Quotes of Note

“Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one the kindness by writing them.” – Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you’re going to remember about me.” – Al Capone

“There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major.” – Sergei Prokofiev

18 Rules to Live By

  1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
  2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
  3. Follow the three Rs: 1. Respect for self 2. Respect for others 3. Responsibility for all your actions.
  4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
  5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
  6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
  7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
  8. Spend some time alone every day.
  9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
  10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
  11. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
  12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
  13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
  14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
  15. Be gentle with the earth.
  16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
  17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
  18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

The Dalai Lama

“The Vaudeville moguls panicked [when commercial radio began].  Albee-Keith-Orpheum had seven hundred theaters and twenty-five thousand performers under contract in 1929.  Weekly attendance was an estimated twelve million.  The moguls funded a widespread propaganda campaign to warn about ‘the dangers of radio.’  They funded newspaper editorials bemoaning the hearing loss radio caused and the house fires started by receiver sets.  Vaudeville financed aggressive lies, but it was no use.  RCA had developed the all electric receiving set in 1925 and a year later released the ‘perfected radio tube,’ which operated with alternating current. ‘This was a revolutionary advance,’ said radio columnist Ben Gross. ‘It did away with the need for those cumbersome acid-seeping batteries which had disfigured millions of American living rooms.  Radio now was so simple that even a child could tune it in without fuss, mess or bother.’” – Kliph Nestero, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy

“To succeed in life you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” – Reba McEntire

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Lagniappe

On Sunday, June 3, 2018 from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. CDT I will host Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH-FM radio (90.3 FM and WBRH.org).  During the first hour I’ll feature music by some of the greatest male vocalists of the Big Band era including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, and Russ Columbo.  Columbo is not as well known as the others, probably because he died so young.  On September 2, 1934 he visited his friend, photographer Lansing Brown.  While Brown was showing Columbo his gun collection, an accident occurred.  Brown described it this way:

“I was absent-mindedly fooling around with one of the guns. It was of a dueling design and works with a cap and trigger. I was pulling back the trigger and clicking it time after time. I had a match in my hand and when I clicked, apparently the match caught in between the hammer and the firing pin. There was an explosion. Russ slid to the side of his chair.”

The bullet ricocheted off of a nearby table, hit Columbo in the head and killed him.  He was only 26 years old.  Had Columbo survived, he might have become as popular as Sinatra or Crosby.

The second hour will feature three excerpts from three musical movies directed by Busby Berkeley.  When Berkeley was in the Army, he had his men do intricate march routines.  When he got out he did the same thing with beautiful women in the Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s.  Those musicals really appealed to the people who were suffering through the Great Depression.  You think you’re watching something that’s taking place on a Broadway musical stage until you realize that what’s happening is much too large for a theater stage.   In fact, the numbers were filmed on large sound stages on the Warner Brothers movie lot.  The overhead shots (Berkeley’s specialty) were fascinating because of the mechanization and intricacy of the dance routines that flawlessly form numerous geometric patterns.  Don’t miss Busby Berkeley: Going through the Roof on YouTube.  It’s in four parts, each of which is about 15 minutes long.

While in Paris many years ago singer/songwriter Paul Anka heard a song in French that he fell in love with.  He bought the rights to change the lyrics and wrote “My Way” which he then presented to Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way” became a classic – despite the fact that he didn’t particularly like the song.  It’s all about someone who refuses to live by the rules.  He does as he pleases and accepts the consequences.  If Sinatra had been even slightly introspective, he would have realized that it was about the way he lived.

The original song, “Comme d’Habitude,” (“As Usual”) is about a love affair that is slowly ending.  I’ll play the recording of “Comme d’Habitude” performed by the great French singer Mireille Matieu.  You’ll love it.

The third and final hour is a “doozy.” (Hmmm, where does that word come from?)  The hour is titled “See the U.S.A. in Your _______ .” You can fill in the blank.  Some of the musical possibilities are Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Ford, Stanley Steamer, Jeep, Winton Flyer, Cadillac, Nash Rambler, and even a little red wagon.

