Tenth grade Geometry was nearly my downfall. The class was taught by an ex-pro footballer (from the leather helmet era) who had a shaky grasp of Euclid but a firm grip on his Chesterfields. He kept the pack in his shirt pocket, we could all see it through the seersucker. His meaty hands were stained a deep yellow where he held his precious cigs. He would begin each class with a lecture, then give us a worksheet to ponder while he made his way down to the teachers' lounge for a quick smoke. I had taken up my study of the nicotine vice just the summer before; his example did nothing to alleviate my cravings.
I had always been a good student, nothing amazing, mostly B's with a sprinkling of A's and C's, learning in spite of myself. Geometry should have been a snap, but I was so bewildered by the blather from the instructor I would have failed had it not been not for the sagacity of Bob Wetherille, boy genius (later to become Doctor Wetherille), who would explain the concepts whenever the teacher was out of the room. I did manage to pass, and I also switched my brand of smokes from Benson & Hedges to Chesterfields (straights, no less!) Later that year, after having walked two miles in a snowstorm to get cigarettes, I realized that perhaps emulating my Geometery teacher wasn't such a smart idea and I tore up the pack and tossed it into the snow. I never smoked a cigarette again.
Welcome! Sit down, Batty, you've been busy since we last met. I've been looking over your manuscript, LOVE IT! REALLY LOVE IT! Based on your blog, right? I've been checking that out too, some good ideas there, stuff we can use. Now there are just a few things I'd like to "punch up" a bit, give it a little wider appeal. Now this is a story of an older man, at a turning point in his life, looking forward and backward, and it all takes place over a week at a music festival in Iceland. In October. In Iceland? Listen, Iceland was hot for a while, with that swan-lady, and that group with all those weird lyrics, couldn't understand a word of it! HAHA! The music festival thing is good, but think about making it in some tropical island- you can show more skin that way in the filmed adaptation. You know- hot dancing, sweaty bods, HAHA!
Now let's discuss the protagonist. Batty, I love ya, but no one is gonna read a whole book about a older white male anymore, unless its about a serial killer or something like that. Let's skew the age down, rather than a 60 year old, lets make him 16- he's old enough to have cojones, but still has some "cute puppy" appeal. I'm seeing Justin Bieber here. Rather than a crisis of confidence, he can have gender "issues", girls love that stuff ya know, and he isn't just attending the music festival, he's playing in it! Now we're getting somewhere! AHHAHAHAH!
Let's get into that romance angle. In your story, the hero undergoes a personal transformation when watching a couple of 15 year-old girls playing folk songs. I like the part about the girls being 15, but folk music? Really? Folk music is for aging hippies, right? Let's make them rappers. We'll get Rebecca Black for the film version- she'll play both roles- they'll be twins! OOH! OOH! OOH! I've got it! This is going to be big, Big, BIG!
THEY'LL BE VAMPIRES! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAH!
Don't be alarmed by the needle on the end of the feather, a little pinprick, just a formality. Sign here, and I'll get your project on the fast track.
In the 1930's and 40's, the principal of what would ultimately become my high school (Patrick Henry, in North Minneapolis) was a man named William Porter. Stories about him were few, evidently he liked to have a loosely-run school, it was known as "Happy Henry" to some, and "Porter's Playground" to others. He was the school's first principal, he retired during World War II. They named the school's football field after him, he also chose the school colors (scarlet and gray, after his college alma mater, Ohio State). The school remains, having survived the latest rounds of budget cutting. I could find no picture of the man, only his name on the entrance to the field (entrance now demolished.) His replacement was a stern disciplinarian whose iron fist did little for the school's academic standing.
A few years ago I happened across a tape recording of Mr. Porter delivering an address on January 27th, 1952, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the school's founding. It's a short speech, humble and sincere.
There had been a city workhouse just south of where I lived when I was a child. I have a very dim (or was it imagined?) memory of it being demolished; I was transfixed at seeing such a large building in ruins. My father must have brought me over to the field on the edge of the grounds to watch the demolition- I do know that some of those bricks ended up edging our petunias. A few of the outbuildings remained for many years, along with an enormous brick chimney. We played in the field, lit firecrackers inside large sections of storm sewer pipes- the City used the land as a storage area- and climbed hills of "clean" fill. Around the turn of the 20th century Frank R. McDonald was the superintendent, he was evidently a progressive who wrote extensively about the role of a workhouse as a true "reformatory." He believed it was a viable alternative to prison and also an effective way to treat the disease of alcoholism. In the nineteen-thirties there were several shanty-towns along the nearby river; I imagine that some of the workhouse residents didn't travel far upon their release. There were still a few "shacks" remaining near the river as late as the 1967.
