5/22/19

Hurry Hurry to Catch Rube Goldberg Exhibit


The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg (through June 9, 2019)
Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions (though May 27, 2019)
Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA)

 {Click images for full-size views}

 
I have fond childhood dreams of chortling over syndicated cartoons featuring the improbable inventions of Reuben (“Rube”) Goldberg (1883-1970). In part that was because of my obsession with his board game “Mousetrap,” but it was also because of Goldberg's backdoor social commentary. As a college student I learned of the philosophical principle known as Occam’s razor*, which is often shorthanded as “the simplest solutions are the best.” That’s not quite what it means but any way we look at it, Rube Goldberg was the anti-Occam’s razor. There was no small task Goldberg couldn't transform into an antigodlin contraption. 

A small but delicious and (alas!) soon-to-close show at Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires dusts off Goldberg’s wit for those who recall it and serves as an introduction for the non-initiated. Goldberg was one of the few people whose name became an adjective; a Rube Goldberg machine is one that uses whimsical and overly elaborate methods to accomplish the mundane. If you're a Wallace and Gromit fan, Wallace's madcap inventions are directly inspired by Goldberg. But even Wallace looks tame in comparison to Goldberg. His alter ego, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, complicated every task, be it shading one’s self from the sun, keeping a buttonhole flower fresh, or polishing shoes. I’m sure there many today that will still find humor in his machine for helping viewers better appreciate modern art.

Goldberg won many awards in his lifetime, but his 1948 Pulitzer was for political cartooning, an overlooked aspect of his career. He saw two world wars and viewed each as a terrible waste. Goldberg called attention to the bitter irony of living in a world that simultaneously promotes the global cooperation and celebrates robust bodies, and one plagued by the eviscerating effects of warfare. Although he held Western Cold War assumptions after World War II, he also saw the atomic arms race as madness rather than deterrence. One can only image his war dead cartoon today, with added crosses for every conflict from Korea and Vietnam through the idiotic Gulf wars. 


I wonder what Goldberg would make of today’s app society. He was one of the first to lampoon self-photography, so I’m sure he’d find lots of fodder in a world of selfies, useless apps, and latter-day Rube Goldberg inventions. I think of Goldberg whenever I read that some investor with more cash than commonsense sinks money into things such as “smart” water coolers, iBeer, and apps that sound like an electric shaver or a flushing toilet. My car’s user’s manual is over 400 pages, which means there’s a lot of senseless gadgetry involved when all one really needs to do is turn it on and put it in gear. (If you’re wondering about the navigation and music systems, those are separate tomes.)  We also have such mindboggling inventions such as microwave scrambled eggs–which take twice as long as making them from actual eggs–underwear built for two, and a putting green you can use when you’re using the loo. (I suppose now we need a virtual putting green that synchs with the flushing toilet sound app.)

Where’s Rube when we need him? Lord knows we need someone to make us laugh at our foibles. For a few more weeks his work will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum. 



A show closing in just a few days at the NRM features painter Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), who was one of the many illustrators and painters trained and/or influenced by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). (That list includes Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell.) Schoonover isn’t as well known but you’ll certainly see Pyle’s handprints all over Schoonover’s canvases. Like most from the Brandywine River School, Schoonover loved dramatic stories of explorers, pirates, knights, and Joan of Arc. He was especially drawn to the American West, the struggle between man and nature, and writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

When he needed to, Schoonover wasn’t afraid to cross into commercial terrain. Note the subtle advertisement in the attached camping scene. Some might find that Schoonover’s work transgresses the porous border between historical and histrionic–his first typewriter painting, for instance–but I quite enjoyed my introduction to his oeuvre.



There is also an exhibit that explores the connections between Rockwell and his friend and one-time therapist Erik Erikson. Erikson has long been among those psychologists whom I most admire. His stages of life theories of psychological development has always made more sense to me than theorists such as Jean Piaget who claim that our basic personalities are already shaped about the time we enter primary school. Who knew that Erikson also sketched and painted? My assessment? As an artist, Erik Erikson was a great developmental psychologist.

Rob Weir 
*Razor means “principle” in philosophy and has nothing to do with removing body stubble!

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5/20/19

Molly Tuttle: May 2019 Artist and Album of the Month


Molly Tuttle
When You're Ready
Compass Records


Looking for the next Alison Krauss? Molly Tuttle has been hiding in plain sight. She's not a fiddle player, but to say that Molly Tuttle plays the guitar well is a bit like saying Van Gogh painted a little. She's the only woman to have been named Guitarist of the Year by the International Blue Music Association and, for heaven's sake, she's just turned 26. It staggers to imagine what she will go on to accomplish.

I was floored to find that, though Tuttle released an EP in 2017, When You're Ready is Tuttle's debut full-length album. Recall can get hazy when you've been listening to an artist since she was in her teens. I've seen Tuttle three times, but now that this California native is making her mark in Nashville, it's probably going to cost more to see her. It will worth every damn penny! The title track alone sounds like a better single than you'll ever hear on commercial radio, but it's just one of 11 stunning tracks Tuttle wrote or cowrote. Tuttle has said that Townes Van Zandt was a huge influence on her songwriting, and you can't do much better in picking a musical role model. 

Let's start with the guitar. Tuttle's the mistress of flat-picking, but lately she's added more firepower to her fretted arsenal. Watch this clip of "Take the Journey." If you're wondering what she's doing, she has transposed claw hammer banjo to guitar. You probably shouldn't try this at home! "Light Came In (Power Went Out)" is another string burner, one whose love-in-the-dark sparks could illumine a village. On the slower-paced "Sit Back and Watch It Roll," Tuttle's guitar creates a meditative groove.

