Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Poetry Tuesday

Posing here with a picture of his family.
My grandfather, Arthur Gladstone Ellis, passed away last night at the age of 95. I will miss his presence in my life but I am only sad for me. He had excellent health up until about six months ago and suffered very little at the end. He was a true gentleman, sweet-natured his whole life, a veteran of WWII, with many a story to tell. Although he had an engineer's mind, and a non-stop work ethic, he had one little hobby. He liked to pen light verse, something he started in the Navy, and kept up with for much of his life.

Here is a poem he wrote for his daughters:

To my Twin Daughters

My greetings on this day of days,
A symbol in so many ways
Of showing to the world at large
That you are now the ones in charge
Of your own lives and destiny--
To go, and come, and do, and see
As you've a thought or intuition
Without dear parent's kind permission.

Now there's a truth that you should know
And it may come as quite a blow --
But truth is truth and must be told
No matter that it may seem bold
That I should take upon this task
(Especially since you didn't ask).

How can this subject be approached?
It is a subject rarely broached,
To tell you all the ugly details
Better if not told to females.
Now that I've started on this chore
I must not linger lest I bore.
The job is mine, I cannot look
For some escape in some good book.
The answer is as plain as day
But I must seek some pleasant way
To break the news some way or other,
Or is this job one for your mother?

Our family group has talked real plain,
But one subject did we disdain.
We've talked of Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe;
Of places we've been and where to go;
Of plays we've seen and books we've read;
Of dances as you've sat on our bed.
We've talked of cities in many a land
But not a word of the subject at hand.

I thought this to be the easiest way
To get off my chest this thing I must say
For somehow a rhyme seems gentle and nice:
Whoever heard of a poem of vice?
Yet here I remain no nearer the truth
That I must tell while you're still in your youth.
I'd rate real low as a parent indeed
If this one truth you neglected to heed.

But to you girls should I confess
That I am caught within this mess?
My mind a blank with no way out;
Your minds confused and full of doubt --
Or should I come right out and say
What's to be said without delay?
Here is the truth -- no further pause;
There isn't any Santa Claus!

Rest in Peace, Grandpa.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Poetry Monday

The Open House
by Matthew Buckley Smith
In rain, the smell of pine and old cement
returns to me, unlike the night, which can’t,
we raced downtown past colds we should have caught
to see some place our friend had bragged about
with marble steps ascending from the park,
and shelves in wood antique as it was dark,
an antebellum chandelier and view,
at bedside, of the monument. All true,
and all so nearly what we could afford,
though we’d have liked a guest room. You demurred,
descending to the street, and voiced some doubt
the sink or stove had roused, which you forgot
amid the ghosts of neighbors we would host,
decades of coffee stains and burning toast,
the lullabies and tales we’d not yet penned,
and those blank years, without me, at the end.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Poetry Thursday

A special shameless-self-promotion poetry post. As I've written about before, I have completed a project of writing a sonnet for each of the 53 films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Two of these poems were in last summer's Atlantic Fiction issue, and a third has just been published online at the excellent poetry site Unsplendid. The poem is based on The Skin Game from 1931, not one of Hitchcock's finest efforts. It was a film he was obligated to make, a melodrama about two warring families in England, one aristocratic and one nouveaux riche. I suspect my poem was chosen not because it was about this film but despite it. I hope it stands alone. Please check it out here.

Jill Esmond, demonstrating loose morals in The Skin Game.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Royal Tenenbaums

I was very pleased to be asked to participate in The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series, in which various bloggers all pick their favorite shot from a specific film. This week, Wes Anderson's almost-perfect The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that has grown on me throughout the years. When I first saw it I fell in love with the elder characters, Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston), plus Etheline's suitor Henry (Danny Glover), but I was less pleased with their moody off-spring, Richie, Chas, and Margot (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow). But, like families maybe, they've all grown on me, and one day maybe I'll even grow to appreciate Eli Cash, the annoying wannabe Tenenbaum played by Owen Wilson.

But it's still Gene Hackman as the disgraced patriarch Royal that I love the most. He is the heart and soul of the film and Hackman's performance, for my money, is one of the best of his career (no small accomplishment). So I'm going with my gut on this one, and instead of one of Anderson's beautifully composed intricately designed filmic dioramas I have picked the shot that moves me the most. Royal in the ambulance, dying and being comforted by Chas, the son he was most at odds with.