We children were always warned against talking to "bums," those drifters who would pass through heading into or out of town. Lyndale Avenue ran between my house and the river. It was based upon an old Indian trail that had been used for hundreds of years, long before the white man and his liquor: the vice which would land many poor souls in the old Minneapolis Workhouse, so long ago.
When I was young, the nearest place to swim (other than the Mississippi River) was the public pool in Webber Park. The park, its pool, and the attached library were primarily financed by donations of Charles C. Webber and his wife Mary in remembrance of their only child, John, who died when he was ten years old. There was an oil painting of John Webber in the library; I had heard that he had drowned while swimming in the river. That may have been just a story warning us kids (the river was dangerous, but the bravest of us would swim there anyways), but we still enjoyed the pool as well.
The pool, as humble in real life as it appears in the photo below, was a place of mystery- when it first opened (in 1910) girls and boys had separate swim times and the pool itself was surrounded by a high wall to keep out curious eyes. There were separate changing areas; the girls' had booths for privacy, while the boys changed on benches in the open air. In the showers there always seemed to be a hairy old man, soapy and naked and giving the little boys the eye. Most of the guys would quickly shower with their suits on, not the most hygienic of practices, but no one wanted to be thought of as a "homo."
Swimming lessons always started in June, at 9 in the morning, when the air was cool and the water icy. The pool was surfaced with a gritty stucco, any scraping on the side or bottom would cause a bleeding rash. There was a diving pool at one end, I never learned to swim well enough to use it. I was probably fourteen or fifteen when last I used the pool, it was for little kids, I thought, although I still couldn't swim well enough to use the diving pool. There were some teenage girls wearing bikinis by then, so the old pool still had some appeal. The pool and library have been replaced, but Webber's name lives on. No one ever gave our neighborhood a gift as great.
Last week I found myself awake in the night. This isn't an unusual occurrence, I usually turn over and drowse a bit, eventually returning to my slumbers. Not last week however. It was little past midnight and I was suddenly wide awake. I have found it best to get up when that happens, read a book or surf the internet until I become drowsy. When my laptop had connected to the BBC news site there was a bulletin about the earthquake in Japan. 8.8 on the Richter Scale is huge. I knew something big was going down. I ultimately returned to bed, when I arose the TV was on and the story had begun to unfold. I then realized that the quake and tsunami had a far bigger impact than I had imagined. When I heard about the problems at the nuclear power plant, I was appalled.
We almost "lost" Detroit in 1966 when the Fermi 1 breeder reactor near the city malfunctioned when there was a loss of coolant. Three Mile Island reactor 2 had a core melt-down in 1979 (after a loss of coolant) that ended up costing nearly a billion dollars to clean up, although the radioactive concrete of the reactor building is still in place. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 also occurred when the reactor lost coolant. After the Sendai earthquake and tsunami several Japanese reactors lost cooling in the reactor cores, the full extent of the damage is yet to be determined, events there are ongoing and may become even more catastrophic. All of these incidents were thought not to be possible.
Geologists estimate that Japan was displaced 8 feet in the earthquake.
Tens of thousands of people who survived the quake and tsunami may be displaced.
Any trust in nuclear engineering has been displaced as well.
My sleep patterns have returned to normal; there is only so much a person can do in the face of such colossal hubris.
Under the Glacier (Icelandic title: Kristnihald Undir Jökli) by Halldór Laxness Vintage International, 2005 Originally published by Helgafell, Reykjavík, in 1968
I've been flirting with writing a "proper" review of this book for several years- it may well be that the book is unreviewable. Susan Sontag took a stab at it in the introduction of this edition, assigning it to nine different genres in an attempt to define it:
Science Fiction Tale, Fable, Allegory Philosophical novel Dream novel Visionary novel Literature of fantasy Wisdom lit Spoof Sexual turn-on
I think she might have been splitting hairs, her first seven categories overlap quite a bit and the last two are really stretching it. It is extremely Icelandic, especially the laconic humor and pragmatic philosophy of Pastor Jon Primus, the "fallen" pastor whose dereliction of duty is the reason the young seminarian "Embi" (EMissary of the BIshop) has been dispatched to the Snæfells parish.