My Alison Krauss comparison is most evident in Tuttle's voice. I intend no disrespect toward Ms. Krauss, but Tuttle's a better vocalist. Call it all of the sweetness, but far more powerful and clarity. On "High Road" Tuttle lays down quiet licks appropriate for a tale of two people going in opposite directions. Listen as she soars and then drops back into heartache terrain. She repeats that feel in "Sleepwalking," which is like a small bird taking flight into a dream-gauzed sky. "Million Miles" is tender and vulnerable, as befits a song about needing to be in that special place with a certain someone who is far away.

This amazing album is supplemented by guest artists such as Nat Smith (Cello), Sierra Hull (cello), Jason Isbell (backing vocals), and Rachel Baiman and Mike Barnett (fiddles). If I had to nitpick a single concern, it lies in splashes of overproduction. Kris Donegan adds electric guitar on several tracks, but it's simply overkill, especially on "Make My Mind Up." I've heard Tuttle sing this song and she doesn't need any help. But let me assure you that this is indeed a trivial point on my part. This is easily the best record I've heard in 2019 and, as you'll see from some of the clips linked in the review, what you hear is genuine, not a bunch of studio tricks. Molly Tuttle is more than ready; she has arrived.

Rob Weir

5/17/19

May 2019 Music: Nels Andrews, April Verch, Taina Asili, Finnish Independents, Sass Jordan



Nels Andrews, Scrimshaw

You will notice several things about folksinger Nels Andrews from the start: he's a contemplative poet, a born storyteller, and reminds you of Richard Shindell in voice and temperament. In fact, he too has a song titled "Wisteria," though Andrews' song is a sweet love song and Shindell's is rumination on the past. Andrews has made his 2012 recording Scrimshaw widely available as a kickoff to a new project that releases in June. The songs on Scrimshaw aren't all maritime in theme, but do draw inspiration from songs and stories that sailors fashioned during long voyages. "Flotsam" is a wanderers' tale whose waltz melody will stick in your head, as will the imploring line leave the romantics alone. "Barroom Bards" is another take on travelers, this one with a cautionary line: Barroom bards and river stones done shine so bright/When you get them home. In a similar vein, "Starboard" draws you in deeper with each line, this one of dreams gone wrong: You come home ragged and you come home curt/We can smell the city on your shirt/By the length of your hem and your torn lapel/We see you've been sinking in the wishing well. It, like "Trident," is a sink-or-swim song and Andrews often doesn't resolve matters for us. In the latter he sings: Then you rise, you're back on the pavement/Your hands in your pocket digging for warmth. I adored this album. It even comes with eye-popping medieval manuscript artwork. One can only imagine what Andrews has up his sleeve in the future, but if you've not heard Scrimshaw you're missing a literate, finely polished gem. ★★★★★

April Verch, Once a Day

The Ottawa Valley has long been a hotbed for country music. April Verch has steadily been moving in that direction and gone full-bore cowgirl on Once a Day, her tribute to country music from the 1950s and 1960s. You will find songs penned by country giants such as Webb Pierce, Connie Smith, and Loretta Lynn. Speaking of Lynn, Verch covers her classic "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man." Yep, that one dates from before feminism took hold, though in its own corny way it's flippant and defiant. Another old chestnut is "A Fool Such asI," which Hank Snow recorded back in 1953. Songs such as these are fun, but it's hard not to contrast them with tunes such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8h281Cjszw" a rollicking fiddle reel drawn from the traditional well. I like Verch's voice, though it may not be for everyone–it's nasal, high, and quirky­–but she's nonpareil when she picks up the fiddle. I'm glad she's having some fun, but I hope future releases won't hide her best gift under a basket. ★★★

Taína Asili, Resiliencia

Taína Asili could be the poster child for strong women who forge their own path. She's a poet and a podcaster, a singer and a feminist, a storyteller and an activist. Resilient women inspired her new album, and she celebrates them on the title track. The instrumentation pays homage to Ms. Asili's Puerto Rican heritage as well as hard rock. Aisili is a veteran of New York State's punk rock scene, but her musical boundaries go way beyond. "Even If" takes on the sexual violation of women, transgressions of boundaries, and misogyny to a decided reggae beat. "Plant the Seed" sings the glories of farming and the land, "Gave It All My Love" has pop hooks, and "Beyond the Stars" spices with Southeast Asian rhythms, courtesy of collaborator Veena Chandra. Elsewhere there are plenty of Afro-Carib melodies inspired by salsa and guaracha. No matter the format, you'll be impressed by Asili's gale-force vocals. Once you hear her sing, it won't surprise you to learn she's also done opera as well as punk, and how many people can say that? Make no mistake, though, Aisili is on a mission of resistance against injustices of all sort. ★★★★  

Finnish Independents, Finnish Home Party

Don't expect kantele or keyed fiddles on Finnish Home Party. Don't expect any Finnish either; all of the songs are in English though all five acts are from the Land of a Thousand Lakes. This album is a spotlight for emerging talent. Anni's songs are moody and dramatic. Try "Lost Ones," in which her piano is drenched in drone guitar and electronic keys. GEA also features keys, though they are more lush and the vocals evoke Enya. "Snow" is intriguing with its rain-like piano notes and mix with strings and bass. Lone Deer Laredo might suggest Texas, but vocalist Paola Suhonen and guitarist Olli Happonen echo the ambient feel of GEA, but with arrangements that are simultaneously more jangly and harder. Sample "Golden Harvest." New Silver Girl opens "Phantom Ride" quietly, but soon amp up for a song that's a cross between punk and New Wave. Sort of what you'd expect from a band that counts among its influences both Dick Dale and Lou Reed. Finally there's Sam Shaky, whose "Too Proud" features cascades of notes and Bowie-like vocals. Shakey calls his music "bittersweet rock." He hails from Kouvala, which he claims is the "most hated city in the country." Will we be hearing more from any of these artists? It's hard to say, but each act is positioning itself for an international market that increasingly communicates in English. Is that a good thing? You be the judge. ★★★

