Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Ghosts: The Third Story

OK, I upped the cheese factor for this one, a retelling of an urban legend about jewel thief Estelle Ridley, a.k.a Fanchon Moncare. Like a souffle that doesn't quite rise, this story is missing something -- I think the tone is a little off.... it came out sounding a bit Dan Brown (or Caleb Carr!), when I was going for Stephen King. Anyway, hopefully you, dear reader, can overlook its flaws and enjoy the pulpy, silly goodness.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why story #3 is taking a little while....

"Setting aside the highest masterpieces of literature, there is nothing more difficult to achieve than a first-class ghost story."

- Montague Summers

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Ghosts: The First Story

Telling ghost stories while sitting round the fire (or, if you will, space heater) is a time-honored holiday tradition, one I've promised to share with my readers and fellow spinsters-at-heart this year.

The first is a local tale, from right here in Brooklyn. Gravesend, in fact. It's rather a spooky name, isn't it? Indeed. So without further preamble, here is a very chilling story I heard around the fire tonight; its author claims it is completely true but, of course, punch was served so there may be embellishments here and there, which is to be expected, of a ghost story.

Click here to read "Lady Moody of Gravesend."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Feelin' Christmasy Part Deux


I know technically it's impossible for a person without a "real job" to have a holiday, but I've been verrrry busy lately and today, just today, I seem to have gotten the last of my errands and things-to-do out of the way! Hurrah! Which leaves, between now and Christmas, a delightful window of time to fill however I please, specifically, in the following ways:

1. The baking of cookies
2. The baking of cakes
3. Ditto pies
4. The brewing of punch and drinking thereof
5. Ghost stories!
6. Gingerbread house diorama contest (contestants: self)
7. Prezzies! The buying thereof. Particularly for long-suffering husbands who may or may not have endured a rough week with their insane spinster-wife ("Is my hair turning green? I'm convinced it's turning green.") And holiday cards!
8. Movies!
9. Winter solstice walking tours and Knickerbocker lectures
10. Various festivities, possibly including Festivus... and.... ice skating!

Also, I will be following the Bowery Boys' delightful "A Very Special New Amsterdam Christmas," in which they detail how many of our (national!) Christmas traditions have their origins not in the stuffy Massachusetts Bay Puritans but in our own delightful rollicking roistering Dutch colony. Hurrah!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why I love old ladies -- Reason #294

294. They nonchalantly bake fifteen-layer cakes

'Many experienced cooks in the South assume that everyone knows how to bake. Virginia Willis, author of “Bon App├ętit, Y’all,” sent me a coconut cake recipe she got from an 80-year-old family friend from Augusta, Ga. It begins: “Make a yellow cake.”'

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bond No. 9 Signature Perfume is Gold

What does it take to make me shill a product here on Spinster Aunt? Specifically, a product that retails for $330 an ounce and comes in a gold bottle? In a word: oud.

Bond No. 9 continues to send me free samples of their glorious perfumes, some of which are more memorable than others (my favorites are Saks Fifth Avenue For Her and Chinatown; my least favorite is Nuits de NoHo) but I treasure them all.

Well, a little gold vial showed up at my house last night, and while I was at first merely pleasantly amused by the copy ("Here is the incomparable beauty and derring-do of our island metropolis distilled in liquid form!" Tee hee, I love it!) my benign amusement suddenly turned deadly serious: this is THE BEST THING I HAVE EVER SMELLED. Seriously. I can't stop smelling it.

Do you want to know what it smells like? This is what it smells like:

Will they churn out a version in a non-gold, more reasonably priced bottle? Should they? Who cares! For now, I am going to deck myself out in this powerful sample for as long as humanly possible.... and breathe....

Friday, December 11, 2009

Feelin' Christmasy

1) A rather excellent Patricia Highsmith article in the NYT: "To all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace."

2) Ghost stories. I've been into them lately. Today I had a marvelous experience at the Brooklyn Public Library after a wondrous wintry walk: I got The Hours After Midnight (J.S. Le Fanu, who I've been loving recently) and The Lottery (which I've been dying to re-read; I may love Shirley Jackson even more than Highsmith). So this kick I've been on, it started with the ghost stories of Dickens, moved on to M.R. James, and in the past month has expanded to Le Fanu. I am completely entranced by his "Ghost Stores of Chapelizod" and "Dickon the Devil" (which I have the unfortunate habit of referring to -- in my head -- as "Dikon the Radish," which just makes it kind of cute instead of scary). What am I getting at with all this?

The Point.

3) It's Christmastime (almost) and apparently, in England, telling ghost stories is a Yuletide tradition. Now I reckon there's about two weeks to Christmas, and I really want to write some ghost stories, so here's what I'm proposing: a story or two every couple of days until December 31st (I need an extension on my deadline already!) in rough form, right here, the best of which I shall revise and post on my website. Hopefully I'll get a few good tales out of it. Then again, in England they drive on the wrong side of the road, too.... so....

4) ... oh yes, punch. In Le Fanu, his protags are always drinking "punch." By the fire. With booze in it. Warm and wintry, indeed. In an attempt to be more ghosty, I have made a rather tasty punch of my own, currently simmering on my stove. Which means I stop typing.... now....

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Best of The Aughts...

I think my love for old-timey things is starting to rub off on my long-suffering husband: check this out! It's a run-down of the best short films of 1900-1910, in honor of all the "best of the aughts" lists that are circulating these days, heavy on the Porter and Melies, and totally freaking awesome. Porter's 1907 "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" didn't make the cut, but I want to include it here since I love anything that has to do with eating too much late at night/bizarre dreams:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Green-Wood's new blog!

The loveliest place in Brooklyn finally has its own blog! It's my most favorite place in the borough, and if you haven't done so already, make the time to ramble through it. But if you have no time today, enjoy a virtual ramble right now!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The weirdest *$%#-ing book EVER

So I'm reading Spindrift: Spray From A Psychic Sea and -- what, you've never heard of it? Well, let's see, how to describe it? Frightening? Strangely mesmerizing in a horrible way?Completely effing bat-poop?

Let's take a look at that cover flap, shall we? "It started out as a search for an apartment, changed to a ghost hunt, became a deeper spiritual search that led through the occult and the esoteric philosophies, and concluded with [author] Jan Bryant Bartell's death a few weeks after she had completed this manuscript, which recounts her experiences!" Eek! But wait, there's more: "Like a game of Ten Little Indians, deaths began to occur in the house. The first to die was a dog, Jan's own beloved Penelope. But within twenty-four hours, she was to learn of the death of the first human tenant. Whether by heart attacks, suicide or murder, the deaths came in rapid succession.... In terror, with nine little Indians gone, the Bartells moved far away from Greenwich Village. But the haunting followed them. After the completion of Spindrift, Jan Bartell became the tenth."

Seriously, this might be the most macabre marketing ever. Even for a publisher.