The naive Embi, with his tape recorder and note-book, duly records all the happenings in the parish. He is a perfect tabla rasa who has been instructed to "Note down everything relevant..." and ".. simply say and do as little as possible." As the book proceeds, Embi is privy to numerous dialectic discussions between all sorts of odd individuals: Pastor Jon, new-age pilgrims and their spiritual leader, colorful locals, and ultimately a woman who was/is Pastor Jon's wife, or perhaps something more. Embi finds that he becomes more and more caught up in this strange dream-world. He resists at first, but as the story progresses he ceases to be the rational, passive observer: he becomes the dreamer, and the report to the bishop becomes a fantastic vision.
Anyone who has read more than one or two of Halldór's' books will find familiar themes, but here they are stated more obliquely, and gentler, with fewer polemics. While reading this book I got the distinct sense that Halldor knew this novel might be his last hurrah- his final novel of ideas- and he made every word count. Funny, understated and wise, this book will reward the open-minded reader, especially one who has at least some understanding of Icelandic culture. It is a great book.
My Soul To Take A Novel of Iceland by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Snæfellsness, Iceland, 2004
Murder mystery novels are a curious form of escapism. They have the power to transport one far from daily cares into a world wherein the reader can identify not only with the protagonist's struggle and victory, but also with the killer's depravity and downfall. The best of both worlds!
In this book, Yrsa's second, we revisit Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a very clever lawyer who has a knack for getting involved with murders, this time in an isolated area of Snæfellsness. In farmland located between Snæfellsjökull and the sea a new-age hotel has been built upon the foundation of an old farmhouse and is troubled by bad "auras" and the haunting cries of restless spirits. Thóra is called by the owner to get an opinion on resolving these issues with the former owners of the property.
There has been a lot of activity in the Scandinavian crime-fiction lately, I've reviewed no less than five Arnaldur Indriðason titles, and have also covered Yrsa's first book. This one is considerably better, although not really in the bleak Nordic mystery vein. It is more of a traditional, plot-driven mystery, well done and captivating (I read it in one sitting) but not nearly so psychological or atmospheric as I would have liked. Part of the problem may have been me- I've spent some time in the area where the action occurs, and the memory of those places filled my imagination rather than Yrsa's prose.
Thóra is an appealing protagonist; because she is a lawyer rather than a detective she has more freedom in her actions. Interactions with her family, an ex and a lover all help to enrich her characterization. As in Yrsa's first book, there are numerous plot twists with mumerous characters (you might want to write a relationship diagram) with some real sadness in the multi-path story line stretching back over sixty years. There are plenty of suspects and some nice twists which help pave over rough sections in the plot. I didn't think I'd read Yrsa again, but this book was a pleasant surprise.
TOMORROW: Another mystery novel set in Snæfellsness.
It's me, I know it. There are certain things in this world that I've never been able to develop an appreciation for: Tom Petty. Olives. Hockey. Tom Cruise. Polyester fabrics. The list goes on, but remember- these are not things I despise, it's that I just don't fathom their appeal.
Which brings me to the mystery of tea. Whether black or green, herbal or flavored, I have never been quite able to acquire the habit of "taking tea." Apart from a youth fling with "Red Zinger", I don't think I've drunk more than 3 or 4 cups of tea in any given year. Lord knows how I've tried! The scent of herbals are delightful, while the aromas of black or green tea are enticing, almost spiritual. It is when I actually sip some that my mouth trumps my nose- "I'm drinking weeds!" is my visceral reaction. I am able to drink tea with whiskey in it, although that kind of destroys the whole zen of the concept.
Perhaps, someday, I'll finally grow up and join the "tea party."
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon, You're leaving there too soon
~ Neil Young
Nineteen may be the ultimate awkward age. Sophomoric. Fully grown, yet not a grown-up. Parties in your folks' basement. Attended by singletons cursing their desperation. Party games! The "hands" game. Vicki was supine upon the bed. I passed my hands above her body. Never touching, slowly moving from feet to head. Over and over. Waves of "Psychic Energy."
Vicki became flushed, then agitated. She got up. "Did you feel it?" "What was it like?" "It was OK, I guess." Quiet pause.