Sass Jordan, #Make Big Noise

Sass Jordan lives up to her handle–Sarah is her given name–and to the title of her recent four-track EP. Jordan currently lives in Montreal, though she's done lots of acting on both sides of the border. How big is her voice? She played Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway play and did a duet with Joe Cocker for The Bodyguard soundtrack. You'll hear some pop-rock on Cinnamon" and "Small Thing."  She ratchets up to arena rock levels on "So Hard" with its power chords and swirling guitar flourishes, and there are echoes of New Wave on "Tell Somebody."  Yeah, Jordan can sing a bit! ★★★★


Rob Weir 

5/15/19

Gender Bending and Lautrec at MFA Boston


Gender Bending Fashion (through August 25, 2019)
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris (through August 4, 2019)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts



Have you seen Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando? If not, you should. It's a mind-blowing work that casts the androgynous Tilda Swinton in the title role of a tale that will make you think that Ms. Potter was way ahead of the curve in calling into question gender assertions. If you follow up by attending Gender Bending Fashion, a show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), you'll quickly learn that Sally Potter wasn't a pioneer; she merely did her homework.

The MFA show has the glitz, impact lighting, and glamour of a designer's runway, which is appropriate given that many past and present designers have work on display. It might, at first, shock you to witness video footage of a man in high heels rocking form-fitting tights, or another man sporting zombie-like makeup to go with his golden boots and flowing flowered dress. Perhaps you might wonder if current discussions of gender fluidity and its dizzying array of terms–agender, bigender, cisgender, intersexual, Third gender, etc.–have gone too far, perhaps even transgressed the borders of absurdity and obscenity. Reserve your judgment.

As curators Michelle Tolini Finamore and Penny Vinick remind us, gender barriers have long been porous and it's not just fashion designers who have noticed, though they have certainly exploited it more than most. Marlene Dietrich shocked audiences when she donned a tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco, and Katherine Hepburn scandalized traditionalists when she started wearing tailored pants in 1931. Okay, so Dietrich and Hepburn would look fabulous wearing shredded newspaper and bottle caps, but they weren't pioneers either–merely two women powerful enough to do as they wished. Vaudeville performers, double-voiced singers, emcees, and black vaudevillians obliterated gender dress lines decades earlier, and even they were upstarts. What, for example, does one do with Scotsmen in kilts? Or Greeks in chitons. Is it worthwhile even to open discussions of the foppish costumes and nosebleed shoes worn during the Baroque era? Lest you think Americans have more commonsense (whatever that might mean), gaze upon a 19th century painting of two young boys in dresses. The custom of the day was that a male child wore gowns until "breeched," that is placed in trousers, around age 9.


In other words, fashion has long been both a mirror of custom and a cultural provocateur. Think of bloomers, Edwardian dandies, the "masculine" shirtwaists of the Gibson girls, 1950s Teddy Boys and Girls, unisex clothing, and wear-whatever-the-hell-you-wish hippies. Each time the old guard reacted with horror and predicted the impending collapse of Western values. Each time, of course, we got over it.

In the category of what goes around comes around, the first thing that confronts us at the MFA are clips from a 2004 Viktor&Rolf show titled "One Woman Show." In this case, "woman" is used ironically and ambiguously. The star model is none other than Tilda Swinton, though you might not recognize her in what looks to be a form-fitting black onesie blended with a ruffled fan on steroids. The latter is open at the collar and plunges toward the waist, but none of the exposed flesh suggests femininity. If anything, Swinton looks as if she might be a castrati. It reminded me of a line from Orlando in which the formerly male Orlando awakes as a woman, gazes upon her female body, and remarks, "Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex."

Indeed. What we learn most from the MFA show is that we fret too much over perceived differences. Take it from another gender bender: David Bowie. The cover of his 1971 album The Man Who Sold the World featured Bowie sprawled across a daybed attired in a tasteful frock and staring demurely at the camera. That is, if you happened to live in Britain. North American releases used various alternative covers: Bowie's face, Bowie kicking his leg into the air, or a truly absurd cartoon of a man carrying a gun.

Oh, for heaven's sake! Have we finally gotten over this sort of thing? Yes and no. We celebrate Janelle Monáe's transgressions of gender boundaries, but how comfortable are we when we see a man wearing a dress consisting of yards of shingled grey material and carrying a white parasol as if he were on his way to sip mint juleps at a cotillion? I confess that it made me wonder what the point is, but then again I've seen pictures of myself from the 1970s wearing stack heels and butt-ugly polyester trousers. (No, you may not see these shots!) Perhaps today's fashion rebels are no more dangerous than Hepburn in her pants. Kudos the MFA for a provocative show. Go ahead and enjoy it. It only looks dangerous. 


Also on the bohemian side of the ledger, the MFA is also showing Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. It's always wonderful to view a Lautrec show. His career was a short as his stature (4'8" due to a genetic disorder) and his life. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) died from a combination of absinthe addiction and syphilis at age of just 36, yet left behind an astonishing output of more than 6,500 works (paintings, posters, drawings, ceramics, stained glass). The MFA assembled 200 pieces–some from contemporaries ranging from Cassat and Degas to Sargent and Tissot–mostly on the subject of Parisian celebrities known to Lautrec. That pack included performers such as Jane Avril, Sarah Bernhardt, Aristide Bruant, and Loïe Fuller, but since Lautrec spent much of his time in brothels, can-can houses, and salacious cabarets as well as legitimate clubs, theaters, and the ballet, we also see the Parisian underbelly: prostitutes, lesbians, johns, gamblers, and hard drinkers. 