So, to back up a bit, Jan Bryant Bartell was an actress who moved into an apartment on West Tenth Street in 1957 and started feeling chills and things bumping in the night almost immediately. Her husband was a skeptic and no one else saw the ghosts, leading her to undertake a solitary, Rosemary's Baby-like research into psychic phenomena. The thing is, nothing she sees is actually, well, very convincing. It reads like a manual for errors in formal logic as Bartell refuses to consider any number of very real alternative possibilities for the "psychic phenomena" she encounters. Take this whole dog dying business: her dog was 10 years old and epileptic. A sign that someone is reaching out to you from the other side? Or an old dog? You decide.

Also, despite claiming to be an actress, composer, and sometime author, Bartell seems to have spent most of her time decorating and puttering around the apartment. Seems to me like batty housewife syndrome (or "BHS"). She was, apparently, mentally unstable in real life, and her writing certainly brings this across. It's written in an strangely disjointed style, with awkward flourishes, odd imagery, unfathomable turns of phrase ("I was in a state of deferred feeling") and Bulwer Lytton prose: "I was face to face with the unseen!" Oh, and lots and lots of exclamation points! Like this! Far be it for me to diagnose, but her descriptions of sluggishness followed by dazzling bursts of creativity sounds a wee bit... manic-depressive?

And yet...

Her house on West Tenth Street really has been reported to be haunted. And, despite her wackiness, there's something that makes me keep reading this book. Maybe it's just the fascination of trying to figure out if the woman was an insane 1950s housewife who let her neuroses consume her or if she really saw something in that place. Or maybe it's the feeling of dread and unease that I get when I read the damn thing. Seriously, this is not the best book to read before bed (though that's totally what I'm going to do right now). There's something unsettling about it that I can't put my finger on yet, but I'll let you know more when I finish it.

Until then, you can read more about Jan Bartell and the "murder house," here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

210-year-old gravestone found in Washington Square Park

Construction workers found a three-foot-tall sandstone marker as they dug below Washington Square Park yesterday: a 210-year-old gravestone, the writing still clear.

“Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription declares, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.”

A glorious treasure, surely. More on the story here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How to Write Ghost Stories

I just finished reading a collection of short stories by M.R. James (Casting The Runes) that featured a lovely appendix chock-a-block with sage and practical advice from the master of the antiquarian ghost story. It's not often you find a how-to manual of this caliber, so I thought I'd share it with you, dear readers. The funny thing is, after reading the whole book straight through, I wanted to do nothing so much as write an M.R. James parody (working title: The Oxford Don's Seaside Holiday in Which He Finds a Very Strange Book and Is Followed Home) but of course ghost stories aren't meant to make us laugh, as he would sternly inform us. And so, in that vein, James' advice for writing the most terrifying and brilliant stories ever. But first, some dots ....

Let's have some more .....


"Contemporary, even ordinary...."

First off, the author thinks, "as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet and hear any day." This is something I noticed long before the appendix: James loves to sneak the terror up on you so he deliberately avoids trying to build a dreadful atmosphere. The drier the atmosphere, the more impact the eventual introduction of the ghost will have. He'll start off with a very plain, simple, quotidian chain of events and ever so lightly add in that one strange dusty object that, of course, turns out to -- whoops! -- open a portal to hell. Or, as he puts it, your protagonists must be "undisturbed by forebodings, pleased by their surroundings."

No nice ghosts....

Another requisite "is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable ghosts and helpful apparitions are all very well... but I have no use for them." True enough. James will never introduce the ghost of a friendly uncle to help you find a bit of hidden treasure. No, he'll make you wish you had never blown that whistle, written that letter, disturbed that skull or opened that book. His ghosts aren't fucking around. They do want
to kill you. And often succeed.

"Some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories...."

Though, as mentioned, James likes a contemporary setting, you are allowed to hazard a few ghosts out of the past, although preferably obscured by "a slight haze of distance," for instance, thirty years ago, or "some time before the war." If you can somehow create the effect that you are handing down a "true narrative of remarkable circumstances" that happened to, say your cousin, then you have all the more authority, and everything you say is decidedly scarier.

If you do prefer your ghosts ancient, at least have some sort of rational or contemporary interlocutor to bring it into the present. Medieval knights being chased by ghosts are a nice bit of folk tale, but not really frightening. The ghosts of medieval knights chasing a hapless antiquarian, though, seem all right (because the antiquarian's "finding of documents about it can be made plausible").

Not too gory, please....

James likes to frighten you to death. He does not like to dismember your corpse. If any blood is shed in his stories -- which can indeed involve violent death; how do you think the demons get you? -- it must be "shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded." Got it?

The Climax....

A must: the nicely managed crescendo. James likes the slow burn but once he's got the ghost going, he knows he's got to bring it home and quick while you're still feeling shivery. Drag it out too long and your reader gets bored. A bored person is seldom shivery.

And finally --

Use big words to embiggen your story.....

Here are just a few words I found whilst reading Casting the Runes: peroration, recrudescence, veridical and recondite. I have no idea what any of them mean, which is why M.R. James is a famous writer and I am not. I am going to learn these big words and sprinkle them in all my stories until everyone who reads them thinks I'm so smart I must know what I'm talking about.


Now you should be equipped to "inspire a pleasing terror" in your reader. But first, perhaps, a few selections from James' reading list. Where he has indicated specific titles, I have faithfully reproduced them here. If only a name is supplied, it means James recommends them pretty much across the board.

- J.S. LeFanu (apparently everything he wrote was "absolutely of the first rank")
- Mrs. Oliphant, "The Open Door"
- Marion Crawford's "Uncanny Tales"
- W. de Morgan, "Alice For Short"
- E.F. Benson
- Ambrose Bierce
- A.M. Burrage, "Some Ghost Stories"

Go forth and read, and write.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Post-weekend smatterings: Hotels and old photos

This Times article recounts the endearing tale of Abe Lincoln's 1860 visit to NYC and his stay at the Astor House Hotel. I love the story of how the Illinois senator seemed so ill-at-ease in his countrified garb... until he started speaking.

And my new favorite website is, from whence this view of the NY harbor circa 1901 was taken. Scroll through their amazing photo archives for hours of fun and inspiration.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Medical London: A Self-Guided Walking Tour

Nobody is healthy in London; nobody can be.

I mentioned this before,
here. (Since I've waited an awfully long time to blog about it, you are forgiven if you don't immediately recall.) Designed by the good people at Strange Attractor, and published by the Wellcome Collection and Trust, Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, is a portmanteau, part map, part history, part walking-tour guide, stuffed with beautifully illustrated full-color prints of such points of interest as Bedlam Insane Asylum and Thomas Crapper's water-closet manufactory. This wondrous cabinet of endless delights promises to "guide its readers on their own journey through the city’s streets and landmarks, and resurrect the vanished traces of its past."

Indeed it does, though I wonder if these sites aren't best enjoyed in the imagination. It's always terribly disappointing to go somewhere you've been dying to go for ages, where you've built up a mythology in your mind, only to find it's been turned into a McDonald's or something. The book is rich and seductive, promising such untold delights as a walk through the footsteps of Daniel Defoe in the plague year, "pox and pleasure" in Soho by night, and perhpas most wonderfully of all, a walk entitled "Gallows, Ghosts and Golden Boys: A day in the life of an eighteenth century medical student" ("Round off your day with a visit to the haunted house on Cock Lane.... can you keep up with the hectic life of a London medical student at the dawn of the Enlightenment?").

