer job with dad. For some odd reason I was always proud that we were so little trouble to a loan shark that he trusted his daughter to come and see us. She was like family.

So, based on what I've read, the show might not be around too long. I won't be going to see it so I won't get the chance to see the newsstand that appears in some scenes. In the 1992 production I distinctly remember the newsstand had a sign over it: G. Spelvin/Newsstand.

I don't know who came first, but Georgina Spelvin was a porn star in the 1970s.

After all, the show is about Broadway.