Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Feet of Clay

Many of you have heard me call Mark Twain my favorite all-time American.  I quote him frequently and reread him often.

Since my time with books is never enough, I have taken to listening to ones that I have read before and want to read again.  We New Yorkers spend a lot of time walking, which creates opportunities to transport oneself and “read” at the same time.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were early candidates and enormously satisfying, especially when read aloud by folks who managed the accents and understood the irony.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, what fun.

My next choice, however, has been causing me a lot of trouble.   The Innocents Abroad.  I had read it before.  But long ago.  The book has not changed.  I guess I have.  Or something.  I will finish it.  But it is killing me.

Oh, I love the jokes—some of which have made me giggle out loud, despite the miserable weather, on Fifth Avenue between Twenty-second Street and Twenty-third.  Twain’s itinerary is a blast.  I have been to a number of the places he visited while writing this travelogue.  His reminders of Europe’s wonders—of say, the palazzi of Genoa or the Cathedral of Milan—bring back my own pleasant memories.

But I find myself wincing more than smiling.  The way Twain characterizes the denizens of the countries he visits is positively painful to read.  No one who is not American or English is at all pleasing to him.  He berates the citizens of France or Spain or Italy for “jabbering” in “foreign” languages.  He calls their countries “puppy republics.”  The French are “garlic chewers.”  The Italians are “lazy spaghetti stuffers.”  The Greeks are all “mendacious.”  Everyone is dirty.  Everyone is swarthy.  Everyone is stupid, except for those who are too clever at cheating tourists.

Twain feels free to break the laws of the countries he visits—illegally going a shore when his ship has been quarantined to make sure there is no cholera on board.  Borrowing someone else’s passport when he had lost his own, and gleeful that the ridiculous people in the Russian port of Sebastopol could not read the English description of the passport holder.  Serves them right to be fooled if they can’t read English!


At one point, while illegally sneaking around Athens in the middle of the night, having broken quarantine, he and his companions steal grapes from a vineyard—about ten pounds apiece he says.  The Greek owner of the grapes notices what they have done and follows them.  Twain calls the man and his friends “brigands.”  Excuse me, but who are the thieves in this situation?  And we are not talking here about frat boy pranks.  Twain and his companions are grown ups, and wealthy enough to enjoy a months-long cruise

I am sure that Twain’s contemporary American readers were heartily amused by all of this.  I find it very disappointing.  Cheap shots from the masterful wielder of the verbal scalpel.   
I love his language.  I love how alive his prose is.  He is still a beacon of great writing.  I will continue to the end, but I won’t read this book again.  Ever.  And I mourn the loss of my idol.  Boohoo. 

Annamaria Alfieri   

Monday, March 2, 2015

Shaking Hands with Jesus in Old Quebec

It wasn’t like a real shake hands, of course; Jesus’s hand being made of a silvery metal, protruding at an angle of thirty degrees from a giant-sized solid bronze door (the Holy Door), on hinges, standing open at the side of the Church. As we passed through the door into the sacristy, Rose and I touched Jesus’s right hand in our left (the least awkward choice), briefly so as not to hold up the line of pilgrims in the Garden. We shook hands on the doorstep of the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica- Cathedral last August during our vacation cruise to the Magdalen Islands on the St. Lawrence River. All our past sins were immediately forgiven, cancelled out with one handshake, the flyer said. Quebec had applied to Rome for permission to install the Holy Door for the 350th Anniversary of the City’s founding. It is one of only seven in the world. It remained open for all of 2014, then was shut to reopen in seven years. We were lucky to get in when we did.

Unusual as our encounter with the Holy Door was, it wasn’t the highpoint of our trip. The cruise itself was: seven days on the St. Lawrence, a River so big that when you weren’t in sight of the Quebec Coast, you felt like you were sailing the Atlantic. Our ship, the CTMA Vacancier, a converted cargo ship, is owned by the Magdalen Islands Co-op and used in summer for tours, then reverts the rest of the year to hauling produce to and from the Islands. It held 350 souls including us, all but twelve of us French-speakers, four linguists from the crew designated to babysit the outlanders.