Laughter broke the mood. More people came down the stairs. When Robin came down, she sat close to me. Vicki began to cry.
Baby Doll, (1956), a Warner Brothers motion picture Directed by Elia Kazan Screenplay by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan
Making a movie about sexual arousal is a tricky business. It requires a tremendous amount of balance to avoid parody on one hand and pornography on the other. The actors must exercise a form of reverse sexual sublimation- their technique must become invisible to allow the physiological responses to appear natural.
The titular character- "Baby Doll"- is a 19-year-old girl/woman (Carroll Baker), childish, dim-witted, innately sensual but repressed in a no-sex marriage with "Archie" (Karl Malden), an alcoholic middle-aged owner of a failing cotton mill. Archie burns down a cotton gin managed by a "Sicilian" newcomer "Silva"(Eli Wallach.) Silva figures out that Archie is responsible, but brings his cotton to Archie's mill to exact his revenge through Archie's unconsummated bride, Baby Doll. The twenty-five minute seduction scene is absolutely hypnotizing, Carroll Baker's performance is poetry:
Seeing it today, I was struck by how well it holds up and how it would be just as controversial today, although not for its sexual innuendos but rather for its realistic dialog of the people of small-town Mississippi. It is full of racist slurs and also shows some incidental but accurate depictions of enforced segregation. This is a movie that was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which was at the time powerful enough to cause Warner Brothers to pull the film out of theaters. Despite this, the film and the principal cast members were nominated for numerous awards. Tennessee Williams was the master of lurid psycho-sexual Southern Gothic, but in this film he was blessed with the direction of Elia Kazan (at his peak) along with some of the best method actors of the day. All these elements combine to make it one of the truly great yet seldom seen movies of the 1950's.
About once a year I do a post about some of the links which I have recently discovered. As the my use of internet develops, it seems that there are three distinct types of sites: Aggregators, Blogs, and Curiosities.
Aggregators are the "big guys"- sites with multiple sources of information, medium and long form stories, essays and thought-pieces. The news organizations (NYT, BBC, HuffPo) have this format, although bigger isn't always better. Some of the newer, smaller ones I frequent are:
Thought Catalog, irreverent pop and serious culture, a little trashy at times, but definitely has a different mix.
The Browser, better than average writing about a host of topics.
Death and Taxes, unashamedly trashy but has some substance, coming from a younger perspective.
The Hairpin, with a definite estrogen cast, it's a spin-off from The Awl, but more focused.
Design Observer, exactly what the title suggests. More readable than most design sites, numerous articles and features, not academic at all.
Blogs are usually "the little guys", but they offer the best showcase for personal expression, here are a few of my latest finds:
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat by "Caroline", is a great book/film review blog with lots of in-depth reviews of a variety of higher-level fiction and cinema.
Enthusiasms, by "Simen", wildly diverse, stream of consciousness essays almost daily.
Finally, we come to that catch-all category of Curiosities. Blogs which simply exist to gather odd bits of information. There are millions of these, most are stupefyingly inane, but a few are curated to a higher plane:
TYWKIWDBI by "Minnesotastan" might just be the best of these, lots of obscure things, most of which I haven't already seen.
things magazine is basically just a list of interesting sites coupled with very brief descriptions and a minimal use of images. Quantity over quality, updated almost daily, but always pushing the envelope.
L'aquoiboniste by "Roller Girl" is an image blog: old prints, film stills, drawings, photos, all very evocative.
One final note: Annie Atkins, my favorite Welsh/Icelandic/Irish blogger is now in Tibet and posting words and pictures almost daily. We all can use a little vicarious vacation now and then.
Mr. Mark runs the local guitar shop. It is a refuge from the antiseptic "big box" music stores, things are agreeably informal, the walls are lined with dreams, some new and hopeful, some old and forgotten. But if your guitar is a nightmare, Mr. Mark can turn it into a dream come true. Mr. Mark turns 60 today, in honor of that milestone he held a party in his shop last Sunday. There were hot dogs and beer served among the amplifiers along with live music and tall tales. Mr. Mark's work bench is in an alcove in the store; nearby the above antique spool cabinet holds miscellany- bits of wood, some tools, and other odd things which he uses to create a part when there is none to be had. This case is older than both Mr. Mark and me- even if you added our ages together.
When I left I told Mr. Mark "I'll race you to 100."