Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.

Why do old books smell so great?

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Three words for you: “woody,” “smoky” and “earthy.”

Thanks to Doug Hackney for letting me know about this!

Musical legacy

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

We don’t always recognize the people who’ve made a significant impact on our lives. Sometimes it’s the engineers we can’t name who built the roads and bridges we drive; sometimes it’s the people who created the systems we use; sometimes it’s the person who designed, say, the handy squeezable ketchup or mustard bottle. Sometimes it’s artists, and sometimes it’s the business people behind the artists. Usually, those business people behind the artists get a (deservedly) bad reputation.

Which made it all the sweeter today to read about a tribute to Robert Hurwitz, who just retired as the head of Nonesuch Records.

During his 33 years heading up Nonesuch, Hurwitz helped helm the careers of John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Randy Newman and many others. All of those names, and several others in his professional legacy, can be found in my music collection. It’s nice to see a “suit” get some credit for having taste, and for helping the masses share in that taste. Although I’d never heard of him before, it turns out that for decades Robert Hurwitz has helped to curate my listening.

Thank you, sir. Enjoy your retirement.

No news is bad news

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

The New York Times is ending its coverage of regional theatre, and restaurants and culture in its suburban delivery areas. (Here’s more on that story.) If you’re a theatre in New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island or Connecticut, that’s pretty bad news.

On one of the theatre groups I belong to on Facebook, people were predictably outraged. Sample comments:

“This is shortsighted and totally lacking in regard for the need of the wider community for access to its own cultural scene!!!!!!”

They seem to be denying their motto’All the news that’s fit to print.’ “

“As long as I get my Justin Bieber updates. That’s all that matters.”
 “They’ve seen their future. So I hear they’re starting a Justin Bieber SECTION.”

It was these last two that got my goat. So I posted this:

“This is the point at which I ask, ‘How many of us who are shocked and upset have been PAYING to read the New York Times?’ Some, sure — but the numbers are way down. I remember when the LA Times had 1,000,000+ readers in print; now it’s… 250,000? The advertisers started leaving these papers after the subscribers started leaving. I’m now the ONLY LA Times subscriber on my block. On a similar note: How many people here are willing (and PROUD) to write for The Huffington Post, for free, while its founder made millions from it and while its unpaid parasitic repurposing of newspaper content was helping to eat those newspapers alive? Newspapers have had to PAY to cover those stories (unlike the HuffPo). Without our support, they’ve been forced to make tragic cuts.”

So, yes, I was once again on a familiar tear about The Huffington Post, which enriches a select handful of early investors, including Arianna herself, while asking all the writers to contribute for free, and while taking paid newspaper content, aggregating it, and turning it into clickbait.

Today, though, I realized how even more apt my comparison of that organ to a parasite was. Unchecked, parasites kill the host — and then they themselves die. Newspapers in their present form won’t — can’t — survive. But the need for actually reliable news, the sort that comes from having paid news gatherers go out and develop connections and do research and develop and report stories, will continue. It may even become more valuable, as it becomes more scarce, and that means it will cost more. Maybe that will mean that the HuffPo, with a business model built on unpaid writing and filched reporting, would have to pay for its content. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver delivered a hilarious but tragic takedown of what’s happening to newspapers. This, I promise you, is well worth your 19 minutes.

 

What time is it?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

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It’s time for the LA Times, which is part of “Tronc,” to hire a new copy editor. Because that’s not a clock.

Not getting squashed

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

I just finished reading this incomparable piece of writing, by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker, about playing squash competitively while past your prime. I can’t attest to his game, but in his writing, Friend nails every point.

Two late authors

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Two authors died today, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.

Ms. Lee wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that was largely derided in its debut as being unbelievable, because the 6-year-old narrator was too wise for her age. I didn’t care; the book, in its simple goodness and in its arch morality tale, stuck with me, as it did with so many.

More recently, Ms. Lee was reputed to have written — or to have had discovered — another novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” I read several excerpts of that book, which featured several of the characters from “Mockingbird,” but 20 years on, and decided quickly that a full visit to that book would have ruined the previous book for me, so I stayed away. I also suspected that the novel was not so much “discovered” as cobbled together, or raised by witchcraft in some fashion, because of the millions of dollars in sales that would surely follow. (And did.)

