Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Book Quote of the Day #2

I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these, in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind up everything nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.

Diane Satterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cleaning Out and Moving On

When my parents moved into their house 20-some years ago, they didn't have enough bookshelves, and in a power dynamic pretty typical of their marriage, they couldn't decide what kind to buy. So in what was supposed to be temporary solution, Mom set up her collection of paperback mysteries on makeshift shelves of plastic crates in the garage.

Of course, the books never made it out of the garage and into the house. While Mom was alive, however, the set-up actually functioned pretty well. Mom, my sister, and I read and traded mysteries avidly, so there was always a lot of activity going on. Plus, Mom was always more than content to binge-read her way through the entire oeuvre of Michael Innes or Margery Allingham over and over again.

When she died a few years ago, my sister and I debated about whether to split up her collection, but we decided against it. On a sentimental level, it seemed like leaving her books just the way she had arranged them, pages splattered with grease from when she read with one hand and cooked with the other, or wrinkled from being dropped into the bathtub, was a way of keeping her with us. And on a practical level, we liked knowing that if we were ever stuck at (now) Dad's house with nothing to read, or if we really wanted to reread a particular Ellis Peters or Emma Lathen, the books were there.

But inevitably as the years passed, we used the shelves less and less. Finally, a few months ago, I went looking for a Dick Francis I wanted and was dismayed to find how dusty and musty it and its fellows were. The time had come, I decided, to take action.

So I announced to my sister that I was going to rescue the books. We would each take what we wanted, and I would find homes for the rest before they moldered away completely. Sis objected at first, but I pointed out that Mom would surely prefer for her books to be loved by someone else rather than die from neglect. Sis, who lives in a Manhattan apartment the size of a shoebox, declined her share of the legacy, but gave me her go-ahead.

Thus, last Saturday I spent a long hour making my way through about half of the collection, cherry-picking the stuff I wanted most. I was underprepared for the amount of dust involved, and wound up completely covered and sneezing; some books had amassed bunnies big enough to hop away (it was Easter, after all). Next time I'll go armed with an apron, a mask, and an industrial-size can of Pledge. Despite that, most books were in better shape than I feared; although a few fell apart in my hands, most were dry and relatively intact.

Now I've got six grocery bags of books to find room for on my own full-to-bursting shelves. But I feel in a way that I've reached a new level of adulthood; that the books were already mine, but I've finally stopped relying on my folks to store them for me.

Once I collect the remainder, I will try to make good on my promise to disperse them to a caring audience. Some of them may be collector's items; I will take them to the used mystery bookstore near my house and see if there's anything they will actually pay for. The rest I will probably list on BookMooch. Perhaps I will offer a 2-for-1 deal on the most stained or rippled. Eventually, in any case, most or all of them will find their way into appreciative hands.

Mom didn't believe in an afterlife, but I like to think that somewhere she's sitting at a kitchen table with a tepid cup of coffee, a cigarette, and an exciting book that hasn't even been published yet, nodding her quiet approval.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Few Quickies

RIP Gary Gygax. Despite being a prototypical nerdy teen, my major D&D period was in adulthood. For 6 years, I interacted once or even twice weekly in a group that combined the best parts of writing, improvisational theater, and performance art, while eating Doritos and laughing our asses off. Our group eventually broke up for the most adult of reasons: one group member, the DM's wife, was having an affair with the brother of a fellow player; she and the DM got divorced; and the group split amid mutual recriminations. But it was a fabulous, creative period in my life and for that I will always think of Gygax kindly.


RIP Arthur C. Clarke. To be truthful, I was never that big a fan. Like many of the so-called Golden Age science fiction writers, Clarke had some great ideas but was too concerned with gadgets, not enough with characters. However, his Hugo-winning stories "The Star" and "The Nine Billion Names of God" are both filled with a numinous sense of wonder and are among the finest short stories I've ever read.