 
Objectively speaking, we don't learn much about Lautrec that we don't already know. If I had to pick the two takeaway points, the first would be that Lautrec's infatuation with celebrities sometimes approximated what we'd today call fanboy culture. The second is a reminder that the Paris he knew in both its glamour and its unseemliness was largely a new city. The Paris most of us think of today is the reinvention of Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to open up the city and bring air and sunlight into it. Much of old Paris disappeared between the years 1853 and 1870, less than two decades before Lautrec arrived to the Montmartre section of the city in 1889. He lived in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge until 1894.

I always enjoy Lautrec, but he's been done a lot lately, including a 2009 show at the Clark in Williamstown and one at the National Gallery in 2018, both of which focused on Paris. There was also a show at the Currier in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2018 that was organized by the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA was late to the party on this one.

Rob Weir

5/13/19

The Great Believers is Moving But Falls Short of Its Hype


The Great Believers (2018)
Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 432 pages.
★★★

Rebecca Makkai is a fine wordsmith. At her best, she’s also a superb storyteller. Structure and consistency are other matters altogether. I’ll return to these, but first let’s look at the tales she tells.

The Great Believers toggles between 1985 and 2015. The first date was the height of the AIDS crisis, two years before AZT was widely available and longer still until it and other drugs were affordable and safe. An estimated 325,000 gay men died during the worst days of the crisis, prompting activists to compare AIDS to the Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were hardest hit by AIDS. Makkai instead takes us to Chicago, which had its own “Boystown” subculture of bars, clubs, bathhouses, and casual sex. Soon it too was hollowed out by AIDS as surely as if it were a warzone.  

Makkai tells this part of her story through a large cast of gay men—too many in my estimation—before the focus narrows. We meet the ironically named Yale, as he and several other characters are Northwestern grads. He works in a gallery seeking to be taken seriously and is the long-term partner of Charlie, the editor of Out Loud, a leading gay newspaper that advocates safe sex. Caution wasn’t what some Boystown residents wanted to hear; several worried that the bathhouse culture they built would crumble to nothingness. In many ways, though, the main character isn’t present. Nico Marcus is among the first to die of AIDS and Makkai uses him as the pivot around which others rotate: his black partner Terrence; his friends Teddy, Bill, and Richard Campo, a famed photographer; and Nico’s grieving sister, Fiona, who takes on the role of caregiver to the dying. There is also Julian, who is the Typhoid Mary of AIDS.

That’s quite a few characters and to it we add gallery staff, especially Cicely Pearce. Makkai interjects another story atop her AIDS drama: that of Fiona’s dying Aunt Nora who wishes to donate art work to the gallery. Her stash was collected when she lived in Paris in the 1920s and was the lover of little known painter Ranko Novak. The biggest obstacle is Nora’s family, who thinks she should sell it. In a moment of candor, though, Nora tells Yale she chose him because Paris in the 1920s was also a warzone of grief and death.  

What we learn from the 2015 part of the book is that Fiona is really the main character of the novel. Thirty years on, she is divorced and estranged from her daughter Claire, who disappeared into a cult in the 1990s­ and severed all ties with her family. Fiona thinks she might be in Paris and goes there to see if she can find her. This works for Makkai’s circular structure. That is, if you buy into the idea that Nora’s Paris of the 1920s and Fiona’s of 2015 is a clean connect-the-dots dual mystery. Another point of view might call this contrivance. That particular judgment is bolstered by the all-too-neat reappearance of key 1980s figures. I’m less bothered by this—most novelists resolve plots through coincidences that seldom occur in real life—than I am that the 2015 story feels thin compared to the moving 1985 sections.  

There is also the question of equivalency. I don’t wish to diminish the trauma of a mother’s attempt to track down a wayward offspring, but Claire’s voluntary absence hardly compares with the involuntary carnage of Boystown. Some might say it cheapens the latter. Makkai’s idea of taking us from crisis to post-crisis to new crisis was a good one, but there is a palpable sense that these themes were clearer in Makkai’s mind than upon the page. I often felt as if I was reading a novella within a novel that could have easily been a postscript. In like fashion, the book’s resolution—a sort of resignation—can be read as either honest or forced. We are to infer that war (broadly defined) victimizes randomly and leaves guilt-ridden survivors in its wake.

The Great Believers is about trauma and tragedy, loss and gain, surrender and perseverance. Muse upon this as you contemplate the book’s purposefully ambiguous title. I admired the book more than I liked it. It is overly long and could have lost 100 pages or so by cutting extraneous characters and threads. The first third is especially confusing until you sort out who is central and who is just passing through. I nearly gave up several times. I was glad I forged ahead, as parts of the book are deeply affecting, but I won’t join those who have praised it to the skies. It’s a good book, but it falls short of its hype.

Rob Weir         
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5/10/19

61 a Great Drama, but Mediocre Film

61  (2001)
Directed by Bill Crystal
HBO/Warner Brothers, 129 minutes, TV-MA (language)
* * ½

Each spring I watch a baseball movie or two to get myself psyched for May and June–when the games begin to matter more than they usually do in April. This year I decided to watch one I've not see before. 61 recounts the 1961 season when both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris threatened to break what was then the single-season homerun record: Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927.

