Sunday read: It’s a world, world, world, world Mad

It is impossible to imagine a world without Mad magazine.

Though it now exists as a brand name on primarily archival material, there was a time — before “The Daily Show,” before “The Simpsons,” before “Saturday Night Live” and “National Lampoon” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — when Mad was the most popular, and most influential, humor source in the country. It was Mad that, in a time of mostly gentle mainstream humor, was willing to tell kids and teens (and thoughtful adults), Watch out.

“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.

I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)

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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.)

Sunday read: The past and future of ‘Be’

The Beatles on the set of “Let It Be,” from denofgeek.com.

I was going to write something about the events at the Capitol last week. I thought it was interesting how they provided a perversely tragic bookend to the inauguration of the president’s other favorite president, Andrew Jackson, an occasion when mobs overran the White House and Jackson himself had to sneak out a window. (“The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.) To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

But I’m still too angry and upset to deal with it. So I’m going to go to my Happy Place: talking about the Beatles.

You’re probably aware by now that Peter Jackson is taking the raw material of the “Let It Be” sessions and refashioning it into a new documentary, one that appears to be much happier than the sometimes bitter original film, which ended up as the group’s official swan song (and, in fact, appeared after the group had broken up).

I can’t help but think: Is this revisionist history? Or is it closer to the way things were?

And what impact does re-editing our memories have on their impact?

So I bring to you a pair of Sunday reads: “Let It Be” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on Jackson’s project, and Francis Ford Coppola on the changes he made in “The Godfather Part III” (now retitled “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone”).

“Let It Be” hasn’t been easily available since the VHS era; I can remember seeing it in a midnight showing at the Abalon Theater in New Orleans sometime around 1980, when midnight movies were a common way of showcasing older or outre works. Its reputation had preceded it: the Beatles seemingly trapped in a different studio than the familiar Abbey Road, constantly surrounded by cameras (in the days before that was a thing), with John bringing Yoko into the inner sanctum and Paul and George bickering over guitar parts.

Harrison, in fact, quit the band during the sessions. He didn’t return for more than a week, but when he did, he brought Billy Preston with him, and the rest of the sessions were calmer.

It’s Harrison’s attitude, along with Lennon’s opinion of the music, that’s colored opinion of “Let It Be” over the years. But McCartney and Starr have their own memories, and with more than five decades gone, we’re apparently going to see a more even-handed take of the era.

Does that mean Lindsay-Hogg’s original version is wrong? Not even he thinks so.

That argument was a small thing but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and so they got married very young.

And you have to remember the time: the band is past its days of novelty. There are many things amazing about the Beatles, but for me, what often stands out is their energy — an ability to bring the joy of live performance to the studio. Just yesterday, I was listening to “I Want to Tell You,” a Harrison track off “Revolver,” and you can hear the thrill of musicians discovering new parts of themselves, and their love of doing it together.

By early 1969, though, they’d become businessmen and spouses and, above all, more cognizant of their individuality. The White Album, released just a few weeks’ before, showed they could still bring it, but it also showed they didn’t need each other as much as they did a couple years previous.

The White Album has been criticized for its sprawl, which brings up the question: What would you cut? What would you change? That got me pondering the value of good editing. I happen to love John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but a recent article in The New Yorker mentioned that famed editor Robert Gottlieb wanted Toole to cut some of its set pieces. (Fortunately, they survived.)

In Hollywood, editing can make or break films. In his interview about “Godfather III,” Coppola talks about how “Godfather II,” which some critics consider superior to the first “Godfather,” was originally received at a screening.

When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II.

I’m reminded of a line told me when I was working on a story about film editor Kevin Tent, who’s done most of Alexander Payne’s films. Another editor said that his position is the most optimistic he knows; editors always think they can save the movie.

“Godfather III” appears to have been improved by Coppola’s changes. What will “Get Back,” the Jackson “Let It Be,” do to the image of the late Beatles? I’ve got a feeling it will add another facet to one of the great stories of recent years.