So, in full, I read one book by Harper Lee. That was half of her oeuvre, and it was the half that counted.

The great contemporary Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote dozens of non-fiction works and collections of essays, of which I read a few, and seven novels, of which I read four in translation, which I consider to be the essential four:  “The Name of the Rose,” “Foucault’s Pendulum,” “The Island of the Day Before,” and Baudolino.”

“The Name of the Rose” was a masterpiece — a 1983 novel that greatly affected me in its ruminations over the nature of justness and proper religious observance, and also as a reminder of what was the 1300’s had in common with our own time, and what was strictly alien. In the novel, the lead character, a monk serving as a Sherlock Holmes of his time, is the owner of the latest innovation:  an early set of spectacles that enable his fading eyes to read. The entire novel centers around the question of what is proper for an abbey in its obeisance, to wit:  Is it proper to laugh, given that no mention is made in the Bible of Jesus ever having laughed? When your worldview is based entirely upon a literal reading of an ancient text, this is a pressing question, and is made immediately relevant to every literate reader asking himself every day what is right, and what is wrong. That vast passages of “Rose” are in untranslated Latin served only as a further inducement to think a little harder, to research, to parse out the meaning. This was a book that one leaned into intellectually, and, at the same, it was a thriller, with a murderer on the loose. It stands as a great achievement.

“Foucault’s Pendulum” (1989) is even moreso a game, in which Eco debunks the conspiracy theory from “The Holy Blood the Holy Grail” (which I had read previously) that Jesus had sired an heir and that a conspiracy everafter secretly controlled human events. “Holy Blood,” which in its center photo spread hilariously included an image of the authors’ believed current descendant of Jesus, is the book that ultimately  led us to the accursed Dan Brown novels that started with “The Da Vinci Code.” As a novel, the fault in “Foucault’s Pendulum” is a series of extended dream sequences / journal entires that can be completely skipped; my brother Ray had warned me of the time, and I sneered inwardly at the thought of skipping any part of a book, but later I found to my dismay that he’d been entirely right, that the journal entries were irrelevant, and that the novel would have been stronger without them. Nevertheless, all the other areas of the book are extraordinarily compelling, as one is pulled along on the trail of a conspiracy, and led to a very strong conclusion, with Eco again playing his strong cards:  marrying an intellectual pursuit with a classic suspense thriller.

With “The Island of the Day Before,”  my interest in Eco diminished, and my capacity for skipping pages grew. I even found it unable to finish the book. What I remember of it is that it took place on a ship where time seemed fractured — and that I didn’t care a lot, in fact at all, about any of it. It was now 1995, 12 years after “Rose,” and I’d discovered many other authors, most notably Rilke and Tolstoy, far more worthy of my time.

In 2001, having almost sworn off Eco, I put “Baudolino” on my Christmas list — and found myself surprised and delighted by it. Here, again, was the Eco I enjoyed: a wry commentator and occasional satirist drawn to the story of an earlier Christianity, but skeptically. In addition, it afforded the opportunity to learn a lot about the 13th century AD, the Holy Roman Empire of its time, and a great early Germanic leader — things I’m always curious about and don’t know enough about. And the book was a romp — it wasn’t a great achievement along the lines of “The Name of the Rose,” but it was fun to read, pulling you along like iron filings to a magnet.

And then… Eco produced three more novels, and I left him behind. “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” sounded too close in theme to “The Island of Day Before,” centering around a character confused about his whereabouts and his past, and by the time “The Prague Cemetery” (2011) and then “Numero Zero” (2015) came along, I had moved on. Given that I have 79 novels on my bookcase waiting to be read, it’s doubtful I’ll return to Eco.

I’ve had a history with both of these authors, as each of us has with anyone whose art we’ve followed, whether it’s David Bowie or Eugene Ionesco or Darrin Bell. I never expected anything great again from Harper Lee, but I’m glad for what I got (both the novel and the movie version). With Umberto Eco, it only gradually occurred to me that “The Name of the Rose” was a singular achievement, and that I shouldn’t expect it again. How delightful it was, then, to find in 2011, after reading all 11 novels of Julian Barnes, that his most recent, “The Sense of an Ending,” was his very best. All of them, mind you, had been good, with all of them having flashes of greatness, but “The Sense of an Ending” showed a greater sense of wisdom and insight than all its predecessors put together — its lucidity about adulthood remains astonishing, and so the novel remains one of my most recommended. (That, and this one, which I promise you is elegantly written and unexpectedly incredibly moving.) I felt rewarded for having stayed in the game.