The Reivers

A yellow Winton Flyer plays an important part in William Faulkner’s 1962 novel The Reivers (an old-fashioned word for “thieves.”)  Faulkner died the same year that the novel was published, and posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year for the novel.  Although it’s one of his least popular novels, it was made into a movie in 1969.

In the novel, an old man tells a delightful tale about what happened to him back in 1905 when he was 11 years old.  Burgess Meredith, as the old man, was the narrator in the movie and John Williams wrote the music for it.  I will play a shortened version of the story that Williams recorded with the Boston Pops Orchestra.  Burgess Meredith is once again the narrator of the tale.  Williams firmly believed that music was vitally important in films to set a mood, and, in some cases, to tell the story.  I think you’ll agree that the piece you’ll hear would be diminished without the music that Williams created.

Steve McQueen who played Boone Hogganbeck in the movie, ended up with the Yellow Winton Flyer, which was built especially for the film.  It was one of the many cars in McQueen’s collection.

If you miss my show, you can listen to The Reivers here.

By the way, “doozy” is a word that owes it origin to the high-quality Duesenberg automobile which was manufactured in the United States between 1913 and 1937.

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Notes from a Public Typewriter

If you go into Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan you will find a typewriter on a table in a quiet corner.  You are invited to anonymously type out any note that is meaningful to you.  Thousands of people have done so, and some of those notes are now part of a new book entitled Notes from a Public Typewriter.  You can watch a video about it here.

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Dunces

PBS has kicked off an eight-part series called The Great American Read with a two-hour program showcasing the 100 greatest novels ever written according to Americans who took part in a survey.  Meredith Vieira hosted the initial program and will host the other seven as well.  If you missed the program, you can watch it at the official website.  The point of the series is to have the public choose the greatest novel in the full list.

The books could originate from anywhere in the world, but all of the novels had to be available in English.  Only one book by any author could be included on the list except that an entire series (such as the Harry Potter series) could be included – but only as one of the 100 books.  How varied is the list?  Below is a statement from the official website:

“The list contains a broad range of fictional titles, authors, time periods, countries, genres and subject matter. The list includes books from as far back as the 1600s and as recent as 2016. From beloved world literature to contemporary best sellers, many categories are represented: 20th century American classics, thrillers, young adult novels, sci-fi/fantasy, adventure, historical fiction, romantic stories, and books that represent the human experience told from a diverse range of perspectives.”

Indeed, the list includes old classics like Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; modern classics like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; children’s classics like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery; and a number of books including The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hadden, Fifty Shades of Grey (the series) by E. L. James, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which seem to me to be too new to be on the list.  But that’s the list that emerged after 7,200 people were polled.

How does the voting work, and when will the winning novel be announced?  Here is the information from the official website:

“Voting will open online and on social media with the launch of the two-hour premiere episode and continue throughout the summer, leading up to the finale in October 2018. Over the summer, viewers can vote online and through hashtag voting via Facebook and Twitter. In the fall, viewers will also be able to cast their votes by using SMS and toll-free voting.”

You can vote once a day and you’re encouraged to vote often.  Also, you can sign up at the official website for occasional newsletters.

If nothing else, the list may encourage you to read some books that are outside your comfort zone.  (I’m a big believer in this and have pointed to two different articles about reading outside your comfort zone in past posts.  The first is “How to Become a Superager,” and the other is “30 Books You Need to Read to Earn ‘Well-Read Status.’”)  Novels on the list could also be discussed in your favorite book club.  I find the list fascinating, and I intend to read a few books on the list over the summer months.  I hope you’ll do the same.

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From Book Expo 2018 Publishers Weekly give us an insider’s view of the books that will be hot in the coming months.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, June 3, 2018 from noon to 3:00 p.m. EDT.  The featured guest will be author Gish Jen.  Her books include Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and World and Town.

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Notes on Books I’ve Recently Read

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Actually Keyes wrote a short story and a novel titled Flowers for Algernon.  The short story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959, and the novel was published in 1966.  Both won numerous awards.  The short story was so successful that Keyes decided to expand it into a novel.  Great idea.

