‘Judge Parker’: Days of rage, days of silence

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From ComicsKingdom.com.

I have to admit I still don’t know what’s going on in “Judge Parker.”

In his efforts to clean up the sprawling plotlines of the venereal venerable strip, Francesco “Ces” Marciuliano has jumped ahead in time. Last week a grizzled Sam Driver furiously stared at clippings on a board, as if trying to solve a murder on “The Closer.” He seems to believe that Sophie’s disappearance — we won’t call it a death, because the characters aren’t — was planned. (If so, the planners are almost as clever and far-seeing as Russian hackers.)

And then there’s been a mysterious meeting between the mysterious criminals and Judge Parker himself, not to mention Neddy lamenting her life in Alaska. It’s all a bit like the opening of Snoopy’s magnum opus, “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.” “Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up. …”

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Sunday read: The Ayn Rand society

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Image from Barnes & Noble.

Many years ago, I was assigned to write an article based on questionnaires given to a few dozen prominent figures in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta. One of the questions asked what the respondents’ favorite books were.

Number One, far and away, was the Bible.

Number Two? “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.

I always thought this was a juxtaposition for the ages. (Apparently, it wasn’t exceptional; the Book-of-the-Month Club and Library of Congress got the same results when they did a survey in 1991.) On the one hand, you had a book of stories that included perhaps the most selfless person ever, a man who spoke in parables and aphorisms. On the other was a book that extolled selfishness and culminated in an over-the-top 50-page speech that summarized Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.

How can you love both?

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Ralph Branca, RIP

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Image from USA Today.

Ralph Branca won 21 games in 1947. Ralph Branca had a respectable lifetime ERA of 3.79. Ralph Branca pitched for all or part of 12 seasons in the majors, was a three-time All-Star and a respected member of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitching staff for years.

But almost all of his obits lead with the same thing: Ralph Branca, gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ dead at 90.

Some baseball players are forever associated with one pitch or one event. I know a guy who spit every time he heard Calvin Schiraldi’s name because of Schiraldi’s role in losing Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I think of Donnie Moore as a Braves reliever, but most people probably remember him for giving up that home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS.

And Branca? He gave up the most famous home run of them all, the one by Bobby Thomson that won the 1951 pennant for the Giants in a game they were losing 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Branca, though devastated by the home run, was a true sportsman. He appeared at card shows with Thomson and helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which helps former major leaguers in need. The priest he visited after the homer had it right.

Later Branca recalled sitting with a priest and family friend, asking why this had happened to him.

“Because,” he was told, “you’re strong enough to bear it.”

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to Red Smith’s column about the game, still one of the greatest deadline-written pieces in journalism history: “Now it is done,” it begins. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. …”

Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers ahead, though nothing major.)

Nothing much happens in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Two girls meet as children; they grow up; they grow apart; they grow together; and then one of them gets married. There are contentious episodes featuring shoes, a frightening incident in a beach house, a few violent acts. (In one case, a girl gets thrown through an open window.) The novel concludes with the wedding and promise of more to come.

Then why did I love it so much?

Part of it is the ending. Wow. I love books that lead up to perfect last lines – “Fifth Business” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” come to mind – and this is another. I won’t reveal it except to say I felt unexpectedly punched in the gut.

But most of it is Ferrante’s voice. She is matter-of-fact, unsentimental. The book is told from her point of view – the character is even named Lena, though if recent news is to be believed the novel isn’t even a roman a clef – and though there are occasional outpourings of emotion, she keeps a clipped distance from the proceedings. Her style is filled with what most editors would consider run-on sentences, filled with commas that could be periods, and yet it works – a stream of consciousness that holds together as if knotted in steel.

It’s Lena, it turns out, who is the “Brilliant Friend” of the title. Her friend, whom she rarely fails to admire as equally brilliant, is Lila, the daughter of a working-class shoemaker. They’re both bright girls, but only Lena stays in school; Lila, for various reasons, drifts away from her studies. It’s the 1950s and early ‘60s, a time when Italian girls apparently weren’t expected to stay in school. Still, that’s one of the few ways Lila adheres to convention; she’s a woman ahead of her time. She is tall and beautiful and fearless; she’s in no rush to marry and wonders if she should; her attitude intimidates the boys of their apparently run-down neighborhood, though they’re all equally in love with her. Lena, on the other hand, wonders when she’ll find love. She has a boyfriend who’s more of a friend, and an older boy she moons over from a distance.