The six walking tours, organized thematically, are briefly outlined in the fold-out maps, and supplemented by a corresponding guidebook that presents the themes geographically (sound confusing? it is, at first, then you realize each walk is organized twice, once by theme and then again by location... and they don't line up quite exactly but presumably this all makes sense when you're walking the streets of London as opposed to lying in bed in Brooklyn).

The accompanying booklet, Sick Sity, is written by an actual doctor, so you know it's good for you, and divided into chapters with titles like City of Multitudes, City of Money, City of Madness, etc. City of Madness is my favorite, because where else would I read about "railway spine" and other neurotic diseases of the 19th century?
Dr. Richard Barnett has a flair with his pen and phrases like this, in City of Pleasure, are thoroughly entertaining:

"Classical theories of medicine, based around the four humors, stressed the importance of a balanced existence as the key to good health. A little of what you fancy might do you good; reckless intemperance on the other hand, would lead to decline, disspiation and even death -- most of all through the spread of venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and the dreaded syphilis, a chilling apotheosis of pleasure's private agonies."

There are lots of fun facts in this book, like did you know that medical students made life-sized plaster casts of dead criminals and even nicknamed some of them? My favorite: Smugglerius, the cast of a dead smuggler. And the suggestions for further reading are fairly mind-boggling: how can I not read Jonathan Swift after this description of a city shower:

"Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats all drenched in mud, dead cats and turnips-tops come tumbling down the flood."

And now the final question: why hasn't someone written a book called Medical New York?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fog: Or, Betty Draper Approaches Horror-Movie Levels of Weirdness

I've been fascinated by Betty in Mad Men ever since "Shoot" in Season 1 (you know, the one
where she shoots the neighbor's pigeons). She is tragic, she is insipid, she is repressed (but she's remarkably dressed) she's the gorgeous blonde caged bird who's been clearly nuts from the start but hasn't yet totally boiled over. Season 3 is her time. Each year she becomes more and more insane. At first, it was just a little harmless couch time. Then it was drinking in bedraggled party dresses at ten in the morning and porking strangers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But now, with last night's episode, our neurotic housewife and tattered WASP princess approaches horror-movie levels of madness.

The birth/birthing trope is a staple of the genre, from Dead Ringers to the Brood to Rosemary's Baby. There's nothing quite as terrifying as birth -- where else can so much go so monumentally wrong? -- and we've all seen enough Bad Seeds to know that the horror doesn't stopped once you've pooped them out your lady-chute. Procreation is a mine-field of potential disasters as children have the unique ability to shatter marriages and destroy a mother's delicate mental health with their shrill cries and constant demands. So it's no wonder Betty's birthing episode is the catalyst for the breakdown we've been waiting for these past two years.

The episode begins with Betty in Sally's classroom, hearing about her offspring's latest mischief from an earnestly idiotic third grade pedagogue. She gets up to pee, saying, "I can't control this." Her body is this THING she can't deal with, see? Flash forward to the birth. Betty's unnatural calm is in evidence, as usual, but begins to break down when she notices her "father" sweeping up in the hospital hallway. Note this is before Betty takes any drugs. Once she gets her "twilight sleep" on, there's no stopping her. Fabulous Lynchian hallucinations alternate with psychotic episodes in which Betty screams obscenities at her nurses, until finally, she hallucinates a conversation with her father. (Her mother -- and Medgar Evars -- are also present in the land of the dead.) Her father tells her: "You're a housecat. Very important with not much to do." Then she wakes up and names the baby Eugene.

A few minutes later, we see Betty standing at the window of her hospital room, holding the baby and waving at her family on the street, smiling serenely. For the rest of the episode she appears preternaturally calm and serene; when she arrives home she smilingly assures her friend the birth was nothing ("You know, it was all a fog") and that she'll make do just fine without any hired help. Meanwhile, we see Don and Sally have a conversation about the baby sleeping in Grandpa Gene's room ("It's not Grandpa Gene's room, it's the baby's room," Don reminds her) and since the apple doesn't fall far from the crazy tree, I'll be keeping my eye on that Sally kid, too.

The episode ends, naturally, with baby crying. Betty gets out of bed and walks down the hallway. Throughout her hallucinations we have been treated to several shots of the back of her perfectly-coiffed blonde head. This parting shot mimics that sense of unreality, as we watch her walk down the hall from behind. She stops, and steels herself before she enters the baby's room.

That moment where she has to physically steel herself to go into the room of that squalling infant, born amid clouds of paternal guilt, living in the dead father's room, named after him for goodness' sake, is, I believe, the most disturbing in a long list of disturbing Betty moments. What mother has to steel herself before entering her newborn baby's room, I ask you? No good will come of this ghost baby, or Betty's twilight sleep, I tell you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Update! With boats!

So apparently no one cares about this thing, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Harbor Day. The bluest of blue September skies, sunlight sparkling on the water, and this coming at me out of the narrows:

That's right, it's the replica of the Half Moon! I stood on the Battery and watched it moved through the Upper Bay on its way up the Hudson.

All right, so it's lame. It's lame to be kind of awed by the exact same view you would have had 400 years ago. But tell that to the over-excitable Cypriot who captained my (free!) water taxi right this afternoon as we sailed up the Hudson among the flotilla of Dutch naval craft both modern and antique! George freaked out when we saw the replica of the Onrust dock at the Intrepid ("Onrust means restless, I just learned that today"). But we won't believe you.

Maybe you're too cool (or hate Robert Moses too much) to be awed by the sight of the graceful Verrazano Bridge spanning the narrows on your left while the GWB soars across to the sheer cliffsides of the New Jersey palisades on your right, but I'm not, and George is definitely not. Our tour guide, after handing out junior captain's badges and launching into the occasional spontaneous Billy Joel song, pointed madly as we sailed downriver, the Half Moon still partially in our sights, and excitedly screamed into the mic, "We're in the flotilla! We're in the flotilla!"

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: St. Paul's Chapel and The Half Moon

You know how they say there's something about autumn in New York? Well, perhaps there is a little something unusual about this season in our coastal city. Events of great significance seem to happen in lower Manhattan in early September, leading me to wonder if there isn't some sort of geographical and temporal convergence here on the Eastern seaboard at a latitude of 40.74°N.

Now, not to get silly, but there are certain places around this town with a little more presence than others. I'm not talking about the gaping hole in the ground where everyone is gathered today. I am talking about a small, pretty structure that lives right next door: St. Paul's Chapel.