Both are about a man named Charlie Gordon who has an IQ of 68.  He undergoes an experimental brain operation in which the doctors somehow perform a procedure which causes his IQ to increase to 185 over a short period of time.  Before and after the procedure Charlie writes down his thoughts, and they plainly show that his ability to think deeply is developing.  He also realizes for the first time what he was like before the operation, and he has to cope with the people who teased him unmercifully then and who later can’t accept the genius he has become.

Algernon is a lab mouse that went through the same operation before Charlie had his IQ boosted.  Charlie marvels at the super intelligent mouse and then watches with horror as Algernon’s abilities regress.  Will the same thing happen to Charlie?  By then Charlie is extremely intelligent and, for the first time in his life, has the ability to understand what might happen to him.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I assure you that Keyes wrote a fascinating story from beginning to end.

The short story and the novel are similar in many ways, but the novel goes into greater detail than the short story about Charlie’s relationships with his coworkers, his family, and the researchers who have performed the life-altering procedure on him.  It also adds a sexual relationship between Charlie and his teacher, Alice Kinnian, which, I suspect, has lead to the censorship of the novel in some school systems.  I personally feel that teenagers can handle the contents of the novel, but I certainly think that they should at least read the short story.  Both the short story and the novel teach us a great deal about how we should treat people who are not like us, and it causes us to empathize with Charlie Gordon who has no control over what is happening to him.

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The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew (2012) by Kent Hartman

I knew a little bit about “studio musicians” before I read The Wrecking Crew, but not much.  Having read it, I have a much deeper appreciation for their contributions to the music we enjoy.  Let me give you a few examples of what I’ve learned.

First, many of the recordings we enjoy by groups like The Beach Boys sound better than the groups in person because the abilities of the musicians in the recording sessions are far superior to that of the group members.  Record producers want to make money, therefore, they have to produce recordings of the highest quality so the public will buy the records – or actually CDs and downloads these days.  I also learned that some groups believe that they are as talented as the studio musicians and highly resent being forced to let others take their instrumental parts in recording sessions.

Studio musicians are normally told exactly how to play a song, but they have often come up with innovative ideas that have turned an ordinary song into something special and memorable.  And their genius for doing this is, in most cases, only known to the members of that particular recording session.  Yet they continue to do it because they are talented people who truly care about the music they are playing.  Some notable studio musicians discussed are guitarist Glen Campbell, bassist Carol  Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine.  The Wrecking Crew is also about the private lives and the ups and downs of their own careers.  You get to know them as people as well as musicians.

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House of Cards 2

House of Cards (1989) by Michael Dobbs

This is the first of three books featuring Francis Urquhart that was written by former British politician Michael Dobbs.  The other two are To Play the King (1992) and The Final Cut (1994).  I hungrily watched all three on Public Television when they first aired.  You’ve probably watched the Netflix series of the same name that featured the villainous Frank Underwood.  The Netflix series is based in part on Dobbs’ books.

Francis Urquhart and his wife, Elizabeth, remind me of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  They are ruthless.  Francis does most of the dirty work, but he is encouraged by his wife.  The action takes place at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister.  Urquhart maneuvers to have the new Prime Minister disgraced so that he (Urquhart) can become the PM.  Blackmail, murder, seductions, and threats are the means by which Urquhart gets what he wants.  One of the things I liked about the TV series is that Urquhart would periodically look at us and blandly explain why he had just done something horrible.  He had no conscience.

I encourage you to read House of Cards – especially if you have only seen the Netflix series.  And if you ever visit Loch Ness in Scotland, be sure to visit the ruins of Urquhart castle on its banks.  It was owned by Francis’ ancestors according to the novel.

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Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife (2002) by Jennifer Lee Worth

I didn’t see the Call the Midwife series on Public Television, but I wish I had.  This book is about a group of women in Great Britain who delivered babies for poor women who couldn’t afford to give birth in hospitals.   I’ve learned more about the birth process than I thought I would learn – or ever wanted to learn.  After a while I was able to actually anticipate some of the problems that I knew the midwifes would face as they went about their work.  That’s scary.