We boarded in Montreal on a late July morning, having taken the 7-hour train ride on Amtrac from Albany to Montreal the day before. Very informally friendly, scores of passengers clustered under a circus-sized tent on the Harbor dock, chatting, laughing in French, old friends, till we were shepherded by French-speaking monitors (who seemed to know everyone but us) onto buses for the short ride to the ship. We’re mostly senior citizens.

For the next two days and nights we sail up the majestic St. Lawrence. Plenty of chairs on deck (of molded plastic construction as befit the blue-collar character of our vessel), perfect for taking the bracing sea air while mesmerized from staring into the roiling waves as the ship knifes through the water. Our first stop is Cap aux Meules, the main commercial hub where we dock for the next day-and-a-half while we leave the ship to board tour buses to see the churches, restaurants, an aquarium, and artisans of this hilly Island. There are eight major Islands in the Magdalens, a small archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just off Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. On Grande Entrée Island, settled in the Eighteenth Century by Scots, they speak English and a dialect of Gaelic, rather than French, the common tongue of the Islanders.

Bused to the aquarium, we hoped to see the Great White Shark reportedly caught several years ago in the local waters but, alas, he wasn’t there. The aquarium manager explained to us how the provincial government decided that the locals were not up to the task of caring for their shark and so took him away; clearly the insult still smarted. How a Great White happened to find himself in the St. Lawrence River went unexplained, and I wasn’t about to tactlessly ask. But there were fresh lobsters in abundance. Rose and I ate them at La Factorie where you get on line at the steam table and a middle-aged woman grabs up a two-pound lobster, whacks it three times with a cleaver and plops it onto your tray. No frills. We ate all our land meals at La Factorie.

Back on the River, I experienced again the greatest pleasure of the voyage—to sit on deck in an Adirondeck chair at dusk as the ship plowed along—feeling alone in a vast space listening to the sibilant hiss of rushing water as the mind floats free. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to the perfect Ocean Voyage, which for me always has Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet fencing verbally while lolling in deck chairs swathed in blankets (the movie, Across the Pacific, 1942).

The best thing on board ship, after the people and meals, was the nighttime entertainment in the ‘Nightclub’. Might be a Canadian thing: passengers and staff dancing solo on stage, like a Texas Two-Step without a partner. They had remarkable endurance. But the piece de resistance was Johnny Cash. You never heard the like of this Johnny doing Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, I Walk the Line, and Ring of Fire—“I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames climbed higher. And it burned, burned, burned the ring of fire. The ring of fire.” Music by Cash, lyrics in the FrancoAnglais patois of Renee Langois—live on guitar and DJ hookup, the music pounding down, Renee rolling his ‘r’s like revving a motor. Best of all, the audience knew all the words and joined in (Frenchified, of course). The Man in Black is a headliner in Montreal. On the return trip, Renee Langois metamorphosed into Elvis (not as successfully, alas).

Our ship laid over eight hours in Quebec’s Old City. (Love the place!) When we visited last April, I used Quebec novelist Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead as Guide Book, following in the footsteps of her Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of Homicide in the Surete du Quebec, as he investigated the death of an archeologist, the body dumped in the dirt cellar of the Quebec Literary and Historical Society, last bastion of the English-speaking Quebecois. In the novel, it is a bone-rattling, snowy December as Gamache trudges around the City—over the Plains of Abraham, site of the decisive Battle for Quebec in September, 1759, during the French and Indian War; in-and-out of the elegant Chateau Frontenac, the ancient fort-like hotel perched on the precipice overlooking the River and Vieux-Quebec.

Being French, Gamache manages to eat and drink in the homey restaurants, cafes and fragrant bakeries of the Old City as he searches for a killer and to solve the mystery of the final resting place of the French General, the Marquis de Montcalm, who died of his wounds while losing the Battle for Quebec and Canada to the English General James Wolfe, who also succumbed on the Battlefield. We retraced Gamache’s steps, trudging along in milder April weather (still a test as Old Quebec is an up-and-down town, no street going along for long without a steep rise and rapid descent). Fortunately, the best croissants in the French-speaking world are to be had at Le Paillard, a short walk down Rue Saint-Jean from the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Take it from me: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache knows his croissants. At the Literary and Historical Society, the staff kindly gave us a tour that included the dirt-floored cellar where English prisoners were imprisoned during the Battle for Quebec, and where, appropriately enough, Louise Penny buried her English body.

