Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Happy Birthday!

To my good friend Fielt Burch, who shares his special day with:

Sandra Bullock
Kevin Spacey
Stanley Kubrick
Kate Beckinsale
Aldous Huxley
Mick Jagger
Carl Jung
G.B. Shaw

What a party! Here are some Shaw quotes, which is why you would want to attend this party:

"I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

"A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul."

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing."

"Virtue is insufficient temptation."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Where is Ingrid Bergman?

Having just watched Bergman and Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's Spellbound, I was reminded once again how marvelous both looked and also, what real movie star glamour they had. So this is where the curmudgeon opines about the stars of yesteryear and dismisses the sorry lot we have today. But--to be fair--I think it must be a lot harder these days to control one's image and retain that aura of elegance and mystery, particularly when there's somebody with a camera phone hiding in every bush, and our info-all-the-time society dwells on every trip to the supermarket, should a celebrity be so foolish as to try shopping for toothpaste and toilet paper on his own. Still, the constant, petty bad behavior; the ridiculous quotes; the questionable fashion all take their toll. So who fares best these days, as having the closest image to the Bergmans, Bogeys, and Hepburns? It's more than looks--its coolness and style, and hopefully talent.

It's a bit easier to think of women. The first person that comes to mind is Nicole Kidman, who always looks good and seems very poised in public. She has a cool exterior that reminds me of old Hollywood. Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Jason Leigh in an odd way, Salma Hayek, Audrey Tautou and Juliette Binoche. The males are more difficult. Russell Crowe is out because he behaves like such a barbarian. Don't even talk to me about Tom Cruise. The one that seems head and shoulders above the rest is Denzel Washington. Very elegant, handsome, reticent with the press, good rep. He even does Shakespeare for kicks. Joaquin Phoenix? He's a bit Indie, but does retain an air of mystery, or maybe it's that undercurrent of tragedy shadowing his career. Jude Law is a thorough bounder, but not as dashingly as Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, or Richard Harris in their heyday. Thank god for Albert Finney, a link to the past and still kicking around in movies, and making them better. Well, just a bit of fluff for a Monday.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Frederick Busch's North

Somehow I overlooked that another of my favorite writers has a new novel (May 2, 2005--I must have been distracted by the KY Derby?!). I just saw it when I was browsing for Cormac McCarthy's latest. North is apparently a sequel to his excellent 1997 novel Girls, about a small, college-town security guard who gets involved in the abduction case of a young girl. The mystery aspect is folded into the story of his struggling marriage after the death of his own baby daughter. Busch is great at delving into the scarred and damaged psyches of his characters and the difficult relationships that they involve themselves in.

I've read the harrowing Closing Arguments, War Babies, and The Night Inspector--one of the best American novels of the last decade or so. The eponymous inspector is Herman Melville--after his literary career has wound down and he is working at a civil service job inspecting ships' cargo. He is not the main character, but is a friend to the protagonist--this time both physically and psychologically damaged. An ex-Civil War sniper, haunted by his killings, and now fated to wear a mask to disguise the disfigurement of his face. It's sinister and creepy and wonderful--set in post-war New York City--a look at the underbelly of American experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ada Byron

Lord Byron's daughter Ada is an interesting person in her own right. As an addendum to my last post, if you would like to know more about the woman who had a Pentagon software program named after her, there is a recent biography and numerous sites on the Web.

Lord Byron's Novel (really John Crowley's!)

I posted previously about John Crowley's new novel, released in June. While I would have loved to read it for summer vacation, all in one fell swoop, I fit it in over several weeks instead, with all the pesky work and chores to distract me from it. It was as different from The Translator, as from Little, Big, and it is only one of the many reasons I love this author, who manages to pull out something completely unexpected from his box of marvels each time (and I still haven't read his earlier fantasy/sci-fi suffused fiction).

Crowley creates the rumored, lost Gothic novel of Byron (initiated, perhaps, on the night of the famous contest with Mary Shelley, who began Frankenstein). The novel portion is doubly framed with annotations of Byron's novel, by his daughter Ada (who never knew Byron--but in this fiction, has preserved her father's secret work by enciphering it and hiding it from her fire-breathing mother) and by the contemporary young scholar who has come into posession of Ada's coded text. The scholar Alexandra, working to unravel the mystery, is similarly alienated from her father, a former professor, who is guilty of a sexual crime that caused him to flee America when his daughter was still a toddler. The Byronic and contemporary plot parallels are obvious, but not shallow. Crowley plays with the two stories like images in a mirror. He cleverly uses the 18th-19th century format of the epistolary novel to convey the contemporary frame--told entirely through Alexandra's e-mails. The funny thing is, the epistolary style--so often used in the days when the posts took weeks and months (making such novels quaintly stylized, if not preposterous), makes perfect sense when messages can be sent around the world in seconds. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that Crowley writes beautifully, slipping from one idiom and voice for the 1800s to others, befitting the "naughties," with seeming ease. He evokes emotions subtly and gracefully--the most touching parts of the novel are often embedded in Ada's annotations which reveal much more than her limited knowledge of Byron's authorial intentions.

I am not so naive as to think this kind of layered, highly eccentric, post-modern novel is going to be a big hit with the readers who rarely range far from the NYT Bestsellers' list. For one thing, a little background knowledge, or a lot, makes the experience much richer. English majors, admirers of Romantic poety, and other such nerdy types, however, should be all over it! It offers many pleasures, not the least of which, it is fun to read in the good, old-fashioned way, not just good for you.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Bob and Willie

A few days ago, I went to see the Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson summer tour. They are probably playing a minor league ballpark near you. I've never seen either one of them live, but it seemed important to go see them in person, since their music is the soundtrack for the lives of many Americans. I probably grew up more attuned to Willie's music--certainly his tales of drinking, loving, being on the road, and the whole cowboy milieu were more resonant in the rural south than Dylan's protest/social commentary (of course, I'm generalizing). Dylan's songs are woven so deeply into the musical subconscious, and have been covered so thoroughly, that I'm constantly surprised that something I'm listening to is a "Dylan" song. Then, of course, I feel a start of guilt--or perhaps, embarrassment, that I didn't know that in the first place.

So...I went with realistic expectations, I'll say, of what I would get. I figured Willie for a familiar crowd-pleaser, but Bob, from all accounts, can be a bit idiosyncratic and his crooning is always an adventure. Also, I had read that he has eschewed the guitar for keyboards and harmonica. I had a pretty good spot near the stage, in the center on an absolutely sweltering evening. The Greencards opened energetically and Willie came through with a comfy set of classics. Bob and his band came on and I could actually identify some of the songs--so changed from their "standard" sound that you had to listen to the lyrics very closely: "Just Like a Woman," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "All Along the Watchtower." The band sounded great and Bob seemed to be enjoying himself, though he doesn't engage much with the crowd. Mainly, it made me feel that I had really missed out on something by being too young to have seen Dylan in his heyday--when his songs were timely, direct responses to events; when he was just a young dude with his guitar, doing something special and exciting. It made me wonder who the 20-something is right now, who is kind of filling his role--as he did in the 60s. Maybe that's only something you can see in retrospect?