First, let me get a rant out of the way. Is there a law that says that the music for a baseball film has to be as schmaltzy as polka night in down-market bar? Marc Shaiman's score is insufferable in a we-can't-trust-viewers-to-fashion-their-own-emotions fashion. Not even the Lifetime channel would be able to stomach the 61 score.

Okay, on to the film. 61 was directed by comedian Billy Crystal, a serious baseball fan and devoted Yankees fan. The project was originally done as an HBO exclusive and was later picked up by Warner Brothers for broader distribution. It has many of the earmarks of a TV production: broad character development, a tendency to simplify, a sense of triumphalism, bathos, and infusions of moralism. In other words, it's more light entertainment than masterpiece.

Still, scriptwriter Hank Steinberg knows his way around the keyboard and was nominated for a Writers Guild of America prize for 61. The film was also cast well, especially Barry Pepper as Roger Maris and Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle. Each looks the part. Jane captures Mantle's crooked smile and Pepper channels Maris' straight arrow demeanor. Christopher McDonald also sticks out as broadcaster Mel Allen, as does Peter Jacobson as sports journalist Artie Green.  

We open to documentary footage from 1998 when the Cardinals Mark McGwire was set to obliterate Maris' record. Members of the Maris clan were on hand to witness the event and were charitable in ways that Babe Ruth's widow Clare had not been 37 years earlier*.  From that point on, we are thrust back to the 1961 season and the media frenzy that ensued. We are so used to media circuses these days that it's easy to forget they were relatively rare back then, unless you were a jetsetter with a trail of paparazzi on your tail.

In 1961, baseball was decidedly America's pastime. The season opened with Maris as the reigning MVP, having hit 39 homers and driven in 112 runs in 1960, but "The Mick," as Mantle was dubbed, was the local golden boy. Another thing that might surprise is that personal lives were not scrutinized as much in the early 1960s, which was a good for Mantle, a heavy drinker and a womanizer, though he had a wife and kids back in Oklahoma. We later found out that he and Whitey Ford were also peeping toms. As the summer and the bats heated up, New Yorkers were pulling for Mantle to break Ruth's record. The media hyped competition between the two, which was not true. As the movie correctly shows, the M and M Boys–a media creation that became an actual business partnership–were very good friends. Maris even convinced Mantle to share an apartment with him and Bob Cerv, an attempt to keep Mickey healthy and sober. Ironically, Mantle got injured late in the summer, the result of a botched "energy" shot that left him with an ulcerated hip. As Maris got closer and closer, the strain on him was so great it caused patches of his hair to fall out and the boo-birds to come out of the woodwork. In stark contrast to McGwire in 1998, even Ford Frick (Donald Moffat), the Commissioner of Baseball, was against Maris. (He had been friends with and a ghostwriter for Babe Ruth.)

Diehard fans probably know that Frick announced that Ruth's record would stand unless Maris broke it in the same number of games (154). He made it to 59 in game 154, but was stymied by Orioles' knuckleball hurler Hoyt Wilhelm. (Fun fact: former major leaguer Tom Candiotti, who threw a knuckleball, portrayed Wilhelm.) Maris hit number 61 on the last day of the season, game 162. Frick promptly inserted an asterisk beside the record, an indignity that lasted for 9 years until a new commissioner decreed that all records were for a season, however many games that might be.

61 is also about the loss of innocence. Maris was the opposite of The Mick—a guy who married his high school sweetheart Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley), was a devoted father of six, and was polite and painfully shy–not the sort you want to feed to the New York media sharks. To say that Roger Maris did not receive his due is an understatement. He died of cancer in 1985 at just 51 and never saw McGwire break his record, nor is he in the Hall of Fame.

The Maris saga is a compelling story, though Billy Crystal's film is frequently more melodrama than drama. It seeks to be iconic in the way that many sports-as-metaphor-for-life films often do. To reiterate an earlier point, it paints with a broad brush and its  made-for-TV credentials are very much in evidence. Serious baseball fans will not be pleased with portrayals of teammates such as Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Skowron, who appear more as wallpaper than fully realized characters.

61 as a film leaves much to be desired. If, however, you are a younger fan who does not recall those days, 61 will whet the appetite to dig deeper. The rest can relive our youth and grumble about how a great drama was reduced to so-so theater.

Rob Weir

* McGwire would hit 70 homers and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa 66. Barry Bonds subsequently passed them both.

5/8/19

Transcription a Good Read, but Falls Short of the Hype


Transcription
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages.
★★★½

Late in Kate Atkinson’s recent novel, one of her characters remarks, “Nothing is as simple as it looks….There can be many layers to a thing. Like a spectrum.” This snippet of dialogue could easily serve as a summation of the novel.

Transcription is set mostly in 1940, with brief forays ten years in the future. Its main character is Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old who is drawn into service with MI5, Britain’s parallel to the CIA.* It’s the early days of World War II, but late enough that it looks as if Britain will soon be the last European holdout against Nazi Germany. Juliet’s job is precisely as the title suggests; she sits in a room and types transcripts of conversations she can make out–we’re talking technology from nearly 80 years ago–between an MI5 agent Godfrey Toby in an adjacent room chatting with members of the British fascist movement who think he's a Nazi sympathizer. Toby is especially adroit at charming women associated with the fascist underground: Betty Grieve, Trude Hedstrom, and Dolly Roberts, but he’s not made much headway with Mrs. Sciafe, a rich woman who is probably the money conduit. Soon, Juliet is primed to be a spy posing as Iris Carter-Jenkins and charged with ingratiating herself to Sciafe. It doesn’t take Juliet long to realize that rash actions can lead to tragic consequences.