Even more scary was the living conditions and the family situations of the women who were about to give birth.  The filth, the derelict fathers, and the despair was almost overwhelming.  In addition, most of the women had little or no prenatal care other than that offered by the midwives.  Yet these brave midwives rode bicycles into dangerous neighborhoods each day to make sure that every woman had someone to help her through the dangerous process of giving birth at home.

Jennifer Lee Worth made a number of profound observations along the way.  For instance she tells about women who went through long hours of horrible pain before giving birth.  Then she tells us how she handed these women their babies, and about how they immediately began to smile and talk lovingly to their newborns.  She said that the women seemed to instantly forget about the pain and suffering they had endured during childbirth, and she suggested that forgetting was part of the process that allowed women to look forward to additional children in the future.  In fact, she intimated that no woman would want to have a second child if she vividly remembered the pain she had gone through with the birth of the first.

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The Everything Store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (2013) by Brad Stone

Jeff Bezos is a fascinating person.  He obtained degrees in electrical engineering and computer science before, of all things, going to work on Wall Street.  Then he decided to open a book store on the internet in part because books are easy to store and ship.  Because he is brilliant, he turned a book store into what authors Stone and Larkin call “the everything store,” and that “store” has made him the wealthiest person in the world.  The range of products you can buy from Amazon is phenomenal.  But you know that, don’t you?

Bezos is not only brilliant, he is very practical, he thinks through things thoroughly, and he is not easily discouraged.  In some ways he’s a lot like Steve Jobs, except that he’s not nearly as eccentric as Jobs was.  He realized that he had to get us hooked on Amazon before he worried about making a profit, and he knew it would take time to get everything to work the way it should.  Now that he has accomplished those goals, Amazon is making quarterly profits through company efficiency and slowly rising prices.  Bezos has always had one core belief that has had a lot to do with Amazon’s growth: the customer is always right.  Always!  If what you receive isn’t what you expected it to be, send it back.  No questions will be asked.  Some people have abused this policy, but Bezos stubbornly adheres to it nevertheless.

Bezos has not always been right.  Some of his ideas have not worked out, and others have not attained the prominence he expected they would.  However, he’s been right more times than he’s been wrong.

The Amazon Echo (also called Alexa) is a good example of how Bezos thinks.  When it first came out, it was the only device of its kind, and it sold for about $180.  The sound, though not stereo, was excellent.  He also developed some auxiliary products that work with the Echo.  Echo Dots are much smaller (and cheaper) than the Echo and don’t give nearly the quality of sound that the Echo provides, but they have the same features as the Echo and can be attached to quality speakers if you desire. If you have a Fire tablet, you know that it also has the Echo features.  And you can play music through all of those devices at one time.  I have an Amazon app on my iPhone and by pressing an icon on it I can access most of the features of my Echo.  For a while I have been able to place calls through my Echo and now Amazon offers a device (the Echo Connect) that announces when I get calls on my home phone and allows me to tell Alexa to answer those incoming calls.  At that point I have two-way communication with the caller through my Echo devices

Think about the thought processes that occurred for Amazon to get to where they are with the Echo and its auxiliary products.  Bezos gave us quality products that work seamlessly together at a reasonable price.  Now that other companies are producing Echo-like devices, Amazon has introduced the second generation Echo which features Dolby sound, and it sells for approximately $80 less than the original Echo.

I have all of the products described above, so do you think I would be tempted to buy a competitor’s product only to find that it doesn’t work with what I already have?  No, and that’s the way Bezos planned it.

The Everything Store is a wonderful book that describes what a genius who is grounded in the real world can accomplish.  We need more entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos.

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The Mammoth Book

The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty: 37 Short Stories about the Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes’s Nemesis (2016) – Edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Like many people, I am a sucker for anything that is even remotely related to the master detective, Sherlock Holmes, who was created by Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle back in 1887.  That’s when the novel A Study in Scarlet was published.