I struggled to keep the characters straight, but no matter. Some of the boys remain boys – Ferrante manages to capture a certain barbarian impulsiveness that is almost a caricature of Italian men, though their willingness to pull out fists and knives (and even an occasional gun) seems all too believable. There are the wealthy Solara brothers, who drive around in their very own car and consider themselves neighborhood princes. There’s a mentally disturbed widow and angry siblings and caring, if firm, schoolteachers. I have no vision of the physical neighborhood itself – does it look like something out of the 17th century or more like a hastily created streetcar ghetto of the 1930s? — but I can see these people bickering and shopping and tentatively reaching out to one another, only to perhaps be rejected, setting off fury anew.

There are a couple events that remain in my mind. One involves a “perfect” pair of shoes designed by Lila and built by her hotheaded brother, Rino, and her father. They’re the ostensible reason for her eventual marriage; they symbolize the tensions in the family; they even represent her. The shoes are surrounded by the most ferocious arguments. One can only wonder where they’ll go next.

The other is Lena’s summer trip to the Italian coast, where she pines over Nino, the son of a train conductor who fancies himself a writer. (The conductor, that is, though Nino can write, too.) Nino keeps his distance; his father is another matter. Ferrante’s evocation of the summer somehow seems like a time set apart. She’s aware of growing up, yet also aware that she’s still a teenager.

Indeed, I often had to remind myself that most of these characters are teenagers. Lila, described as achingly beautiful but also disturbingly distant (even to Lena), is 16 when she marries. The boys are mostly younger than 18. Even the parents, who seem worn down by life, are in their 40s at most.

Ah, I wish I could make more sense in this review.

Perhaps “My Brilliant Friend” has rubbed off a bit in the wrong way. The book sometimes seems careless, as if Ferrante were pulling the memories out of her head unwillingly and plopping them down on the page to edit later, but never did. (In particular, the opening of the book makes a virtue of this artlessness.)

But don’t be fooled. I may not be getting at my points very well, but she knows exactly what she’s doing. And, like Lena does with Lila, I can only sit back and admire.

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Sunday read: Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Zucchini!

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This is Gene Weingarten; image from Washingtonian magazine. For a picture of the Great Zucchini, click here.
On any list of great magazine stories, you’ll find a few featuring the byline of Gene Weingarten.

He’s the guy who wrote the piece about violinist Joshua Bell playing for commuters at a Washington Metro stop. He’s the guy who explained why people sometimes leave their children in hot cars. He’s the guy who hired Dave Barry and helped make the Miami Herald Sunday magazine, Tropic, into the home of Pulitzer Prize winners. (That was back when major metropolitan newspapers had Sunday magazines.)

For some reason I was thinking about one of Weingarten’s most famous pieces. It’s about a children’s entertainer, the Great Zucchini. Back in 2006, when Weingarten published the story, the Great Zucchini was considered perhaps D.C.’s best preschool children’s party entertainer, a man who made $100,000 a year and only worked weekends — yet the rest of his life was incredibly disorganized, even sad. I won’t say why — you’ll have to dig into today’s Sunday read for that.

The Great Zucchini now has a website. He may be better organized than he used to be (though at least one 2014 reviewer thought he sucked at his job). Gene Weingarten, however, is still very much Gene Weingarten, even if these days he mainly does a humor column.

Long may he write.

You can read “The Peekaboo Paradox” here.

Sharon Jones, 1956-2016

Oh, Sharon Jones. How can your voice be stilled?

I remember seeing you a few years ago at the Center Stage in Atlanta. I don’t get to many live shows anymore, but I definitely was going to see you and the Dap-Kings. I’d heard so much: You were the second coming of James Brown, of Otis Redding, of every great spirit-fueled singer who left every ounce of themselves on the stage.

You didn’t let me down.

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Jon Stewart: ‘This is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other’

Jon Stewart was on “CBS This Morning” with Charlie Rose Thursday, talking about the election and what it revealed.

As always, he proved himself to be as insightful as anybody on the scene — perhaps more so, because he’s nothing if not honest with himself and doesn’t talk in that stentorian, overly dramatic cable-news tone.

Somebody should give this guy a show.