You can read the Coppola interview here and the Lindsay-Hogg interview here.

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

Review: ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers to come. You’ve been warned.)

I shouldn’t have read the review.

Now, I regularly read reviews before reading a book. I like to get an idea of what other people think, and they rarely affect my own opinion. At the least, they’re often good for a laugh – those 1-star Amazon reviews in which people complain about the book because it arrived late. Folks, it’s not the author’s fault that UPS took too long to get the book to your door.

But this review, on Goodreads, stayed with me as I read “Station Eleven,” the generally praised novel by Emily St. John Mandel. And as it forms at least part of my own criticism, I’ll hold back on it for a few paragraphs.

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Sunday read: What it takes

Image from the Associated Press/Andrew Harnik via NBCnews.com.

I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer.

I met Cramer, a legendary journalist who died in 2013, in May 2004, when he was on a book tour for his work on the Middle East, “How Israel Lost.” If my faulty memory recalls correctly, our interview was supposed to be a brief conversation about the book, but Cramer never encountered a fellow journalist who didn’t immediately become an old friend, and he invited me to an event he was attending that evening.

Being the starstruck putz I am, I tagged along as he drank and smoked and talked and glad-handed and talked and smoked and talked some more, an entertaining companion with endless stories. At one point, I asked him who he thought would make a good president. He didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said.

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Review: ‘The Silent Patient’ by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beware the book that is known for its twist.

There’s nothing wrong with twists, of course. The concluding pages of Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business” are a master class in inducing gasps. Stephen King has been known to pull off a few in his short stories. (I can still remember the shock of the ending of “I Am the Doorway” from “Night Shift.”) Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” left me wondering in a good way.

But if the twist is all you have going for you, then the rest of the book is going to fall to pieces under its weight.

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Review: ‘Draft No. 4’ by John McPhee

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It feels so unfair, reviewing a book on writing by John McPhee. The man is a legendary stylist, known for novel-sized articles on subjects like geology and agriculture, spread over multiple issues of The New Yorker. He has an airport scanner’s eye for detail and a knack (he would probably describe it as the result of assiduous research) for the right word and the sturdy metaphor.

On the other hand, your humble McPhee reviewer has made his living (mostly) knocking out features 800 words at a time, articles that – if he were lucky – gave him about four hours for interviews and research and perhaps another few hours to get his paragraphs straight and drop in the word “brobdingnagian” for the entertainment of the copyeditor before a midafternoon deadline. (Admittedly, I’ve done my share of longform, but even then I usually had only about a month to grind out 3,000 words, not years to craft 30,000 like McPhee.) Right away, I feel at a disadvantage.

So it’s perversely heartening to read that Mr. McPhee, despite his many decades in the journalism business, has agonized over his ledes and rendered first drafts (and second drafts, and even third drafts) that were, to use a common newsroom term, shit. Or, alternately, he’s been paralyzed in fear of putting two sentences together.

In fact, in the second chapter of “Draft No. 4,” he describes having to write a Time magazine cover story on comedian Mort Sahl on deadline, “near tears in a catatonic swivet” as the clock ticks down. He had produced one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” That left him 4,995 words short of what Time demanded. He doesn’t go into great detail on how he got the story done in time; he just mentions that he remembered a recommendation from a high school teacher and organized his notes by theme and chronology. That must have been enough for him, but I’ve tried to organize my notes in similar ways to create a story, and let me tell you, many times they don’t read well. Score one on points for McPhee.

(The more famous story of a stuck writer is that of Tom Wolfe, who was sent to do a story on Southern California hot rod culture for Esquire. Finding himself boxed in – the deadline was the next morning, the photos already laid out – he expressed his exasperation to his editor, Byron Dobell. Dobell suggested Wolfe send him his notes. So Wolfe sat down, began with “Dear Byron,” and wrote a 49-page letter. Upon receipt, Dobell cut the salutation and ran the rest. McPhee offers a similar method of cutting yourself out of a self-created cage in a chapter called “Draft No. 4.”)