We meet other British spooks, such as Fraulein Rosenfeld, Miles Merton, Oliver Alleyne, Rupert Hartley, and Peregrine Gibbons, the last of whom Juliet holds out hope might become her lover. (She’s desperate to lose her virginity.) Perhaps it surprises to learn that Britain had far right fascist groups when it was at war with Germany. It should not; so did the United States. The reason is simple. During the Great Depression, just a handful of nations avoided economic disaster. Among them were fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some Brits held out hope that Hitler’s troops would roll into London and “save” England. There were veritable (and imagined) Fifth Columns–homegrown enemies–in both the US and Britain. The question was how to discern harmless cranks from real threats.

Transcription is thus a spy novel, but it has a twist. We move forward to 1950, when a no-longer-innocent Juliet is working for BBC Radio. She gets a note threatening to make her pay “for what you did.” Who sent the note? When you’ve been a spy, the list can be long. Against her better judgment, Juliet tries to reconnect with some of her former MI5 colleagues, all the while launching her own investigation. All I will say is that this is a book about moles, agents, double agents, idealism, and agendas that go beyond the stated goal of ferreting out domestic fascists.

Kate Atkinson is a very good prose stylist. I am not, however, convinced that this book warrants the tons of praise heaped upon it. It’s certainly a cut above the pulp spy novels that strain the racks of used bookshops, but it does play to formula. This is glaringly the case in springing a last-minute reveal. I’ve no qualms with this per se–this is what most thrillers and detective novels do–but it feels abrupt because the entire 1950 part of the story is rather thin. Atkinson also assumes her readers are familiar with how values held in 1940 were no longer acceptable in 1950. I know this, but I’m a historian whose job it is to know. I wonder if younger readers will have any idea about the thinly veiled principals to whom she alludes.

I did enjoy Transcription, but it lacks the imaginative touch of Life After Life or A God in Ruins. I recommend you read it, though. Do NOT do the following until you’ve finished: Google Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. This was once big-deal stuff in Britain. Once you know, the gaps in Transcription become crystal clear.

Rob Weir
 
* Technically the CIA was created in 1947 when the World War II Office of Strategic Command was refashioned as the Central Intelligence Agency.  

5/7/19

Thoughts for a May Tuesday



I was sitting by the Mill River at Yup Coffee enjoying the sun, which I'm told is the name of that fiery yellow orb in the sky. Thank goodness it's cloudy again and preparing to rain, he says sarcastically. There's nothing like a cup of Joe, some rushing water, and a bit of warmth to get the brain to shift into high gear. So here are musings on sports and politics–a mix of the trivial and apocalyptic.


1. It feels like it's a good thing the Celtics' season will soon end. 

Remember how the C's were supposed to waltz to the NBA finals? It didn't even come close to playing out that way. What went wrong?

·      Kyrie Irving is an amazing talent, but he's not as good as he thinks he is. Kyrie doesn't make the players around him better, takes too many shots away from other guys, and has never proven that he can carry a team on his own. It won't be a disaster that he's unlikely to come back except….

·      You can forget about Anthony Davis, who probably won't give Boston a second thought once Kyrie walks. That means the Celtics will continue to get crushed close to the rim unless Robert Williams turns out to be a stud, not a spare part.

·      Alas, I think I was right in predicting that Gordon Hayward's elite status ended on Day One of the 2017 season. His injury was just as horrible as it looked. He now looks good on occasion, but Hayward is never going to be great again. Trade him? I would.

·      Is the bloom off the Brad Stevens rose? He looked like a genius when the C's weren't supposed to be good, but is the guy to raise another banner? Maybe not, but he'll get another chance or two as upcoming rosters won't be better than this year's. And the last thing the Celtics need is another bunch of middle of the pack first-round draft "projects." Danny Ainge miscalculated in stockpiling picks.

2. See Democrats. See them commit suicide.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has announced that no candidate opposing an incumbent member can run as a Democrat. Are you freaking kidding me? Some have called this the Anti-AOC Amendment. I'd label it the Sclerotic Sinecure Strategy.

This only makes sense if you think it's fine to have a party full of wheezers older than I. Shall I mention that's it's also a piece of autocratic idiocy that's destined to encourage young folks and people of color to stay home on Election Day? Are the Democrats trying to be as tyrannical strategies as Trump? This latest idiocy reminded me of why I quit the party decades ago and registered as an independent.

3. Stop dawdling and take down Trump.

Democrats continue to tiptoe around Trump for fear of pissing off voters. Hello! Memo: Voters are already pissed off. I'm so sick of hearing the word "moderate" I could hurl. Being statesman-like will not defeat Trump.

Take off the kid gloves. Go after his corporate shenanigans, order the Treasury Department to turn over his tax returns, and indict, indict, indict…. Do to Trump what the GOP did to Bill Clinton: cut off his goolies. Let Trump face "yuge" fines for his crooked business dealings. Make him go before Congress to answer Michael Cohen's charges. Call hearings in which women assaulted by Trump testify. Adopt a Scandal of the Day policy. Rinse and repeat.

Make no mistake; we have crossed the border between embarrassment and danger. The United States cannot afford another four years of this Brownshirt Comb-over, and neither can the planet. It's this simple: If someone doesn't take him down before 2020,  Trump will be reelected, and we're all doomed for sure if we're not already. Eco-disaster looms and we must adopt green policies. Being anti-science is no longer a choice.

4. Unregister and vote for Bill Weld.

You can help the anti-Trump cause by unregistering as a Democrat. Say what? Given the Democrats' search for a backbone, one way to dump Trump is to join me as an unenrolled voter. You can then go to the primary poll, request a GOP ballot and cast it for Bill Weld, who is challenging Trump. This is your at-least-he's-not-nuts strategy.