© 2015 Bob Knightly

Sunday, March 1, 2015

“ I wonder what has happened to Lord Lucan?” —Agatha Christie

I have for some months now subscribed to electronic versions of The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books. The big controversy in the letters columns recently has been a heated discussion over who has done the most accurate translations of Proust. These publications rarely, if ever, review mysteries so I was surprised when both of them gave lots of space and serious attention to Laura Thompson’s new book about the Lord Lucan case, A Different Class of Murder.

Lord Lucan, peer of the realm, was a handsome fellow. Vittorio de Sica thought of using him in a movie and Cubby Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films, thought him the very image of the suave spy.

In November, 1974, his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was brutally murdered in the basement of the Lucan home and his wife, Veronica, was also bashed multiple times over the head. Lucan, who had been separated from his family, was at the house that night, He told friends that he had gone past the house and seen someone struggling with his wife. Lady Lucan contended that he was her assailant. She said that after he hit her over the head he tried to force his fingers down her throat in order to kill her. She grabbed him by the family jewels. He released her and then tended to her wounds. They spent some time together but when he left the room she ran to the local pub and the police were called. He went to the home of a friend and called his mother and asked her to look after the children. The police were at his mother’s house. His mother suggested he talk to the police but he said he would contact them the following morning. He was never seen again. Perhaps I should amend that. He has been seen many times since then in the same way that Elvis continues to be spotted.

Lucan has his detractors and supporters. The detractors say that Lucan, who had become a spectacularly unsuccessful gambler killed his wife because he failed to get custody of his children (Not only was he paying to support her, he had to pay her court costs as well as his own when he lost the case). His wife, a bright woman whom he had worked to drive mad, was disliked by his friends. His friends plotted his escape from England and they continue to support him. There have been sightings of him all over the world. (Most sightings have occurred in South Africa and Botswana.)

His supporters say that the police never really entertained the idea that anyone other than Lucan had committed the murder. His wife was an unreliable witness with an extensive psychiatric history (Barristers were not allowed to bring this up during the inquest). Nothing his wife said against him was the subject of any serious scrutiny.

He left England because he believed he could not get a fair trial and wrote a letter to his friend, William Shand Kydd, asking that he look after the children.

Laura Thompson’s book attempts to make sense of all this material (Her prose makes for somewhat heavy sledding). She feels that Lucan got a raw deal because he was a lord and seemed to live a lush life during the 1970s, a time when the social and economic tumult would lead to the rise of Margaret Thatcher. She presents different versions of events. Both reviews of the book that I read talked about her speculations being occasionally “vulgar.” I looked in vain for the vulgarity. I was sure that this would be what Americans would call “the juicy parts.”

Thompson favors the idea that Lucan paid someone to kill his wife and then thought better of it and went to the house to intervene but was too late. Distraught over the mess he had made, he committed suicide by throwing himself off cliffs, off the side of the boat… etc.

Lord Lucan’s son, George, thinks that his father hired someone to stage a burglary so that he could collect insurance money. The piping used on Sandra Rivett and Lady Lucan was intended for breaking a window. The faux burglar was totally undone when he saw Sandra Rivett, killed her and attacked Lady Lucan.

I don’t know if Thompson’s book will spur the interest that the merits of Proust translations have, but James Fox, whose article about the case was written around the time of the murder, has already written in to disparage what he sees as Thompson’s exoneration of Lord Lucan and to defend Lady Lucan.

I await the next “Letters” columns with ‘bated breath and muffled oar.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, February 28, 2015


The movie LOOPER (2012), written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a dystopian crime-thriller-sci-fi-neo-noir-suspense-coming-of-age-love-story set in 2044. Kind of. It jumps around from 2044 to 2074 and back, as people in 2074 can travel back to 2044, but not vice versa.

