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


Two late authors

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.



The arts that bind

February 15th, 2016

My friend Jodie Schell — a fine actress and rock and roll singer  — shared this on Facebook three years ago. I meant to post it then, but forgot, but I recently found it and it still speaks to me.

“The guy hired to fix the floors in our building has been here all week but doesn’t speak English. He never talks to anyone but when he thought he was alone he would sing these gorgeous ballads. I wish I could speak Spanish, but I can’t so I spoke up today and said, ‘Beautiful voice. Beautiful voice.’

“He tried to talk music but I couldn’t understand. So he said: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water?’ …’Yes,’ and I laughingly started to sing it. He said ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ …’Yes’ and I started singing that too. Then he slowly and painstakingly tried to explain that in Guatemala he was a professor of language and ‘tiaretra? tietra? what?…oh literature! oh wow.’ – but moved to the states because his son wants to live closer to his mother. I brought up Pedro Calderon de la Barca. He brought up Walt Whitman. And we laughed about how little and how much we understood from each other. He snagged my post-it pad and wrote Alejandra Guzman and Joan Manuel Sarret (I guess that’s my homework).

“Before he left, he explained in a lot more broken English, ‘I [studied] poems to get closer to woman. But …in the end it made me …human.’ “

Respect for the dead

February 14th, 2016

Respect comes from honesty. You can’t respect opinions if they aren’t honest, and you can’t respect people if you aren’t honest about them.

So, out of respect for the late Antonin Scalia, I have this to say:  Sure, he was a “strict constructionist” — until it came to Bush v. Gore, that is, whereupon he and the rest of the majority on the Supreme Court twisted themselves into pretzels to halt the recount and name Bush the “winner.” Without Scalia, we would’ve had no Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of people would still be alive, thousands of soldiers and civilians wouldn’t have been horribly maimed, and we’d have trillions more in the treasury.

Think about that.

And ask yourself if that isn’t what should go onto the tombstone. Out of respect for the truth.

Web of confusion

February 12th, 2016



Who created Spider-Man? Was it, as credited, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko? Or was it Jack Kirby, who claimed authorship of the signature costume? Or was it… Halloween-costume company Ben Cooper? (Steve Ditko says no.)

This gets my vote

February 12th, 2016


Yesterday at a luncheon, a woman with a mic was asking rhetorically, “What do we call that thing where you do something again and again, expecting a different response?” I leaned over to the woman next to me and said, “Voting.”

One thing I would vote for again and again is “Candidate Confessions — a 2016 Cabaret,” a show about all the “major” 2016 presidential candidates (it’s tough to call them “major” when they’ve even included Jim Gilmore) that the folks at Second City in Hollywood were nice enough to invite me to. If you think it would be hard to make  Donald Trump and Ted Cruz look even more absurd, this show will change your mind. As a cabaret, the show is built around original songs, almost all of them funny and unexpected. I especially enjoyed Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz competing for who could be more “Latino” (with Bush trotting out his Mexican wife), Chris Christie finally getting to sing his version of “Born to Run,” and Carly Fiorina whipping up a new spell for us. Big, big highlights:  a spot-on Ben Carson (courtesy of Choni Francis) so funny it was hard for me to recover from; a closing number (also by Francis) that alone makes the entire show worth seeing; and anything that prominently featured Sarah Oliver (especially that Fiorina bit).

If you’ve got an hour or so and prefer your laughable politics to be on stage, go see this.

The good news

February 10th, 2016

For Carly Fiorina, ending her campaign provides another opportunity to fire people.

Lost Weekend

February 7th, 2016

So this is what it feels like to be sick for three days running.

Late Thursday afternoon, I was driving back from San Diego when my nephew called. He wanted to know if I was going to watch the Democratic debate that night. I took the hint and invited him over and asked him if he’d like dinner too. “Sure!” he said excitedly. When I got back home, I scribbled an order for Ameci Pizza — a large pepperoni pizza, and a large feta cheese pizza, with two dinner salads — handed it and forty bucks to my daughter, and crashed upstairs for half an hour. An hour later, we were all downstairs, the debate on, with me chewing away at my pizza and trying to hear what anyone on the screen was saying while my nephew and my adult son engaged in a loud conversation seemingly about politics but actually about nothing, much in the way that the endless footnotes, end notes, and side notes in a piece by David Foster Wallace claim to shed further light but generally occlude anything that’s happening in the main body.

The debate over, I raced glow-in-the-dark cars for 20 minutes with my daughter, then said I was going to bed, and at the very unfashionable hour of 8:30, because suddenly I wasn’t feeling well. In bed, I checked some things out on my laptop, including an animation of the eruption of Vesuvius that should have served as a cautionary tale. Because within an hour it was being re-enacted in my bathroom — both the eruption and the hot lava.

As in the video, my own version went on for hours and hours, but with one difference. In the video, there’s only one eruption. In my version, there are seven. Plus the concomitant lava flows. That ended, finally, at some point yesterday after first light, followed by two days of sweats and chills and countless gagging threats to repeat the entire ordeal.

Some takeaways:

  • If you’re going to be vomiting anyway but desperately need something to drink because now you’re so dehydrated, allow me to recommend Coca Cola. I say that because it takes pretty much the same going up as it does coming down. The same cannot be said for other liquids.
  • If you ever sense in advance that you’re going to be ill for hours on end, I recommend that you do not eat the feta cheese pizza. Feta is a pickled curd cheese that has been submerged in brine. Let that sit in your thoughts for a minute
  • If you’re home in bed for a few days, nothing, nothing you have recorded on your DVR to watch at a later date looks any good
  • Finally, given what you’re going through, when you finally struggle downstairs to watch “The Martian” with your youngest, you can’t help feeling that the guy stranded alone on Mars for a year and a half doesn’t have it nearly so bad

Today, I’m feeling a little better. (After all, I’m writing this.) But yesterday, I was determined to feel better, and stripped the bed and washed the sheets and the comforters, only to wake up soaked again this morning. Either way, I’m not spending another day mostly in bed.

My Iowa caucus prediction

January 31st, 2016

The Iowa caucuses are tomorrow. I’ve been following the polls closely, as well as a great deal of press coverage. Also, I have been to Iowa, to lose about a hundred bucks in a casino a few years ago, and to stop in at a strip club with friends. (Female friends who thought it would be fun. But the club was closed.) Given my obvious expertise, expertise that puts me on equal footing with anyone on MSNBC or Fox News, I feel confident that I can make this prediction regarding the caucus results:  I predict that the winners will be a Republican and a Democrat that the majority of Americans don’t want as president.

In fact, I 100% guarantee this will be the result.

“Heroes,” track by track

January 27th, 2016

If you’re at all interested in how a song recording gets built, or in the music of David Bowie, you’ll want to check this out:  Bowie producer Tony Visconti breaks down the elements  of  “Heroes” into separate tracks, and discusses the recording process. It’s 20 minutes very well spent. (And provides a welcome companion primer to the release of The Beach Boys’ “The Smile Sessions” from a few years ago, which included several discs of bonus tracks where you could hear the “Smile” pieces separately, before they came together.) I especially enjoyed hearing the result of Brian Eno’s “synthesizer in a suitcase,” as well as Bowie’s isolated vocal.

If you’d like to watch this — and, again, I promise you it’s 20 minutes well-spent — do it now. This is from the BBC, and generally they don’t leave special content like this up for long.


Three days post-Bowie

January 14th, 2016

I’ve really had it with this. Instead of all this misery and loss, we need to focus on bringing Bowie back. Who’s in?