It's still a beautifully composed shot, of course. Anderson excels at the dynamic frame, filling it with meaningful details. In this case note the presence of Sparkplug, the dog that Royal purchases from the fire department to replace his grandchildren's dead pooch Buckley. (Note to Wes Anderson: Please stop killing dogs in movies.) There is also the nicely laid-out pin-stripe jacket to balance the frame.

But I picked this frame because it's about forgiveness and redemption, which is what The Royal Tenenbaums is ultimately about, among other things, of course. Cheeseburgers, dalmatian mice, tennis meltdowns, wooden fingers, etcetera.

The screenshot is mine. Below are a few more I took while re-watching the film. I have to say that I was sorely tempted to select the one of Royal laughing at Margot's play while everyone else frowns.

"Is that a tic tac?"

Monday, July 23, 2012

Poetry Monday

Very sad to say goodbye to Katie Vagnino last night. To quote E. B. White, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." Good luck in Chicago.


by Katie Vagnino

In English, we have words for everything:
Names and tidy labels stain our lives,
Brand each moment with a familiar ring.
Beneath the letters, something else survives—
An ancient rhythm, resonating deep
That has no syllables, no metric scheme,
Spoken by infants and those fast asleep.
Show me in your Webster’s what can redeem
A tiny casket, how it feels to drown.
Describe the imperfection of a kiss,
Why many children are afraid of clowns,
Why his bad jokes are what you miss.
Defensively, we churn out words each day
To mask the fear of what we cannot say.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Crossroads

One of many impressive things about this standalone thriller by JDM is how the entire novel is centered around one simple heist, that is neither twisty nor complicated. But from that one idea MacDonald builds a complex, populated novel with a unique setting.

The unique setting is where the novel gets it's title. The Crossroads is a built-up highway stop somewhere down in the South. It's got gas stations, motels, restaurants, bars, gift shops, and it's all owned by one man, an Eastern European immigrant, and his four grown children.

It's excellent, despite some of MacDonald's typical flaws. His "good" female characters tend to all be alike, as do his "bad" female characters. But it's minor. The best part of the book is the way he delves into his location, creating a richness out of a banal rest-stop. At times, the omniscient narrator floats around and observes the comings and goings of the travelers. There is a brief description early on of a young unmarried female doctor with an incurable disease who is driving down to Florida for a few days on her childhood beach before committing suicide. It's a throwaway scene (she never returns) but in just those few paragraphs MacDonald creates a life.

Poetry Monday

Winter Ocean

by John Updike

Many-maned scud-thumper, tub
of male whales, maker of worn wood, shrub-
ruster, sky-mocker, rave!
Portly pusher of waves, wind-slave.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Book Report

I'm behind on my Book Reports, just like a kid nearing the end of summer. So, some quick recaps:

A truly forgotten novel from 1966 (there is almost nothing on this online) and undeservedly so. This is a brilliant, frightening story about a renegade group of right-wing warriors bent on taking global politics into their own hands. Their scheme involves the securing of a particular Florida Key and the hijacking of a coast-guard cutter. Ed McBain/Evan Hunter is such a great writer that he manages to flesh out about twenty-five characters. My only complaint is that he goes for a somewhat rushed ironic ending and the book ended far too soon.

I'm not a fan of that "meh" expression but it fits sometime. I think it's a way of saying there's nothing particularly bad about a book (or whatever) but it just didn't float your boat. That's how I felt about this particular Saratoga mystery.

This 1970s French noir is somewhere between a straight-ahead high-body-county existential thriller and a satire of capitalism. It's pretty riveting, and very very strange, either way.

Not the best Wexford, although the mystery, involving illegal birth surrogacy, is fairly well thought out. What took this one down a few notches was a subpar subplot (I should start a lit magazine and call it that) involving an overly-PC police detective with a crush on a co-worker. Forgettable.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Poetry Monday

Four new episodes of Lewis began on Masterpiece Mystery last night (Thank you, television), but there was a special treat last week, a one-off mystery called Endeavor, set in 1965, in which a young Inspector Morse (a very good Shaun Evans) solves his first murder mystery. Evans didn't quite mesh with John Thaw for me, but he was an excellent character in his own right, and the writing and direction were first rate.

There was a real literary bent to the episode, especially since primary clues were buried in crossword puzzle solutions and first editions of poetry texts, including John Betjeman, but I was still surprised to spot a completely out-of-the-blue reference to Philip Larkin's poem "Mr Bleaney." Morse is being shown his digs and the landlady quotes the first two lines of the poem. I nearly leapt out of my chair.

Here it is in full:

Mr Bleaney

by Philip Larkin

'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.