I found “Draft No. 4,” the book, more entertaining for stories regarding McPhee’s struggles than I did as a writer’s guide. The Time guillotine blade notwithstanding, McPhee usually has something most reporters don’t: lead time. When researching a New Yorker piece, he’s sometimes had several months to gather research and several more months to write. Admittedly, he doesn’t get paid until he produces the finished product, but it’s still a luxury I’d like to have. (So I say. On other hand, I wouldn’t want to agonize over a single story, no matter how lengthy, for a year.)

Also, in the chapter called “Structure,” he talks about trying to do something – anything – besides telling a story chronologically, leading to structures that look like fractions (with three subjects in the numerator and a fourth subject, linking the other three, in the denominator) or Spirograph wheels. I’ve thought of writing stories like this – I once wrote a story about William Gibson that consisted of short mini-story shards, in tribute to Gibson’s kaleidoscopic visions – but it’s hard. (To quote the Who: “It’s very, very, very, very hard.”)

And so I ended up appreciating “Draft No. 4” more for McPhee’s empathy than his advice on writing. He may have plenty of time for his stories, he may write for The New Yorker, he may teach at Princeton, but he’s been there. For a scribbler like me, who has both lay in bed mentally rewriting ledes at 1 a.m. and who recently managed to write three 10,000-word chapters of a novel in six weeks, reread them, and decided the work thus far was a shallow pile of shit, that’s reassuring.

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you’ll never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer,” he writes at one point. I don’t know what that makes the prolific folks like James Patterson and Joyce Carol Oates, but it works for me. I’ll wear my agony proudly.

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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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Sunday read: If you don’t read this blog entry, you won’t find out what happened to this dog

Image from National Lampoon via The New York Times.

His name was Mr. Cheeseface, and he was famous.

You may not think so. After all, you’ve probably never heard of him, just as you’ve probably never heard of Spencer Elden or Mariora Goschen. But you’ve seen him.

Mr. Cheeseface is the dog that was on the cover of National Lampoon’s January 1973 issue, themed “Death,” looking nervously (apparently) at a revolver pointed at his head.

And in bold serif type next to his body was the blunt headline, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

Even today, almost 50 years after it appeared, that cover is celebrated as one of the all-time greatest — right up there with Annie Leibovitz’s Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover of “A New Yorker’s View of the World,” and many George Lois-designed covers of Esquire. The cover line is so good, it’s inspired countless parodies. (For my money, the best one was from Texas Monthly: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, Dick Cheney Will Shoot You in the Face.”)

But still, Mr. Cheeseface. Certainly he had a long, wonderful life, right, with other photo shoots and a deserved retirement dinners of ground filet mignon?

Oh, if only.

This week’s Sunday read is from Seven Days, a Vermont-based publication whose Dan Bolles retraced the story of Mr. Cheeseface, both before and after the famous cover.

Warning: It does not have a happy ending, which is telegraphed by the title: “Who Shot Mr. Cheeseface? The Vermont Demise of a Famous Mutt.” (I refrained from making the pun “Trigger Warning” … until now. Sorry.)

I know. The world is terrible enough right now without reading about a dead dog, especially one who didn’t have a long life. But I urge you to read it anyway. Bolles used up plenty of shoe leather in chronicling Mr. Cheeseface’s life, including tidbits that he may have been dosed on hallucinogenics when he was adopted (people did stupid stuff in the ’60s, too) and that he sired a beautiful litter of puppies.

But I especially urge you to read it because Mr. Cheeseface deserves to be remembered for more than posing on the cover of a magazine. As his owner, Jimmy De Pierro, recalled, “I knew from the get-go that this dog was something. He had personality up the ass.”

Dogs have brought us humans so much pleasure. The least we can do is honor them in these difficult times.

You can read “Who Shot Mr. Cheeseface?” here.