St. Paul's has its back to Broadway; its entrance faces west onto its own compact churchyard, giving it an air of separateness from the city. There is a distinct feeling of peace in that churchyard, and the long-standing building, the oldest in lower Manhattan, is unique for having survived the many disasters that felled its Colonial neighbors. Inside it looks more like a baroque drawing room than a Protestant church, all pale blues and pastels and crystal chandeliers -- you wouldn't be surprised to see Cupids cavorting on the ceiling -- giving it a light, airy, and distinctly non-oppressive, non-denominational feel. In other words, you are not overwhelmed with religiosity. Now a surviving Colonial building may not seem like much unless you know what has happened in lower Manhattan over the years - for instance, a great fire in 1835 destroyed nearly everything. (Trinity Church, in contrast, has been destroyed and rebuilt twice.) And St. Paul's location right next to the twin towers is positively astonishing -- the towers turned into huge columns of ash and St. Paul's survived with nary a crystal of its chandeliers shattered. Only its pipe organ was damaged by dust, rendered unplayable, and a single tree -- one tree -- was felled.

The chapel now is the most vivid and moving memorial to 9-11 that exists in this city; simple displays of the cots used to shelter rescue workers as they sifted through the wreckage are still set up in the aisles, accompanied by handwritten notes of thanks. Somehow, between the strange, quiet, steady peacefulness of the church and churchyard, and these simple monuments to thanks and grace, St. Paul's gave me pause in a way that few other places in New York ever have. There is a steadiness to this place, an uninterrupted steadfastness, that quietly yet firmly whispers to you as you walk through, "This is our church. And our city. And no one will disturb it." Gazing at the front of the building from the strangely silent churchyard (where did all that street noise go?) you can believe the chapel is sternly warning you, daring you to touch it or its island's inhabitants. It's almost intimidating. This tiny, unostentatious chapel will not be moved. You don't see a lot a buildings so obstinate. St. Paul's, I think, will always watch out for this city.

Another important September 11, of course, was 1609. History nerds will be celebrating the voyage of the Half Moon today, without which New York would never have been colonized and we wouldn't have all those charming Dutch names peppering our streets and lexicons (Bowery, stoop). I'm rather fond of Henry Hudson myself, the strange man who overtaxed his crew in this relentless search for the Northwest Passage until they finally mutinied and dumped him in the freezing waters of Hudson Bay. I have to admire that kind of singlemindedness, and of course the tragic eloquence of all those explorers who searched desperately for passages that were never found, and died before the world was fully mapped. What can I say, I love stories of human failure. But wait -- a kind of posthumous vindication may have finally come to the captain of the Half Moon. Today on the cover of the New York Times I read the following headline: Arctic Shortcut, Long a Dream, Beckons Shippers as Ice Thaws.

See Henry? All you had to do was wait for the ice to melt. Now you know what would be really ironic? All that sea ice washing over our little archipelago and swallowing us whole. But that won't happen for many Septembers, I think.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Best September Ever?


Just look at the myriad fun activities blessing our fair city this month:

Harbor Day! Celebrate the quadricentennial in style with a fitting, watery tribute to Henry Hudson. If you can't make it to one of the four Hudson River Rambles, or the Half Moon Annual Voyage of Discovery (Voyage of Discovery!), at least make it to Harbor Day for free bikes, boat rides and all the oysters you can eat (though I think you have to pay for the oysters).

Too dorky? Nuts to you. But maybe NY Craft Beer week would be more your speed. Any event involving a beer passport sounds just jim dandy to me.

But what's that you say? You don't like beer? Strange. Well, what about wine? The Bohemian Hall will serve up Moravian wines as part of their Vinobrani festival on Sept. 12th and 13th. I'm not sure what Vinobrani is, but they say it "kicks off the start of harvest season" and that's all right by me. While I'm only "meh" about wine, I'm very excited about the promise of the "delicious pastries," they mention in their ad.

Yup, harbors and harvest festivals. That's what it's all about this month. And if you can't find joy in that then I can't help you.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The City Concealed

I've been watching these videos and getting a mild kick out of them, especially the dour Newton Creek episode. I especially like all the old maps and clippings ... but what about this story I've heard told, that the creek caught on fire at one point in the '80s? That wasn't in the video. Maybe it was the Gowanus Canal? I know Newton had a massive oil spill, but I'm sure *something* caught fire. Off to research now... or possibly just wait til one of my more astute readers writes in and schools me (please? it's so much easier then Googling things for myself).

Monday, August 31, 2009


Early in 2009, I got caught up in a '30s mood, what with the economic collapse and all, and suddenly got a yen to read That Scatterbrain Booky. Now it doesn't take much to put me in a '30s mood -- I don't know what I like about the decade 1929-1939, if it's the drama of a total worldwide economic collapse, the amazing fact that red-blooded Americans actually dared to try the New Deal and give us the massive public works projects we still enjoy today (Sunset Park pool!), the slimming fashions or the wonderful, wonderful movies (probably the latter) but there's something about this era that really appeals to me. Now, after finally getting around to re-reading the Booky Trilogy (I had to go home to Ontario to get it, since it's not readily available in the States), I realize it may have been ingesting these books as a child that made me such a fan of the Depression. You know, if one can be said to be a "fan" of a Depression.

But Bernice Thurman's snappy YA novels make growing up in 1930s Toronto sound downright fun. There's so much to love about these books: richly drawn characters, Booky's unique voice, coming-of-age poignancy, etc., but it's the finely-etched details of old Toronto that truly captivate me.

The Canadian specificity -- dropping phrases like "Bloor and Jane" without feeling the least need to explain that those are street names; adulation for L.M. Montgomery; rapturous descriptions of Ontario Place; references to Muskoka and Laura Secord chocolates -- is refreshing. It does a heart good to read a Canadian book, I tell you. Photographs and images from the Eaton's archives and catalogue are scattered throughout, interspersed with photos from the author's private collection (and what appear to be stills from a CBC adaptation, starring a girl who looks for all the world like Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall).

"For all the world." Well that's a Booky phrase right there.

Characters in her book talk in a sweet, sort of down-home vernacular peppered with quaint phrases and the "latest slang" (by cracky!) and after 480 straight pages of it, it starts to rub off on you. People in her books are always hollering, getting their hopes dashed, and being thrilled. It's hard to read it through and not start dropping those phrases (I think I'll ask my husband if he'll give me a nickel for a shinplaster, then go down and see a friend for a good chinwag).

While it's hard to read the books without feeling serious twinges of nostalgia for bygone Toronto institutions (The Uptown Nuthouse, Eaton's), if you aren't equally caught up in the story of Booky's family, you have no heart (I defy anyone to read the passage where Willa can't go to medical school because she's a girl without feeling enraged). The first book, set in 1932-1933 is the most nerve-wracking, set as it is in the profoundest depths of the depression. As the story wears on, the family begins to fare better financially and the books turn to rather more frivolous subjects (like boys, kissing parties, and the universal girl experience, the bad perm) and other aspects of our heroine begin to emerge: her ambition to be a writer, for instance, is touched on in the second book and fully explored in the third. When her little brother steals and reads her diary, he saves himself from a thorough ass-whooping by apologizing and telling her, "It was just like reading a real book." She stops, hand poised in mid-air. "Do you really mean that?" "Yes, I'm sorry." "No. About it being just like a real book."

And and book with the following passage has got to steal my heart, it's just got to:
"Bea..." his voice became suddenly shy like Jimmy Stewart's.
"What?" Mine went all husky like Jean Arthur's.
"Will you be my girl?"

