Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

The ends of the earth

Image from HouseofTeresa.com.

I’ve got a couple Sunday reads lined up, but I don’t feel like writing about them. I’d rather write about something more immediate: the end of the world.

What? The world’s not ending?

I don’t know if I agree. Did you think the apocalypse would come from a nuclear conflagration or an asteroid strike, something that would wipe out all life (except the roaches and ants, of course) instantaneously? Or even a pandemic resembling the one we have, except more dramatic, like Stephen King’s Captain Trips?

No, I think this is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Sunday read: How not to be shameless

We are living in a world of shamelessness.

I mean that literally. Somewhere, sometime — probably around the time that iPhone apps made publicity-seeking as easy and instantaneous as posting a tweet — many people stopped being bothered by behavior that, in other eras, would have prompted an apology and a temporary drop off the map.

Now? People double down. (And I’m so sick of the phrase “double down,” except in its original blackjack-oriented form. Make “Double Down” Obscure Again, please.) Refuse a reassuring Covid test? It’s an invasion of freedom — and you can’t let those socialists take away our freedom. (And won’t someone think of the grandmother?) Accosting a school-shooting survivor in the name of the Second Amendment (among other things)? Use the publicity to raise $1.6 million.

Oh, and that whole botched coronavirus thing? “Not my fault.”

I know there’s an irony here, that bogeyman, “cancel culture.” I once wrote a story about public shaming, and holier-than-thou Twitterers piling on people for one stupid remark can also be stupid, in the fashion of shooting a fly with an elephant gun. But (usually) there’s a sense of morality at play. And (usually) the offender tries to show remorse.

But that requires a sense of shame, a knowledge that you have wronged somebody and want to make amends. Perhaps the other party doesn’t want to forgive; that’s a whole different conversation. (Forgiveness is generally good for you, though.)

I’ve been thinking about all of this — brazen politicians and cable hosts and an unwillingness to give an inch — and it made me think of David Carr. An excerpt from his brilliant book, “The Night of the Gun,” is my Sunday read.

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Poem

Image from Gardenerspath.com.
"The Year's Awakening"

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;
     O vespering bird, how do you know,
          How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
     O crocus root, how do you know,
          How do you know?

- Thomas Hardy

Roger Angell, 1920- …

Image from AP via WNYC.

Those of you who know me know I take pride in writing obituaries. They’re an opportunity to sum up a life and pay tribute to the accomplishments and the impact of the deceased.

But it’s better to write about the living. They’re still around to enjoy the words, after all.

Roger Angell turned 100 on Saturday, September 19. I completely overlooked the occasion, even though I’d seen an item last month about an early celebration in his hometown of Brooklin, Maine, and the governor of Maine proclaiming “Roger Angell Day.”

Happily, not only did Angell get to celebrate his birthday six weeks early, he was still around when the actual centenary rolled around. Less happily, it was overshadowed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death the day before, but Angell — who’s always struck me as a modest sort — probably didn’t mind.

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Review: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished “The Mirror & the Light,” the conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, about two months ago, but I’ve been intimidated by the prospect of reviewing it. How you review a book that is so brilliantly written –Mantel’s rich, creamy prose is something to savor – and obviously so well researched?

I mean, I actually had to look up some of the delightfully archaic words she drops in. I wish I’d dog-eared the pages so I could list them for you, but trust me, they’re the kinds of words you’ll find in good crossword puzzles.

And yet, I plunge ahead with this review in my middling 21st-century vernacular.

“Plunge” is probably the right word; when you put away “The Mirror & the Light” for the evening, as I did most nights over the course of two months, you feel like you’re coming up for air. Mantel creates a distinct, self-contained world with so many characters you find yourself looking at the helpful cast listing she provides at the outset (or digging into Wiki to see how history judged some of them), and yet her Cromwell feels very contemporary: a cynical, pragmatic lawyer who’s always one step ahead of his rivals and his king, Henry VIII. It is not for him to judge Henry’s capricious romances, casual cruelty, or rapacious eating habits; he’s just trying to keep money in the royal till, protect his own kin, and make sure his neck stays a safe distance away from the executioner’s blade.