 

 

Not funny about money

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

Eric Idle being straightforward about how much money he’s made — from Monty Python and everything else. Until very recently, it’s been surprisingly little.

When you read this, bear in mind what he leaves out:  the cuts taken by managers, agents, and the lot.

I know a well-known and highly regarded, somewhat legendary, star of Broadway, dance and choreography, a person who is a two-time Tony winner and who was a key element in major premieres (including by Sondheim). I used to visit him in his very nice home that had once been Gloria Swanson’s. One thing he clarified for me:  All of his money actually came from real estate — flipping houses, including to Jack Nicholson, who simply wanted to knock down the adjacent house (my friend’s) and paid dearly for it.

So part of me isn’t surprised that Eric Idle didn’t make bank until he was 61. At age 72, and having been famous for about 50 years, Idle is reportedly worth $15 million, and most of that is recent. Given his profile, that’s not a lot of money in Los Angeles, and it’s not a lot when  you consider he’s paying tax in three countries (the U.S., England and France).

Calling all copy editors

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Dear Los Angeles Times, I write about you out of sorrow, not anger. (Far be it from me to kick you while you’re down. I am rooting for you, Los Angeles Times.) But in the spirit of love, I have to ask, Do you still employ copy editors? Is there anyone — even one person — assigned to read the paper before it goes to print?

I’ve read only half of the Arts & Books section so far this morning. I’m going to keep reading, but it’s going to be difficult to forget these two things I’ve found already.

Here’s the second-worst thing I’ve found, in the Ask Amy column, where Amy advises a person not to tell her (or his) boss about future plans to leave the position and move away:

Work toward your goal, and once you have protected for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.

Fine advice, if you can understand it. In this use, “protected” is a transitive verb, meaning it requires an object. Without that object, the verb makes no sense, and we’re left to wonder just what should be protected. Herself? Her own ass? Let’s see what happens if we supply our own potential objects for this verb.

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected humankind for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Cthulhu for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Ted Cruz for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

Really, it could be anything.

Granted, this was in the Ask Amy column, but given her response, I wouldn’t Ask Amy anything. She can’t communicate. You might Ask, but her response is a Zen riddle. Perhaps a copy editor should have caught this and inserted the most likely object:  “yourself.” Now it would read, “Work toward your goal, and once you have protected yourself for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.” It’s still clumsy, because, again, Amy’s no writer, but it’s more intelligible. Maybe the best response Amy could have written would have been this one:  “No. Don’t.” Which is awfully direct — but I have to think that anyone who writes to a newspaper column to seek advice on whether or not to tell her boss months in advance that she’s considering moving to the big city, and that therefore said boss should strongly consider hiring the new applicant for the assistant position who would be ideal for taking over her job, well, I think that person needs a stern talking-to. About not being a bonehead.

That was the second-worst thing I found in today’s paper. Here’s the worst-written thing I’ve found. (So far. Bear in mind, I’m only a few pages into today’s edition.)

In a roundup about the 2015 edition of “Best American Comics,” Carolina Miranda writes of one artist:

“Originally born in Ireland, David Sandlin moved to the U.S. as a teenager and now lives in New York, where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts.”

Okay, hands up, who knows what David Sandlin has in common with Jesus. Anyone? That’s right — each of them was born more than once. Jesus was born, died, and then was born again as a grown man coming back from the dead in a cave. David Sandlin was originally born in Ireland, and then I guess he was born somewhere else (it goes unnamed), and then he moved to the U.S. Given his two births, Sandlin must be an interesting character. I was born only once (that I know of), and I don’t remember it at all. I’d like to ask Sandlin about his own experiences.

I wonder if the unfortunate construction of “Originally born in Ireland…” is actually the result of bad editing (as opposed to no editing). Or if it is indeed Carolina Miranda’s mistake. If it’s the latter, it’s the sort of mistake that we all make at one point or another, and I’m sure she winced when she saw it in print. I enjoyed the rest of her piece, and was thrilled to see alternative comics given a two-page spread in the sadly dwindling newspaper — but now the big takeaway is the glaring error.