Thurman-Hunter's descriptions of her family and friends in Swansea (a neighborhood near High Park) are, quite literally, unforgettable: Willa and Arthur and Aunt Aggie and Aunt Susan and Cousin Winn and Aunt Milly and Grandpa and Roy-Roy and Raggedy Rachel.... Seriously -- you will start to hallucinate these people on the street. Even her littlest brothers, Jakey and Billy, develop defined voices and personalities by the third book (I have a soft spot for Billy, possibly because the harrowing story of his birth is addressed in such detail in the first book, or possibly because he's just such a darn sweetheart: "You're the best cooker in the world, mum!") She's got some wonderful spinster aunts, too. Her Aunt Susan started the Uptown Nuthouse during the depression -- a double-whammy of impossibility -- and her Aunt Aggie ran their Muskoka farm singlehandedly. In the third book, Bea wins an essay contest in the now-defunct Toronto Telegram by writing about her Aunt Aggie (the title of her essay? "The Bravest Man I Know Is A Woman"). I'm dying to get my hands on that -- surely it must exist on microfilm somewhere? I wonder why it wasn't reproduced in the book. The events in the series are mostly true-to-life (though "enlivened" a bit, I'm sure) but I wonder if that part really happened.

Well, even if it didn't really happen, it feels to me as though it did, as though I could go down to Hunter's corner store and pick up a copy of the Telly right now. Maybe it's a by-product of reading the entire trilogy straight through, but all these people and places seem so immediate.
Maybe this week at the Ex, the Swansea ghosts will rumble down to the the gates in Sandy Beasley's rattly old slat-sided truck and sneak in some free rides.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Imagination Picnic

A few days' hard work -- and some good advice -- helped me turn my POS screenplay around (yes, that's right, my point of sale screenplay) and it's not half bad now, if I may be so bold (it's amazing how letting things breathe allows them to, well, live... every time I write a new script I realize how much I cram scenes on top of one another out of a terrible fear of being boring, then I always have to go back in and rip out lots of chatter and create some quiet time for my characters). Plus, it's cold and rainy today which is so refreshing. It's definitely the perfect day for Green-Wood walks and Brit Noir. And I can cook -- in my own kitchen! -- without creating an inferno of biblical proportions. So what if it's too cold outside to have a picnic. I can create my own imaginary indoor picnic with Mad Men and booze! Rice Krispie treats for all!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Potboilers and Beach Reads

In honor of the last days of summer, and because the bright blue sky outside beckons so I simply can't stay at home scanning old maps today, here's a review of the books that topped my list this year instead.

In A Lonely Place
Dorothy B. Hughes

It's been so long since I read In A Lonely Place (I started in July) that I can't give an adequate review -- I point you to this blurb on the Feminist Press website -- but I had to mention it, if only in passing. Everyone, go out and read it. We all know I loved the movie, and the book is vastly different, but it's so good and hardboiled and suspensy and written BY A GIRL no less. And it predates Highsmith and blah, blah, blah, oh, just read it.


No that's out of the way... My second favorite summer read was "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" by Katherine Howe.

Sure, it's a total beach read, and it's kind of silly -- it's about witchcraft, how eerie! -- and so forth, but come on! It's like a Nancy Drew for grownups! If you enjoy finding secret house filled with spells and think it's funny to call it "The Phsyick Book of Danity Kane" you'll like this book, I guarantee it. The fact that you're reading something a mere step up from the Da Vinci Code? Whatever, it's summer, and it's a pretty big step. The prose, in other words, won't make you choke. Sure the third act is inane (it involves stealing pee!) but it starts off so well that I forgave it any number of missteps (like, say, extreme obviousness). Our heroine, Connie, though oftentimes oddly dense for a Harvard grad student, is engaging and awkwardly charming, and the story speeds along at a brisk clip. I also like little touches, like the Wiccan at the local magic shop being kind of useless and unhelpful, and a purveyor of expired herbs (what can I say, I respect anyone who shows restraint whilst dealing with the eminently mockable neo-pagans). Anyway, if you enjoy witchcraft and whiling away the summer hours, you could do worse.

But Danity Kane is only recommended reading. In A Lonely Place is required reading.

The Thing That Ate My Summer

"This is what I've spent the last three months on?!" That bitter lament, and some hair tearing-out, was the first reaction upon reading -- or re-reading, as it were -- my horrible, horrible, lemon horrible screenplay. Why did I think a stupid story about body-swapping teen witches was a good idea? Sigh. Someone really must stop me from doing things in the future.

Also: in the "So that's why no one came to my birthday party!" department, I found the following circa 1993 snapshot in my room while cleaning:

Those combat boots really were a bitch to tie up. No wonder I look so cross.

Sigh again. What the eff, people? Is this really how I'm to end my days? Writing absurd dialogue about a 15th century Huguenot "truth-telling" demon (protoplasmic byproduct of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre) and leafing through old photographs from my suburban adolescence? I really didn't think I'd turn out that way.

But all is not lost. I've come up with a great new name for my tippler's club: The Diddlebock Society, named after sad failure Harold Diddlebock (from this movie), who finds renewed zest for life after drinking a spectacular eponymous cocktail.

My favorite quote from this Sturges/Lloyd oddity: "Maybe they were right to fire me. I've gone soft. Your mind gets dull after twenty years working the same job, taking the same train every day, sitting at the same desk doing the same work, taking the same route home again." Find more about our club's namesake here.

And I'm still gearing up for the Big One: the post to end all posts (until the next post, naturally). I'll have to do it another night though, when I've gotten over the horrifying realization that I can't actually write, and am content to merely relay information and scan pretty maps and pictures. Yes, maps! Won't that be exciting!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Excuses, excuses

The non-bloggage of late has been due to the finishing of another script -- the imminent finishing! -- and the gearing up of a massive coupla posts that will blow your mind and make you a hypochondriac forever, guaranteed. Intrigued? Good, you should be.

There, that oughta shut them up. FOOLS!

Whoops. I said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The New Yorker is stealing my thoughts again

As this article about Laura Ingalls Wilder proves (I recently re-read the series, remember?). It doesn't add much to what we already know: Laura had a hard life, she co-wrote the books with her daughter. Fin. Who cares, really, that her daughter was kind of a nutso bitch? Laura's political leanings are somewhat more interesting, and she was apparently the first person to use the word "libertarian" in its modern political context. The author of the article points out, though, that this staunch liberation benefitted greatly from the aid of many government institutions, including the state-funded College for the Blind that Mary attended and the "boughten" goods they loved so much. No settler is an island, I guess.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Regression Therapy -- Free!

Well, now that the secret's out, I suppose there's no point in hiding it any longer: Governor's Island is freaking awesome. Last Friday a friend and I cycled merrily all the day long, and a funny thing happened. As we rode past the trees and water with nary a care in the world -- no cars! no helmets! -- we found ourselves regressing farther and farther back into a childlike state. The conversation stopped being about the economy and our search for work (there's a reason we're riding bikes at 10 am on a Friday) and started being about... how neat-looking the houses were, how much we totally wanted to see the zombie movie playing in the abandoned theatre (but couldn't stop cycling yet! just once more around!), how the island was shaped like an ice cream cone, and how truly we both loved hammocks.