5. Musical delusions of grandeur.

I was listening to a Dick's Picks compilation of the Grateful Dead this morning–Volume 24. I'll leave the fact that it's fairly pedestrian music and move onto this: There's no rock and roll act not named The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen that has ever made enough good music to warrant 24 volumes! (And, yes, that includes The Rolling Stones, who have been mailing it for the past three decades.) 

6. Major League Baseball needs to save itself from hypesters and analytics freaks.

I've had it with WAR, WAR+, OBPS, launch angle, exit velocity, yada, yada, yada. These clowns are ruining the game. They don't even care about baseball beyond the little fantasy games they like to play. Please go away and do what children used to do: bounce a tennis ball off a wall and play Make Believe.

It's bad enough analytics have sterilized the game, but much worse is that they are ruining young bodies. Players are bulking up so that they can hit tape measure homeruns that still don't go as far as those hit by Mickey Mantle with his alcohol-diminished body. The result is that today's players are strong, but lack flexibility and agility. Things are even worse for pitchers. Tommy John surgery is almost a rite of passage now–even in Little League!

In 2018, the average ticket price for a game was $31 and was over or just under $50 for Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees home games. That's a helluva lot of money to not see your favorite players because they're on the Disabled List.


Rob Weir




5/6/19

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a Charming Debut


Ellie and the Harpmaker (2019)
By Hazel Prior
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.
★★★★

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a quirky little novel whose charm grows the deeper you get into it. Set in Exmoor, which lies near Bristol in the southwest of England, it centers on two loners whose relationship is seldom what you’d imagine. Although Hazel Prior’s story is nothing like that of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there are similarities in tone and the overall unusualness of the two tales.

Dan Hollis is the titular harpmaker. Although Prior never uses the term autism, we suspect he’s on the spectrum. In his isolated barn Dan fashions gorgeous instruments; a small sign proclaiming him the “Exmoor Harpmaker” is the only hint of a shop with nearly three dozen hand-carved harps, each fashioned from wood Dan carefully chooses and adorned with a pebble he plucks from a brook. Dan leaves sales to his sister Jo, as he has no head for business or much of anything else that’s practical. He makes only Celtic harps, which he can tune but cannot play because he has done so since childhood. Dan’s the kind of guy who counts ants and stars, notices the color of socks, brews coffee for its smell but doesn’t drink it, and serves sandwiches to his rare visitors, which he cuts into precise triangles. (It is a major effort to adjust to cutting them into rectangles.)

Overall, Dan is far more at home in the woods and upon the moors than in social situations. Metaphors and irony stump him, and he answers all questions literally and without filters. He has just one friend, Thomas, his postal carrier, though he does claim to have a girlfriend he calls Roe Deer–though her name is actually Rhoda Rothbury, a harper*–whom he knows lives precisely 23.1 miles away. She’s been his girlfriend for eight years, though is doesn’t dawn on Dan that they’ve not been intimate or on a date for six years and that she disappeared for a year.

One day, Ellie Jacobs sees his small sign and impulsively visits Dan’s shop. Thus begins their connection. Dan dubs her “the Exmoor Housewife,” and impulsively gifts her a harp that she cannot play. Ellie is married to Clive, who purports to adore her, though theirs is a jealous, manipulative relationship–so much so he browbeats her into returning the harp. In turn, Ellie tries to hide the fact that she is taking lessons from Roe/Rhoda, that she regularly visits Dan, and that he keeps her harp in his shop.

This sets up a series of situations, some hysterical, some fraught with tension, and some touchingly poignant. There’s even a character named Phineas, who is a pheasant! This is a book about what happens when a guileless innocent is drawn into situations that call for tactful disingenuousness–especially when encountering another as rigid as he, but decidedly not so innocent. It is also one in which individuals who lack confidence and self-esteem find music and affinities that make the soul soar.

If I might return to the unusualness theme, little that I’ve said truly captures this book’s essence. Ms. Prior knows something about the impact of music; she too is a harper. Hans Christian Anderson remarked, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Ms. Prior’s characters aren’t exactly wordless, but both actual music and what we might call the music of the heart help those who struggle to articulate convey their inner natures and build connections.

I will not pretend that Ellie and the Harpmaker is destined to become a literary classic. In parts it is overly sentimental and it occasionally skirts the border of cliché. It is nonetheless a sweet debut that sounds triumphant notes for characters who find joy in simple things and rediscover innocence. To circle back to my opening, it is a novel whose major virtue is its charm.   

Rob Weir


* Although many people use the term “harpist,” years ago acclaimed Scottish musician Alison Kinnaird advised me that the correct term is “harper.” If anyone knows, it is she!

5/3/19

What April Suggests about the Baseball Season


May Days, May Days


April is a cruel month for baseball fans, as anyone who has sat through a game north of Atlanta can attest. (Full disclosure: I support a shorter season.) April is also a prankster that can make dandelions look like tulips. (Last year's Diamondbacks, anyone?) Here are some thoughts now that about 18 percent of the season is behind us.

The Real Deals:

Right now there are just two sure things: the Dodgers and the Astros. Each has a powerful lineup—Bellinger is white hot right now–but more importantly, each has a pitching staff that should hurl them deep into the postseason.

Stick a Fork in 'Em; They're Already Done:

Compost the putrid Marlins and call a taxidermist for the once-proud Orioles. The Royals are more like a deposed monarchy and the Angels are bound for hell once again. What was Mike Trout thinking when he signed a long-term contract with Anaheim. Do you see any hope in the next 4-5 years? I don't.

How are those Sonny Gray, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp acquisitions working out for the Reds? You can probably stick the tines in San Francisco as well. The Yankees AAA players just blew them out of the water and made the Giants look like midgets in the process.