The reason people go back is so that they can be killed. Not that they are committing suicide-- they are getting the time travel kiss-off off instead of the old-fashioned-cement-overshoes-goodbye you might get from a twentieth century mobster. You see, as Joe (played by Joseph Gordon Leavitt) tells us, forensics is too sophisticated in 2074, so organized crime sends guys back in time to get whacked, which is the only sure way to disappear them.

When I think of hit men, I think of amoral and scary guys who can kill you eight ways from Sunday without even breaking a sweat—guys like Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC. It’s both a vocation and avocation for these guys, who might not have grown up wanting to kill for a living, but found somewhere along the way that it was the only thing they were good at. The hired killer, the mercenary, the hit man, the assassin—these are the ultimate noir characters, who live in a world so debased that there is nothing they can do that would make any moral difference. They are not knights, not hard-boiled tough guys meting out rough justice in a rough world, but more like ronin, samurai without a master, killers who kill for nothing but personal gain, for whom everything, even the taking of human life, is just business.

Joe is amoral, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to me to have been “called” to killing. He’s certainly not an artist, or even a competent craftsman. All he really does is wait for guys to fall hog-tied from the sky and then blow them away with a shotgun called a blunderbuss: As he says : “You can’t hit anything further than fifteen feet, and within fifteen feet, you can’t miss.”

Joe gets a shitload of gold or silver bars for each hit, strapped to the back of the victim. He is saving up for some kind of life in the future, although it seems his future life will be as lonely and drug addicted as his present one. In the Kansas City of 2044, most of the city is a third world slum. A small percentage of the population (including Joe) lives a Club Med/Studio 54 kind of existence while the “vagrants” starve. There seems to be no middle class, with the rich and poor both being completely idle—the difference between them being the rich get to eat.

The movie starts to get really interesting when Old Joe is sent back from the future to be killed by Young Joe. For a little while, my mind got bent around the possibilities—if you killed your future self, would your present self die? (apparently not, although if your present self is killed your future one dies, and a new, alternative time line is created). Bruce Willis, as Old Joe, manages to elude Young Joe, who is dead set on killing his older self. He has to, or the entire criminal organization he works for will hunt him down and kill him. I loved the conceit, and thought about how often we mortgage off the future for a shinier, better present—athletes with steroids, Faust by selling his soul to the devil, young drug dealers and gang bangers selling off the future to live large now, all of which is not a new phenomenon, the phrase “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse“ going back to at least the thirties, I think.

The two Joes meet in a diner, and the old version of Joe tells his former self (who sees the future holds no hair for him) that “The time travel shit doesn’t matter. We could sit around here all day with charts and graphs and it still wouldn’t make any sense.” It didn’t matter to me, either. The idea of your old self meeting your young self fascinates. What would I tell my twenty-two year old self if I could? Certainly, I would say lose the mullet. And avoid that boxing match where you tear the rotator cuff, as the shoulder is going to give you a lot of trouble later on. And certainly I would say stop drinking so much, and stay away from the wrong kind of women, and pay more attention to the right kind. And most of all, I would say stop being such a self absorbed, self pitying, navel-gazing, melancholy and morose fool.

Which is basically what Old Joe tells Young Joe. It’s a great scene. Of course, all this wisdom is lost on the impetuous youth. Wisdom is no match for impulse, the rash and the mercurial stronger than the seasoned and more measured (although maturity is just as capable of violence).

And from there we are off. The action scenes are great, but those are not what kept me in the movie. What did was the fact that there are two timelines at stake here, and in one, Old Joe loses his girlfriend in the future, and in the other, Young Joe loses his in the present. And there is the life of some young kids on the line, all three of them needing killing as an unknown one of them will become a criminal mastermind (somewhere around puberty, I would guess). Or will he? Do we have the right to kill people just because of what they might do? Especially since this differing “time lines” business seems to offer some version of free will?