There was little to buy on the island, nowhere really to spend or make money, no fear that anyone would steal our island-issued bikes, and (best of all) free mini golf. The sun warmed us, the breeze cooled us. We were four years old, we were ten years old. Our minds were empty yet present, like a happy Buddhist. By the end of the day we would require seven minutes to choose an ice cream flavor. There's something about that place, I tell you.

Perhaps it was the soothing motion of circling the island repeatedly, or maybe the sound of the waves. Maybe it was the distance from the city. I think the lack of anywhere to spend money was a big factor, and the feeling of safety, that nothing bad could possibly happen here. It was like being a child or being in... Canada. I felt protected, as though by a big benevolent government that would take care of all my basic needs, like some sort of cosmic mommy was watching out for us. I hope the island never changes. I could stand a little more mystical infantile regression, because being ten? It's amazing.

P.S. City of Water Day is tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Goodbye Student Loan Payments!

Congratulations! You no longer need to go to film school, now that The Dancing Image has curated the world's most comprehensive syllabus of film-related reading! My suggestions are on there, so you know it's good.

Now you can go study something important instead, like science. Your parents will be so relieved.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A truly insightful reading of "By the Shores of Silver Lake," wherein I see sex everywhere

So apparently some readers thought my last post was "too long." Ha! I say. Ha! Little do you know that was only the first part! I chopped it in half for you and it was still too long! What would Pa say? Something folksy and wise about not quitting before a job is done, I imagine. So read on, if you will, because we're not nearly done yet.

Moving on....

Book Four! On The Banks of Plum Creek! As a child, all I thought was, "Neat, they live in a sod house! Just like a hobbit hole!" Now all I see is an opening sequence riddled with regret and dark foreshadowing as the family rolls their covered wagon into Minnesota. When Pa trades the mustangs, Pet and Patty, for two stout oxen, he tells Laura, "Pet and Patty like to travel. They are little Indian ponies, Laura, and plowing is too hard work for them. They will be much happier, traveling out west. You wouldn't want to keep them here, breaking their hearts on a plow." Of course anyone but a dunderhead could see those two little ponies are Pa and Laura.

Not only does the series get darker at this point, but the writing becomes more self-consciously literary, like Laura's warming up with practice (she really loves foreshadowing, and perfects it in The Long Winter). Incidentally, the first two books were rather fictional -- recollections mixed with historical research, muddled dates -- whereas from this point on it becomes more accurate, with fixed dates that line up with actual events.

From page one, Plum Creek stews in an atmosphere of sadness and dread. There are some amusing episodes, like fixing up the dugout house and swimming in the swimming hole and sliding down haystacks, but for the most part we're just bombarded with Pa's sense of regret at no longer living out west, Ma's dissatisfaction at living in the dugout, and the great deferred reward of the first wheat crop which we all know will never come as soon as we read this passage:

"I never saw weather like this. The old-timers call it grasshopper weather." "Whatever do they mean by that?" Ma asked him. Pa shook his head. "You can't prove it by me. 'Grasshopper weather' was what Nelson said. I couldn't make out what he meant by it." "Likely it's some old Norwegian saying," Ma said.

As if we weren't 100% sure disaster was coming, Pa builds a magnificent house for Ma, all with lumber he got on credit. Credit! He'll pay it back after the first wheat crop comes in. Everything will be all right after that first wheat crop comes in. Oh, Pa.

More in the continuing man-versus-nature metaphor series: When Laura is compelled to go into the rising creek during a flood -- she simply has to feel that strong, rushing water around her -- and nearly drowns, she develops a newfound appreciation for almighty, terrible nature:
"Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the creek had not got her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry."

Life goes on by the Banks of Plum Creek. School. Nellie Oleson. Church. And then, two summers in a row, terrible plagues of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers everywhere, destroying everything. And drought, terrible drought. Laura couldn't get the creepy feeling off her skin. Pa had to walk 300 miles east in his old, patched boots and work on a farm for a dollar a day to feed the family. The girls are alone without him for weeks at a time. Devastating stuff. And I complained when I found one little old cockroach in my bed.

The book ends with Pa spending four days in a snowbank during a terrible blizzard and coming home just in time to spend Christmas with his family. He had gone to town to get Christmas candy and oyster crackers but had to eat them all to stay alive during the blizzard. (Ironically, the snow-bank shelter was mere feet from the house! Oh, Pa!) But none of it matters, because Pa comes back and the family is together again.

But, characteristically, the sweet ending is merely a brief reprieve from more devastation. The first two chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake reduced me to tears on the subway: Mary's gone blind from scarlet fever, and Jack the Bulldog dies. The family moves west to South Dakota, settling in a railroad camp, where Ma gets more uptight than ever. And who can blame her, with teams of rough men using rough language around her curious, pubescent daughter. More than once she and Pa warn Laura away from those rough men, and when they take in boarders, Ma gives Laura a sliver of wood to wedge beneath her bedroom door.

Silver Lake is all about Laura hitting puberty, from specific pronouncements of "being grown up now" (after Jack dies) to the horror she feels when she discovers a girl her age had been married, to this slightly mysterious passage wherein Laura is compelled to follow a path of moonlight late at night, and runs straight into a wolves' den:

"I had no idea you would go so far," Pa said. "We followed the moonpath, Laura told him. Pa looked at her strangely. "You would," he said. "Poor girl. You're as nervous as a witch and no wonder," Ma said softly.

Whoa, what's going on here? Is this just more of Laura's irrepressible spirit? Or is it something else that leads Ma and Pa to whisper earnestly once she's out of earshot? Is their wild daughter bursting at the seams with unbidden adolescent yearnings? Did she get her first period? Something is happening. The book is riddled with allusions to Laura's burgeoning maturity and sexuality, and it's no coincidence that it is here we finally see her life intersect with future husband Almanzo Wilder's (she first sees his strong, handsome team of horses and admires them, before she learns whom they belong to... wait, doesn't Freud have a thing about horses? Is that why there's a chapter about her wild older cousin teaching her to ride a horse? Oh my gosh! I never realized the Little House books were so sexually charged!).

Besides dealing with Laura's transition to adolescence/adulthood, the book is also unique for introducing, for the first time in the series, an impressionistic interior monologue. When baby Grace goes missing under Laura's watch and she's terrified that the child might have wandered into a slough, we get the following:
"Oh, Grace why didn't I watch you," she thought. "Sweet, pretty little helpless sister... Grace must have gone this way. Maybe she chased a butterfly. She didn't go into the Big Slough. She didn't climb the hill, she wasn't there. Oh, baby sister, I couldn't see you anywhere east or south on this hateful prairie."

This is the only instance I can find of first-person narration anywhere so far in the series.