Naturally I was intrigued by the very idea of a book of short stories by 37 different authors in which each one presenting its author’s ideas about Holmes’ archenemy, Professor James Moriarty.  Think about it, we know very little about Moriarty’s background or about what he did while Holmes’ was not attempting to outwit him and end his devilish career.  The authors of these well-thought-out tales, therefore, have an endless number of directions in which their stories might proceed – and they do.  Each tale is strikingly different from the others.  We see Moriarty as a child, as an unforgiving gang leader, and as a man who can be very kind and sympathetic at times.  One thing that most of the stories have in common is Moriarty’s ability to plan and carry out his schemes with the deep thinking and precision of an exacting mathematician – which he was.  I always looked forward to the next story because I knew it would be both interesting and very different from the ones that preceded it.

I wish a bunch of authors would create another volume of stories about the evil but fascinating Professor James Moriarty.  Better still, how about a similar book about Sherlock’s smarter brother, Mycroft.  Surely someone as smart as Mycroft had many adventures as an energetic young man who was connected to the British government in some mysterious way.  We have some tantalizing hints in the Holmes stories that Mycroft played an important part in saving the British government some embarrassment.  I’ll bet he has even solved some sticky mysteries while pretending to be only a sedate, disinterested member of the Diogenes Club (which he co-founded, by the way).  Where is his chronicler?

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Talking About Books . . .

After an absence of a few months, I’m back.  There are many more interesting tidbits about books that I hope to bring you during the coming months.  This initial post is dedicated to Mary Nell.

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Normally Book TV (C-SPAN2) only features nonfiction, but for some reason – which I haven’t been able to figure out – the monthly feature, In-Depth, is interviewing authors of fiction during 2018.  Novelist David Baldacci will be the guest on the May edition of In-Depth. The live interview will air Sunday, May 6, 2018 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  Mr. Baldacci’s many books include Memory Man, The Last Mile, and The Escape.

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Gorky Park

Like crime novels?  The Guardian recently featured an article in which writers discuss their favorite crime novels.  The list includes Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (discussed by SJ Watson), The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (discussed by Nicci French), and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (discussed by James Lee Burke).  It also includes a few surprises such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (discussed by Laura Lippman), and Bleak House by Charles Dickens (discussed by Ian Rankin).

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“I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist.  I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.  The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights—all had precedents, and many of these were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the “Christian” tradition itself. (I enclose “Christian” in quotation marks, since I believe that much of the Church’s behavior and doctrine during its two-millennia-long existence as a social and political organization would have been abhorrent to the person after whom it is named.)”

The above quote from an article that Margaret Atwood wrote about the origins of her best-known novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is shocking in that most of us look at the work as a dystopian novel about the future when, in fact, the terrible things that occur in it have already been visited upon millions of our fellow human beings.

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In the Shadow of Statues

We often find lists of the best novels for a particular period of time, but seldom see a similar list of the best nonfiction books.  Esquire magazine’s list of “The Best Nonfiction Books of 2018 (So Far)” is a welcome if rare compilation.  I was particularly gratified to see that In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu made the list.  It took a lot of courage for New Orleans’ Mayor Landrieu to order the removal of the statues celebrating the men who fought to keep slavery alive in Louisiana.

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Last year marked the 350th birthday of Jonathan Swift who is best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.  To celebrate Swift’s birthday Smithsonian magazine ran an article about Gulliver’s Travels that features some little known facts that might interest you.  There is a section on words that Swift coined in the book, but nothing about the name “Gulliver.”  In fact, Swift was making fun of his main character by implying that he was easily fooled.  He was “gullible.”  In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing there is a scene that is referred to as “The Gulling of Benedick” in which some of the characters set out to make Benedick fall in love with Beatrice, who seems to hate him.  And he is easily gulled.

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As I sit here writing this post I am sitting among the volumes of my personal library.  Well, I’m sitting among some of them.  Hundreds more are in my Kindle library and my Audible app.  Wherever they are, no matter how old and tattered they are, I cherish each and every one of them.