It is no spoiler to tell you he does not succeed in the last, and if I’m reading Mantel correctly, it’s for the most Greek of reasons: hubris, crossed with a bit of politics. (I’d call the politics Shakespearean, but the Bard won’t be born until almost a quarter-century after Cromwell’s death. Perhaps Machiavellian? If I recall, the Medici aide’s book makes a cameo in Mantel’s work.)

“The Mirror & the Light” begins just after the second book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” ends, with the death of Anne Boleyn. Henry wants yet another wife, and this time she’d better produce a male heir. He gets his wish in the form of Jane Seymour, but after giving birth to the future Edward VI, Jane dies, and Henry is bereft – or at least wanting companionship – again.

Meanwhile, in rising from a brewer’s abused child to Henry’s right hand, Cromwell – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, and Lord Privy Seal – has made a lot of enemies. However, as long as Henry’s happy, his enemies have no way of removing him from his elevated position.

With Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell maneuvers to get Anne of Cleves, a German royal, into Henry’s palace. It seems like a good idea: The marriage will bond Henry with German Protestants and keep the French Catholics at bay. But when Anne is finally brought over to London, she is not to Henry’s liking (and vice versa). The marriage is never consummated.

Cromwell gets the blame, and his enemies heighten the king’s paranoia and fuel rumors about disloyalty. The worst blow comes from the trusted Thomas “Call-Me” Wriothesley (pronounced “Riz-lee”), who – having learned lessons in cunning from the master – decides to stab him in the back. So much for avoiding the king’s wrath, and its penalty.

It’s a rich tapestry, and Mantel takes her time weaving it. But, for me, therein lies the book’s flaw; it’s a bit flabby where “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were tight. Though it has some wrenching set pieces (the last 50 pages, in which Cromwell is tried and executed, is absolutely dazzling), “The Mirror & the Light” contains too many long, empty stretches to be ranked on the same level as the other two novels. It reminded me of those 800-page biographies in which the biographer feels the need to list absolutely everything she uncovered about her subject — wearying in a biography, and just as wearying in fiction. I occasionally took breaks to read brisker fare.

Nevertheless, even with an overstretched finale, the trilogy is a remarkable achievement. Cromwell is such a fascinating character, a man ahead of his time in so many ways.

His depiction isn’t the only thing with contemporary echoes; I was struck by Mantel’s description of a plague that made its way through 1530s London:

The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces. The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.

The Seymours would fit right into the current U.S. administration. One wishes there were a Thomas Cromwell around to take them on.

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What I’ve learned from completing the first chapter of my novel

Image from Getty via iStockPhoto.com. Incidentally, if you unscramble those letters, you get the first page of my novel.

For years, people have asked me, “Todd, when are you going to write your novel?” And for years I’ve put them off. “Someday,” I say, or think, or imagine, or despair.

Someday.

(They’ve also asked me, “Todd, will you please stop boring me with your stupid trivia?” Not yet, I say, not yet. Hah!)

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Two poems, one about tuna

As I may have noted, Mulligan the cat has his own clock. (Not a physical clock — though wouldn’t that be something, his oversized paws struggling to pull out the pin to set the alarm?) He likes to eat breakfast around 3 a.m., and isn’t shy about slapping me with his paw to make sure I get up to feed him. For those who are wondering why I give in to his demands: It’s done no good to shut the bedroom door or put him in another room; his scratching and caterwauling could wake Rip Van Winkle. Besides, I usually have to pee.

His excitement, and my dilapidated state of mind, prompted me to compose a poem as I descended the stairs the other day. I hope you enjoy it.

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John Lewis’ last words, Barack Obama’s eulogy

Yesterday, while dignitaries gathered in Atlanta for John Lewis’ homegoing, The New York Times ran a column by the famed civil rights leader and representative: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” You should read the whole thing, but I was particularly moved by these words:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

That had a deliberate echo in Barack Obama’s eulogy later that day:

He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation — then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. 

(You should also read the whole thing.)

John Lewis devoted his career to ensuring that the ideals of this country — and the rights, including the right to vote, enshrined in the Constitution — would be accessible to every American. I’ve always been reluctant to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” — especially given the current situation — but, at its best, this country is capable of transcendence.

One more quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: When asked if we had a democracy or a republic, he reportedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We have to do our utmost to honor Franklin — and John Lewis. Vote.

Some songs for today

Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie:

Ray Charles channeling the best of us:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” – Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Stay safe out there.