More of these errors were caught and corrected when newspapers could afford more and better copy editors.

Sometimes I wish I could read the way most people read. But mostly, I wish we had more and better editors.

A., Ken A.

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Last night, I took my two sons and my 87-year-old retired-CIA-agent friend Ken to see the latest James Bond flick. It’s our routine: I take Ken to see all the spy films, and then he tells me what they got wrong.

Of the recent remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which was well-reviewed but with warnings that it was “slow,” Ken said, “Too much action.” Too much to be realistic, in other words.

He very much liked “Bridge of Spies” — as did I! — except for the part when a CIA agent pulls out ID to show to Tom Hanks’ character. “We didn’t have that,” Ken said. Of course — because then they would have been identifiable.

Re “Spectre,” Ken found the death count unrealistic. “The first thing they told us,” Ken said, when he was initiated into the CIA in the 1950s, “was don’t kill anybody.” I pointed out that James Bond has a literal license to kill, but Ken was unmoved. He did like the special effects, though.

Not having a great expertise in the actuality of spycraft, I’m free to enjoy these films completely. I am, however, well-versed in the realities of being a certain age. I could not buy that Daniel Craig, who at this point is only slightly younger than Ken, could jump 30 feet from the parapet of an Italian villa then run to his car, get in and drive. I have no doubt he could make that jump — and die. Or crush his spine. Or lie collapsed in a heap on the cement below, his ankles and legs broken. But jumping and running in his perfect designer suit and his dress shoes? No. Craig and I are similar ages and build and lately I find that I’m surprisingly careful walking down my two front steps.

Even more than that, I don’t buy the fashion. In fact, I can’t buy the fashion, and neither could James Bond. Either a British civil servant makes far more than I would expect — and why hasn’t their conservative government put a lid on that? — or his wardrobe is pure fantasy. Mind you, I was enamored with every bit of everything he wore throughout the movie. I liked the chukka boots, I loved the khaki biker jacket from Matchless, and I admired every one of the suits (from Tom Ford, a designer so extraordinary that, according to his website, he lives in three cities — quite a feat, heretofore accomplishable only by either Doctor Manhattan or Doctor Who). I wanted all of it. Even the sunglasses, and I don’t wear sunglasses. I raced home to jump online and see what it all was, where it could be had, and how many Swiss bank accounts I’d have to raid. Happily, GQ of course did an entire spread on 007’s wardrobe. Well, the sunglasses alone are $405. Granted, that’s to cover both eyes, but still. The jacket is $1325 (when converted from British pounds), so perhaps I’ll keep a lookout for it at Nordstrom Rack.

Or, I could buy knockoffs.

Just now I found this knockoff site, which claims, “This brown James Bond Suit is a reproduced version that is inspired from the Hollywood Movie ‘Spectre’. Daniel Craig wore this Brown Suit in Spectre as James Bond.” But, see, here’s the thing. I don’t know if they got the stitching right, but I do know they didn’t get the wording right. Not only did he not wear this suit, saying it’s “brown” shows that you don’t understand at all. True designers would call it “dun” or “ecru” or “saddle.” Not BROWN, for God’s sake. When the entire point is CLASS — unattainable class, in the historically formidable and oppressive British manner, a manner that says we have THIS and you have NOUGHT, using the word BROWN signifies that you have NOUGHT, and your knockoffs are no doubt NOUGHT. (See how I’ve used “nought” rather than “naught”? That’s because I’m using a British term — i.e., I’m working within the subtleties of language, as one could do with fashion knockoffs. If one were better at it.)

On the drive home, Ken regaled us with tales of actual spying, including one where he and his colleagues sat in a stadium in Austria where they knew the KGB would be. They went there expressly to watch from afar with binoculars and to write down who was there. This is not the sort of thing I’ve seen James Bond do in any of his dozen-plus films, but granted, he’s MI6, not CIA. As they scanned the crowd and found their opposing number, detailing each face, Ken and his cohorts came onto the last one — and that one was holding binoculars, scanning Ken and his group, while someone next to him jotted down names. That’s the sort of irony that would make for a good spy film from the Coen Brothers, but not for a Bond film. Moreover, I got the impression that everyone involved was just wearing whatever they were wearing, and that everyone could afford it.