The above thoughts came to me after I read an Atlas Obscura article about libraries of many types.  Some are public libraries while others are very private.  Some are well-known while others are hardly known to anyone but their owners.  They all have two things in common: each is unique and every library has a story to tell.

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The Great Movies

I continue to co-host Music on the Sunny Side which is a three hour program that airs each Sunday morning from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. CT on WBRH-FM radio (and on the internet at wbrh.org) here in Baton Rouge, LA .  On Sunday, May 6th I’ll feature lots of Big Band music as well as a few special features such as selections from an old two LP set entitled “25 Years of Recorded Sound from the Vaults of M-G-M Records,” and a segment from a series, One Night Stand, that was popular during the golden age of radio .  The featured broadcast was originally aired on February 8, 1945, and features Vaughan Monroe and his orchestra, the Norton Sisters, and Johnny Bond.

The following Sunday, May 13th, I’ll once again host Music on the Sunny Side. One of the features will consist of parts of an interview that lyricist and composer Johnny Mercer did in 1970 with his long time friend the radio host Willis Conover.  In the interview Conover throws out the titles of songs that Mercer wrote the lyrics and/or music for, and Mercer recounts the origins of the song ideas. Then I play what I consider to be a notable interpretation of the song that was just discussed.  For instance, Mercer talks about “That Old Black Magic” and I follow it with Frank Sinatra’s version of the song.  I’ll also play excerpts from the soundtrack of Casablanca (1942), my favorite movie of all time, and I’ll read a fascinating excerpt about it from film critic Roger Ebert’s 2002 book The Great Movies.

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Quotes of Note

“I’m now 81 and I think the happiest years started between sixty and seventy. Apart from illness and pain with my back and a few things like that, I am much happier now. For one thing, I know how to handle life. Up till the time I was sixty I was never very capable of saying no, of really saying this is the way I do it and being absolutely firm. . . Now I do.” – Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

“Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops for ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales, is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.

“Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment, which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.” – Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974)

“To such degree, it seems, is truth hedged about with difficulty and hard to capture by research, since those who come after the events in question find that lapse of time is an obstacle to their proper perception of them; while the research of their contemporaries into men’s deeds and lives, partly through envious hatred and partly through fawning flattery, defiles and distorts the truth.” – Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Greecians and Romans

“No one making Casablanca thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an ‘A-list picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman, and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warner lot than Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been and would be in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of Casablanca was largely the result of happy chance. The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set. What must have helped is that the characters were firmly established in the minds of the writers, and they were characters so close to the screen personas of the actors that it was hard to write dialogue in the wrong tone . . .

“What is intriguing is that none of the major characters are bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa—to place a higher value on Laszlo’s fight against Nazism—remember E. M. Forster’s comment ‘If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.’ From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund’s role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie’s real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that were briefly considered. But that would be all wrong. The ‘happy’ ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (‘It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’). And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism. In her close-ups during this scene, Bergman’s face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.” – Roger Ebert, The Great Movies

“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists—although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question.’ But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts.’ By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers. They come to class with their questions written out on pieces of paper, which they surreptitiously examine, waiting their turn and oblivious of whatever discussion their peers are at this moment engaged in. Something has happened between first and twelfth grade, and it’s not just puberty. I’d guess that it’s partly peer pressure not to excel (except in sports); partly that the society teaches short-term gratification; partly the impression that science or mathematics won’t buy you a sports car; partly that so little is expected of students; and partly that there are few rewards or role models for intelligent discussion of science and technology—or even for learning for its own sake. Those few who remain interested are vilified as ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’ or ‘grinds.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

“Hugo Black, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court Justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court Decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: It was said that when he was a young man, he dressed up in white robes and scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes and scared white folks.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

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The Detection Club

The Floating Admiral

The final item in my recent quiz (published on February 12, 2018) concerned a novel entitled The Floating Admiral.  As you know by now, if you took the quiz, there were multiple authors.  But you might not know why there were so many.  Here’s the story.