How weird is it that within the same week I read two books that couldn't be more different -- Christine Falls and Flight Lessons -- but whose plots both hinged on the fact that, at some time in the past, a guy married the wrong sister because Sexy Sister would sleep with him and True Love Sister wouldn't?


My sister and I once took a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to LA. Along the way are miles-long stretches where there's nothing but the ocean on one side of the road and on the other, grazing cows in meadows that any sane person would build a dream house on. Every time one of those happy cow California cheese commercials comes on, we look at each other and say, "It must be the million-dollar views."


I thought Hung already won Top Chef season 3. What's he doing back this time, masquerading under fellow competitor Dale's name?


A Bellini. A blini. Not the same, Valerie, thank you very much. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out, and say hi to your equally annoying sister Melissa when you get home.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Movie Diary February 2008

Movies seen for the first time are in green.

  1. Sense and Sensibility (1995, Ang Lee). OK, now this is how you do Jane Austen. Masterpiece Theater, are you paying attention? For me the only false note is Hugh Grant (dearly though I love him); he's simply too stiff, even playing a character who's kind of a stiff guy.
  2. Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford). I've heard some doubts cast on its literal historical accuracy, but this movie remains an absorbing and entertaining study of ambition, celebrity, greed, and family. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the aristocratic Charles van Doren, who is equally proud of, burdened by, and not sure he measures up to his famous surname.
  3. Caesar and Cleopatra (1945, Gabriel Pascal). Talky, stagy version of the George Bernard Shaw play is taken from his own screenplay, perhaps to its own detriment. Cleopatra is throughout portrayed as stupid, venal, and incapable of ruling without masculine guidance -- neither her sexuality nor her power is self-directed. Also, Shaw's in-jokes about the British probably went over better with the Victorians for whom they were written. Nevertheless, Vivien Leigh is so luminously beautiful that one can almost forget what she's saying, Claude Rains is worldly-wise as Caesar, and hunky Stewart Granger gets to show off his calves as Apollodorus.
  4. Upstairs Downstairs Season 1 (1971, ITV). See post to come.
  5. Upstairs Downstairs Season 2 (1972, ITV). See post to come.
  6. Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn). Unlike many movies of the late '60s-early '70s, this one holds up beautifully. The thoughtful, funny script skewers (even if it can't kill) all the Wild West cliches John Ford and his ilk ever perpetrated. Dustin Hoffman gives a bravura performance as Jack Crabbe, with notable contributions from Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, and Richard Mulligan.
  7. The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross). Worth watching for Richard Dreyfus's hilariously bad gay Richard III, but lord, Paula (Marsha Mason) makes me tired. She's a whiny, clinging, unliberated shrew who defines herself by redecorating her apartment for each new relationship. Get a grip, lady!
  8. A Raisin in the Sun (2008, Kenny Leon). It's no shame for an actor to fall short of Sidney Poitier -- I mean, seriously, who doesn't? But Sean Combs (Walter Lee Younger) in this made-for-TV production of the recent revival of Lorraine Hansberry's classic play is so pathetic, so lacking in every way, that he sucks the life out of everything around him. The rest of the cast, though flat, is at least competent (but Tony-worthy? I don't think so). Without passionate and intelligent performances, Hansberry's lines have never sounded so insipid and sententious (and the changes by screenwriter Paris Qualles add nothing).
  9. Pride and Prejudice (1995, A&E). Yes, Masterpiece Theater, this is also how you do Austen. Thank God you had sense enough not to try and mess with this perfection, because I'd have to cut you. As many people have said: Colin Firth, yum.
  10. A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinneman). Ponderous, pompous costume drama based on Robert Bolt's award-winning play about Sir Thomas More. Although featuring fine performances from Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, and others (not to mention a luminous cameo from Vanessa Redgrave), the film never really comes alive. Maybe it's just me, but More comes off not so much as a man of principle as a guy hiding behind sleazy lawyer tricks.