Laura will be up to her old literary tricks again in The Long Winter, foreshadowing like crazy. I have to stop here for tonight, and probably won't re-read the book (having devoured it this winter, along with my weight in cheese curds) but if you just can't get enough Ingalls-ania, you might do worse than check out Lizzie Skurnick's compelling reading of it here.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

I'm too fragile for this

I recently decided to re-read the Little House on the Prairie series in its entirety. I can't say why. Perhaps its because the books are so vivid in my memory, with that sensuous and tactile prose... for whatever reason, I gave into the urge, and they're much darker than I remember them being (except for the Long Winter, which is exactly as dark as I remember it being, though much more complex).

I started with the innocuous Farmer Boy, a plodding, dullish read enlivened mainly by mouth-watering descriptions of what Almanzo Wilder ate. Almanzo, of course, is Laura's future husband, who won't come into the series again until book five, and Farmer Boy is a one-off about his life as a child.

The Wilders are upright, upstanding citizens who live on a prosperous farm in upstate New York. In Farmer Boy, children seem to work from sunup to sundown, not pausing to rest til Sunday. The long stretches of manual labor are broken only by immense quantities of the aforementioned food, served up hot and fresh daily by mother, who seems never to stop cooking. The children only play when their parents leave on a ten-day vacation, during which time they promptly eat up almost all the sugar. A staid little book, but nonetheless a romantic notion (imagining your husband's childhood is very sweet, isn't it?). Also, it sets the stage for their later meeting, showing Almanzo and Laura to be equally obsessed with horses. It's a meeting of the minds, see?

The Ingalls family, by comparison, is a riot. In Little House in the Big Woods, the girls actually play and Ma even helps them cut out paper dolls! I couldn't believe it -- imagine, playing! The Wilders never had that kind of leisure time. And at night, Pa would even play with them! He'd play Mad Dog, cornering them by the woodstove, his hair all on end. And then he would play the fiddle, something the bloodless Mr. Wilder would never do.

And the leniency, by jinks! Pa forgives Laura for being naughty on Sunday and even forgives her for slapping Mary! In the tenderest of scenes, he comforts the child, distracted by jealousy over Mary's golden curls: when the little brunette asks him which he prefers, brown hair or golden, he replies, "Well, Laura, my hair is brown."

Lizzie Skurnick 's somewhat breathless account of this scene, and of the whole book, really, hits all its highest points: pig slaughter, sugaring off dances, and Pa's mysterious yet undeniable attractiveness. Another point I'd like to bring up here is the faintly zen quality to the book's last paragraph:

She thought to herself, this is now. She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Pa, you see, is singing Auld Land Syne, and four-year-old Laura is coming to terms with the very concept of time itself. How can it pass and be forgotten, when she is there, ever present in the moment, and writing it all down just for us?

So, moving from Farmer Boy to Little House, it seemed to me that the Wilders were about as much fun as a Pilgrim crossed with an Amish and Ma and Pa, by contrast, come off like a bunch of frivolous hippies. At least, in the beginning they do.

But then things get serious.

Life takes an interesting turn when the Ingallses trade their cosy, merry ways for the wild life on the road and in Indian Territory. Little House on the Prairie is by far the most adventurous and incredible of the books, the wildest and least domestic, even though a large portion of the narrative is devoted to the building of the house.

The book begins with a tinge of sadness, something I notice becomes more pronounced as the series goes on (subsequent books open with sadness, or foreboding, or both). It starts with them leaving the little house in the big woods: "They left it lonely and empty ... and they never saw that little house again."

They make a late winter crossing of the Mississippi and the very next night they hear the ice cracking: they crossed in the nick of time. It's the first of many scrapes and near-death experiences. The creek rises in the middle of a crossing and Pa must get out and swim with the horses while Ma takes the reins; they nearly lose Jack the Bulldog; Ma's foot is almost crushed during the building of the house; rings of wolves surround the house and howl at night; later, tribes of Indians on the warpath howl for days and only the intervention of a friendly Indian saves all the settlers from getting scalped; Pa and Mr. Scott are almost killed building the well; a prairie fire ravages the earth; and the whole family nearly dies of malaria. Finally, finally, through all of this, the family prevails, and begins to plant a garden in the first days of spring. Not long after the first green shoots appear, soldiers comes from out East to inform Pa that he's built his house three miles too far over the line into Indian Territory and the whole family must get out and move.

I'll give you a moment to let the devastation kick in.*

The house. The well. The cow. The barn. They must leave it all behind -- a year of hard work and sacrifice and waiting -- and go. Just when they're finally getting settled. It never occurred to me as a child to be utterly devastated by this, but now as an adult I read it and feel sick. "A whole year's gone," says Ma. But Pa cannot be defeated: "We've got all the time in the world, Caroline."

Of course, the series is nothing if not a tribute to Pa's indomitable spirit. He and Laura are kindred spirits, perfectly matched, both of whom long to run wild all over the west (if Caroline had let him, I'm sure Pa would've gone out to Oregon eventually). Their mutual love of wild country finds its outlet in a passage here wherein Laura's emotional reaction to the papoose is strong and mysterious and visceral:

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her. Only its small head showed above the basket's rim. Its hair was as black as a crow and its eyes were as black as a night when no stars shine. Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.

Laura screams and cries for the baby, much to Ma's astonishment: "Why on earth do you want an Indian baby, of all things?"

"Its eyes are so black," Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant.

I defy you to read that and not know exactly what she meant.

The family hauls picket pike and leaves, heading out once again and making camp on the prairie. Laura turns into Hemingway all of a sudden, describing the "good supper" ("They ate the good supper hot from the fire. Pet and Patty munched the good grass."). From time to time Laura's descriptive prose will be enlivened by pretty lyricism, like this passage about the singing stars:

Softly Pa's fiddle sang in the starlight. Sometimes he sang a little and sometimes the fiddle sang alone. Sweet and thin and far away, the fiddle went on singing. 'None knew thee but to love thee, the dear one of my heart.' The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with the music. Laura gasped and Ma came quickly. "What is it, Laura?" she asked, and Laura whispered, "The stars were singing..."

That night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.

Pa and Laura share an appreciation of these beautiful things, a sense of the poetry of their hard life on the prairie, a love of motion and open space. When the family moves out of Indian Territory, they are chastened, and quiet, and yet Laura, "Felt all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon."

If only the rest of their tale lived up to the promise of adventure. But the next book, I'm afraid, will be very sad indeed.

To be continued.... (You can read the second half of this post here!)

* Apparently Laura played fast and loose with the facts here, and it may not have happened exactly that way... in fact, it probably didn't. There's also a good chance the family was living on that land illegally. There's an interesting article on the Osage point of view here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

New York in the Movies

The original Penn Station, circa 1910.

The demolition of Penn Station is one of the great blots on New York's architectural history. Designed by the prestige firm McKim, Mead and White and completed in 1910, it was demolished a mere fifty-three years later when the prevalence of the automobile led to a decrease in train use and revenue. It was a much protested, and tragic affair, especially considering the great trouble it took to build in the first place. The Bowery Boys have a great podcast on this feat of design and engineering.

I'm kind of obsessed with the old Penn Station, the quintessential symbol of cultural loss through short-sighted urban planning, so I was struck when I saw Farley Granger running down those grandiose steps in Strangers on a Train. I love it when my obsessions intersect.

Look for it at the 7:05-minute mark.