Many of our best-loved mystery novels were written by British authors during the golden age of that genre.  Around 1930 Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton and many other mystery writers formed an exclusive club in which they periodically dined and “talked shop.”  They chose their members carefully, and had them go through an elaborate initiation ceremony before they were officially welcomed into the fold.

Early on they began discussing a novel in which each chapter would be written by a different member of the Club.  The plot would not be discussed among the contributors during the process, and the completed chapters would be passed along from one member to the next without comment.  There were a few simple rules: Each member would have to take into account the previously written chapters before working on his/her own, and the plot had to move toward a conclusion that each contributor thought reasonable – without knowing what the following authors would write.  The final chapter would have the solution that its writer thought most plausible based on what had previously been written, and all of the loose ends had to be tied up as much as possible.  That alone, took up a lot of the final chapter, and made reading it a bit tedious for me.  It’s amazing that the book flows along as smoothly as it does.  Obviously, everyone involved took great care to read and absorb what preceded his/her contribution.

At the end of the book the writers were allowed to guess at the solution based on what they knew at the time that they completed their contributions to the novel.  As you might expect, those who wrote the early chapters had little or nothing to say about the solution while the later contributors often had lots to say.  The envisioned future plot turns and twists, as well as the final solution, varied widely, and wildly, between the contributors.  Interestingly, these very imaginative mystery writers went off in divergent directions in almost every case.

The Golden Age of Murder

The Detection Club still exists, and attorney and author Martin Edwards, has written a fine book, The Golden Age of Murder, about its history roughly between the two World Wars.  In it, he includes loads of information about the mystery novels the members wrote, and about their personal lives and peccadilloes. One of the most interesting stories focuses on the years of fear that Dorothy L. Sayers endured after giving birth to a child by one of her lovers.  At that time, you may remember, the revelation that she had given birth to an out-of-wedlock child could easily have wrecked her life and ended her career.  Other stories focus on writers who suffered from alcoholism or were sexually promiscuous.  Their lives, we learn, were as messy as that of other human beings despite their genius for writing spell-binding and insightful novels.

The Golden Age of Murder was published in 2015 – the same year that Edwards became only the Club’s eighth president in its nearly ninety year history.  He has also written The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), and has penned several mystery novels featuring Harry Devlin who, like Edwards, is a Liverpool attorney.

In 1929 Ronald Knox, who was a Catholic priest and theologian as well as a noted mystery writer, published a set of rules – his ten commandments, so to speak – for writing mysteries.  Many writers still accept them as essential to good mystery writing.  In a post way back in 2012 I listed Knox’s rules.  In that same post I also wrote about the obituary of Agatha Christie’s most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, that appeared in The New York Times newspaper on August 6, 1975.

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Quiz of the Month – February 2018

Mysteries are popular with just about everyone – and have been for a long, long time.  This quiz will test your knowledge of the genre by challenging you to guess the authors of the novels and short stories listed below, and to name the sleuth or sleuths featured in each.  The names of the sleuths will appear in parentheses after the authors’ names.  We’ll begin with some simple examples and then progress to more difficult works.  You get extra credit if you can answer the final entry – without cheating.  I’ll tell you more about it in my next post.

As always, the answers appear on my Quiz Answers page.

  1. “The Purloined Letter”
  2. A Study in Scarlet
  3. The Maltese Falcon
  4. The Thin Man
  5. Murder on the Orient Express
  6. The Murder at the Vicarage
  7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  8. The Big Sleep
  9. The Penguin Pool Murder
  10. Death Takes a Bow
  11. A Morbid Taste for Bones
  12. I, The Jury
  13. Nevermore
  14. “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late”
  15. The Lodger
  16. The Nine Tailors
  17. The Red House Mystery
  18. Cover Her Face
  19. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
  20. The Tin Roof Blowdown
  21. The Three Taps
  22. The Phantom of the Opera
  23. The House without a Key
  24. “The Blue Cross”
  25. The Hollow Man
  26. The Silk Stocking Murders
  27. An Expert in Murder
  28. The Daughter of Time
  29. The Daughters of Cain
  30. The Floating Admiral
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