Not as Bad as You Think:

The White Sox probably won't make it .500, but they won't embarrass themselves. Some of their younger players–like Anderson and Moncada–are figuring things out.

The Rangers might have the most potent lineup of any lousy team. They will score a ton of runs, but they'll give up a ton and a half. The Padres are the NL West equivalent of the Rangers. Machado isn't hitting much right now, but he will, as will Hosmer and Tatis. Myers will continue to tantalize and disappoint, as will any pitcher not named Yates. 

The Tigers are in rebuild mode and need to shed some onerous contracts, but they're not pushovers. These cats are starting to flex their paws.

Wait Until Next Year:

We already know about Vlad Junior, but he's not the only thing to like about the Blue Jays. They are just an arm or two away from making the AL East a four-horse race. It won't happen this year, but you do not want to go to sleep on these guys or they'll lay some hurt on you.

Call it a hunch, but the Braves look as if they are going to take a step backward this year. It's a team dependent upon a handful of vets to close the holes of youthful inconsistency. That might happen, but I'm not seeing a pitching staff that can take them to the Promised Land. This needs to be redressed before some of those vets (Freeman, McCann, Markakis) reach the end of their productiveness. Next year?

I Don't Believe In You:

The Diamondbacks are playing above their pay grade right now. You know–just like 2018. It won't last.

I said it last year and will say it again: the Cubs pitching isn't very good. Plus Bryant and Rizzo aren't hitting their weight. I'd not be surprised if they miss the playoffs.

Never bet on the Pirates. You get the team you pay for and Pirates' ownership keeps its riches buried in a bank somewhere far from where the three rivers join.

Parsimony and young players who fuzzed out but never blossomed are the reasons I don't believe in the Twins. They're not a bad team, but in the long run they'll struggle to rise above mediocrity. Even if they click on all cylinders, they simply can't match the Indians' pitching.

I'd be remiss not to mention the perpetually tightwad Oakland A's. Look down their roster and tell me how many names you recognize other than Khris Davis. (Semien is good, though.)

They'll Probably Break Your Heart:

The Phillies spent like drunken gamblers to sign Bryce Harper. He's hitting .250, which is just about right for a player who might be the most overrated in all of baseball. The Phils should have bought some pitching. Arrieta is on the downside and Nola and Elfin have yet to rise.

The Mets are the opposite: potentially great pitching but if McNeil and Alonso cool off, where's the offense?

The Mariners are on fire at present, but I'd be higher on them had they not traded their best pitcher (James Paxton) to the Yankees. Their lineup consists of a lot of castoffs, has-beens, and late arrivals. I think this holiday will soon sink back to workaday tedium.

Don't the Nationals always break hearts? They show signs of sorting things out, but when you look at their roster, you'd think they should be great. The Nats are like brilliant students content to earn a C. 

Waiting to Catch Fire

The Brewers have too much in the bank in addition to Yelich to be playing penny ante baseball. In fact, without Yelich they'd be in serious trouble by now. Time to man up in Cheesehead Town.

Exchange the cheese for bad beer and the same is true for the Cardinals, who plucked Goldschmidt from Arizona and Ozuna from Miami. (Did I mention the Marlins should be in the Eastern League?)  About half of the Cards' pitching staff needs to step up or move out.

The Indians have been only middling good in a bad division. Cheapskate management is a problem in Cleveland as well, but the Indians should be fine when Kipnis, Naquin, and Lindor heat up. There's really no reason in the world why the Tribe shouldn't waltz to another division crown.

Mysteries Wrapped Inside Enigmas

In a sense, the Red Sox were destined to disappoint. They had a season for the ages in 2018, and no serious fan expects them to duplicate a .667 winning percentage. But to be a tick above the Orioles? I can't imagine that will last, but there's got to be concern that signing Sale to a big contract instead of re-signing Kimbrel was a bonehead move given that Sale hasn't been brilliant since the middle of 2017. Porcello thus far has been in the "other" side of his every other year effectiveness, and there is also concern that Moreland, Pearce, and Bradley had career years in '18. Commonsense says that Bogaerts ought to be moved to third and Devers should become a DH. Devers' glove is simply B-A-D. But if you ask me if the Red Sox will finish below .500 this year I'd reply, "Are you nuts?"

The Yankees are a mystery in the sense that one wonders how in the hell they are winning with 15 players on the disabled list. LeMahieu was a great signing, Voit was a steal, and getting Paxton a fleecing, but the only way you make any sense of their early success is to concede that their minor league system was every bit as good as touted. Nonetheless mystery surrounds the Bronx Bombers. Will Sanchez figure out how to catch and hit consistently, or is he a bum receiver who is all or nothing with the stick? Will the Yanks go on a roll when the big guns return? Logic dictates they should, but baseball has a habit of making fools of the Stat Heads. The biggest mystery of all is why the team hasn't fired every single one of its conditioning coaches. It baffles my mind how MLB thinks launch angles and pro wrestling sized muscles are more important than flexibility and durability. For the record, Detroit has the deepest fences of any stadium: 420 feet to dead center. So who gives damn if a homerun travels 470 feet?

The Rays are also an enigma. I like Pham and Diaz, but I don't see enough bats on this team to justify their otherworldly record in April. Morton and Snell are proven pitchers, but are Glasnow and Chirinos for real? I don't think the Rays have enough, but if the Red Sox don't start winning, the Rays might steal a playoff spot.

Let's end with the yearly mystery team: the Rockies. The hitting is there, but the staff has an ERA the size of Mount Elbert. I think they'll be in the middle of the pack, but it seems that nobody really knows how the Rockies will fare until the season is over.