There's a neat little website that lists Penn Station's celluloid cameos, should you want to run out and hunt them down immediately. Be forewarned though, you'll be saddened when you do.

Also be forewarned that someone actually wrote this on Imdb: "When Guy jumps in the cab after the tennis match he tells the driver "Penn Station", when clearly he arrives at Grand Central Station." Yes, clearly. Be careful what you read, for the truth can only be found on Spinster Aunt.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Basking in Betty White's Adorableness

Because I will see literally anything with Betty White in it, I found myself at the cinema last night watching the Proposal. (Does that sentence sound ungrammatical? I don't care.) Here's the deal, kids. I don't like romantic comedies, usually, unless Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks has a hand in them. The Wedding Singer is one of the few modern romcoms I enjoyed and that was like what, ten, fifteen years ago? Other than that, I think the only romcoms I like that *aren't* in black and white are Romancing the Stone and Overboard.

But sometimes I like Sandra Bullock -- I thought Miss Congeniality was charming -- and the premise of The Proposal is basically exactly how my marriage went down, so hey, I thought, it's a Friday night and I've had some Prosecco, let's go. Unfortunately, The Proposal, unlike my tasty Prosecco or the films of Ernst Lubitsch, does not sparkle.

First and foremost, I have to scold director Anne Fletcher: it's called pacing, honey. Pacing! You're a dancer, you should understand rhythm. Blimey!

Also, how 'bout extracting some humanity from Ryan Reynolds, huh? Was he cryogenically frozen or something? I don't think he's completely thawed out yet. Oh, and Malin Ackerman? Sorry you had absolutely nothing to do in this movie. And Coach, poor Coach (yes, the honorable Craig T. Nelson), what a dreary, pointless subplot they gave ya. The writer shares the blame for that labored attempt at depth, which added virtually nothing to the story or its characters.

Sandra Bullock works really hard with the material she's given, and has a couple of great scenes, as does Betty White, and one running gag with Oscar Nunez pays off nicely, but honestly? I'm not about to be converted anytime soon. RomComs, you're still at the bottom of the genre pile for me.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Today I am feeling... rather Narnian

It could be the rain... after all, it was a very rainy summer that started all of Polly and Digory's adventures, wasn't it?

The cloudy days make me feel dreamy and impractical. When the rain clears briefly, I feel moments of lucidity, but then fade away again into the world of battling covens and the summer everything changed.... don't we all just want a magic ring to carry us into another world?

Make your choice, adventurous stranger
Strike the bell and bide the danger
Or wonder 'til it drives you mad
What would have happened if you had.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

"There simply cannot be a zipcode filled with thousands of talented people. It's impossible."

From Die Hipster

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Reading the movies?

Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art has tagged me in a "Reading the Movies" meme started over at the Dancing Image. The following, in no particular order, represent five of my favorite books about movies:

1. The "perversely inaccurate" Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Josef von Sternberg's pastiche of a memoir. And when I say pastiche, I mean an amalgam of his paranoid ramblings, some fact, a few self-aggrandizing delusions and lots of apocryphal anecdotes.

2. Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich. You'll learn more about writing for the movies than if you read any number of silly books like The Writer's Journey or Save the Cat.

3. What Made Pistachio Nuts? I remember loving this book in grad school, mainly for the way Henry Jenkins irreverently pokes holes in the supremacy of James Agee's adulation of the "silent clowns." Just the kind of contrary thinking I like, plus, a canny appreciation of an undeservedly maligned moment in film history (early sound).

4. Without Lying Down. Frances Marion's biography is overlong and far too full of irrelevant details (like who cares about every single aunt and uncle she ever had?) but an important work nonetheless because it inspired me to learn more about Marion as a writer.

5. Preston Sturges: Five Screenplays. Not so much a book about film as a book with films in it, if that makes sense. Another invaluable tool for the writer who wants to be funny, or entertaining, or even both if you can manage it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Movie Roundup

This is exactly what screenwriters look like

So I've been out of commission for a while, finishing the revisions on my script about the sassy retro stewardesses, but I've managed to catch a few movies here and there, and finally finish the Masterpiece Theatre version of Little Dorrit. First things first.

Little Dorrit
Dickens' fraught relationship with the Marshalea Debtors' Prison created some of his most complex characters. All the main players in Little Dorrit are nuanced, layered and fallible, from the prideful and pretentious -- yet pathetic and vulnerable -- patriarch William Dorrit to the smug but sweet do-gooder Arthur Clennam to Little Dorrit herself, a rather ghoulish young lady who seems to thrive when those around her are in need of saving. She and Mr. Clennam both have slight martyr complexes, which makes them such a dandy match for one another.

Century-old societal critique doesn't always hold up, but Dickens' eye for hypocrisy outlasts social trends, and Little Dorrit's narrative of financial ruin tells a story as old as the moon and cyclical as the tides (I believe we're in the midst of some sort of slight financial crisis now, aren't we?). From a modern perspective I must admit I don't see the logic behind debtors' prisons.... how on earth are you supposed to pay back your debts if you don't work? Baffling.

The minor and peripheral characters are the broadest, silliest and most delightful. I was especially fond of Edmund Sparkler and his funny little turns of phrase: "Dad wasn't a bad old stick" and, of course, "No begod nonsense about her." As always, there's a great big lovely happy ending in which Mr. Clennam and Little Dorrit are married, and nothing solves everyone's problems forever like a wedding.

Brothers Bloom

While the concept had potential, I suspected there might be third act problems when I read the script, and was disappointed to see the final (filmed) product confirm my suspicions. The first two thirds are an amusing romp peopled with outlandish personae; by the end, though, the repetitious heist/con pattern grows wearying (didn't McKee warn you about the law of diminishing returns? he actually was right about that, you know), and humor is sacrificed to mawkish drawn-out fraternal histrionics. It should have ended in Mexico ("I don't want to impugn an entire country, but Mexico's a terrible place"). More proof that tonal shifts can be pulled off by only the most delicate of touches.

In A Lonely Place

A master class in dramatic writing. Seriously. Besides adhering admirably to Aristotle's unities, and showing all action arising logically from character, and never permitting any disruption of the narrative, and showing-not-telling, and, well, the list goes on. Let's just say this script does everything a good screenplay should, and every aspiring writer should watch it. An added bonus: the source novel was one of the few hardboiled noirs written by a woman, and was reprinted by CUNY's Feminist Press in 2003. Bogart, good writing, genre, woman authors, and CUNY? Why, it's simply got everything. Oh, and some guy named Nick Ray directed it. He isn't bad either.


This just in: David Bowie's son has written and directed an intelligent, original, low-budget sci-fi indie. Seriously. He goes by the name Duncan Jones, precisely to avoid being written about as he is here, and he just made a really, really good movie. It opens in select theatres on June 12, and if you're even remotely intrigued by sci-fi you won't be disappointed. Both an elegant homage to classic genre milestones and a highly original, conceptual foray into identity and loss, plus! actual legitimate science, technical mastery, and a super-strong performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a refreshing indie experience that schools us all in what you can do with talent, brains, imagination and five million dollars.