But it is Young Joe’s movement back to the community of man, however tainted that community is, that really got me. You would think Johnson wouldn’t have bothered with something like that, what with the cool gimmick, the shtick, the conceit, the device, that he has come up with, but he has Joe learn to care for someone besides himself. Young Joe learns to love his girlfriend and her kid, and won’t let Old Joe kill either of them, which Classic Joe feels he must do to alter the terrible future (which contains the mastermind and the death of his girl). Both Joes are acting out of love, even though a complete lack of belief in the power of love is practically a job requirement for both of them.

Is there a third timeline where everything and everyone can be saved? Do people really change? The Future Joe does seem to have become a somewhat different man (although he still can rack up quite a body count). The best scenes in the movie are where Young Joe confronts old, and where Young Joe confronts Cid, his girlfriend’s (played by Emily Blunt) child. Cid is obviously emblematic of the younger Joe, before he was embittered by the loss of his mother, and all the useless death and pointless dystopian butchery and drugging and whoring and general dissipation and debauchery. Can a man choose love in a world where it has not only gone out of style, but seems not only a stupid but a suicidal choice? And will it make any difference in a world that doesn’t seem to care, a world that seems willfully opposed to any happy endings, that seems to insist that even if the two men act out of love, one of the girlfriends must meet a horrible death, and all three kids, including Cid? (Who may, on one timeline, embittered by the loss of his Mom, become the dreaded Rainman, the criminal mastermind with special telekinetic powers who decides to close everyone’s “loops” by having all the future killers go back in time to be slaughtered by their present ones, thereby closing their “loops”?)

No spoilers here. Let’s just say that people, and movies, can surprise you.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, February 27, 2015

Comfort Reading—What Does It For You?

Last Sunday afternoon I slipped a disk. This came on top of a couple of weeks of increasing misery—the abscessed tooth, the itchy skin rash from the medicine for the abscessed tooth, and before that the other thing, what was it? Oh, crap, right, the colonoscopy. Increasing misery. After exhausting all the available reruns of Foyle's War I understood that the time had come to read something, preferably something comforting.

The First World War has always interested me. My grandfather was a Royal Canadian Army officer who fought in the trenches. So I like stories about that, and about spies and sabotage, like the story I told you last week where Werner Horn tried to blow up the Vanceboro bridge. In the course of researching Von Papen the spymaster, Germany's naval attache in the U.S., I came across a wonderful book by another spymaster of the early days of the war, a more competent man than von Papen, or so he says. Captain Franz von Rintalen wrote The Dark Invader: War-Time Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer, about his days in the sabotage business before the United States entered the war.

American munitions factories were in full production, and though the U.S. was officially neutral, the arms were shipped only to the Allies, since the Central Powers were effectively blockaded by the British navy. Von Rintalin recruited an inventor of timed incendiary devices and a ring of Irish dockworkers in New York, who hid the devices on ships in places other than where the munitions were stored. Far at sea, fires broke out. The munitions had to be soaked with water to save the ships, ruining the cargo but sparing the men.

At some point the clumsy Von Papen was exposed and expelled from the country for activities of his own. He claimed diplomatic immunity as he traveled through Britain, but the British made him surrender his papers. The whole network of German spies and saboteurs in America was blown by the fleeing diplomat's check-book stubs, carefully inscribed with names and addresses. Von Rintalin went to jail. The Irishmen went home and started the Easter Rebellion.

But I was talking about comfort reading. My favorite book about spy work in the First World War is Manning Coles' Drink to Yesterday, a bittersweet account of the life of a British spy in Germany, followed by the more upbeat sequel, A Toast to Tomorrow. I could read those again and again, and after I did the thing to my back (it's getting better, by the way, not to worry) I rushed to the bookshelf (as best I could) and got them down to read once more.

I'm proud to say that the best of my own work has been considered comfort reading. My first agent told me she read one of my manuscripts while recovering from gum surgery. You might ask, why don't I write spy stories, if I like them so much? The answer is that the life of a secret agent is completely foreign to my experience. I would have nothing true to say about it. Okay, there was the time forty years ago, at the height of the divorce paranoia, when I dressed up in a wig to take the train to Manhattan and meet a man for a steak dinner. That was good for a couple of sinister thrills. I'll tell you the story sometime.

Or maybe not.

© 2015 Kate Gallison