Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Truth or Dare: Five Girls, One Summer, Many Secrets, by Barbara Dee

We are starting a two-week long look at children’s books here at The Jade Sphinx, which seems especially pertinent now that the Christmas holidays are upon us.  What astonishes us is not the sheer fecundity of new books hitting the shelves this season, but the extremely high quality of the offerings.

We start with the newest by Barbara Dee, author of The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys and Drama Queen.  When not writing Young Adult novels (her next, Star-Crossed, is slated to appear in spring 2017), she directs the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival.  She lives in Westchester County, and you can dip into her blog at 

Her latest, Truth or Dare: Five Girls, One Summer, Many Secrets, Dee tells a story that is touching and remarkably real.  The novel tells of Lia, who manages to overcome the grief of losing her mother in a car crash, thanks to her friendship with four other girls.  The girls – Marley, Abi, Makayla and Jules – and Lia return from vacation on the cusp of seventh grade and find that their relationships have subtly altered.  They have become competitive and mistrustful of one another; and after a prolonged game of Truth or Dare, Lia finds herself lying to keep up with them.

Her lies are the result of many things: creeping peer pressure, dissatisfaction with herself, and the need (so vital to young people) to define who she is.  On top of all that, Lia must deal with the many people who try to help her now that her mother is gone, and reconcile her feelings for her aunt, who has come to the family’s aid, but who many disregard as slightly crazy.

Dee includes touches that work wonderfully well.  The aunt, for example, is pretty ‘out there.’  But Lia learns that her eccentricities do not mean she isn’t a valuable member of the family, or that she doesn’t have a lot to contribute.  An interesting twist on this all is a neighboring Mom (mother of one of the girls who bullies Lia), who coordinates the neighbors in helping care for Lia’s family.  The neighbor is engaged and actively kind, but over-bearing and difficult.  In fact, she bullied Lia’s aunt when they were children, and young Lia sees how this behavior can be inherited, and how it affects generations.

Dee’s novel is not a big book in that it does not deal with huge events or earth-shattering crises.  But the smaller, intimate vibe of the tale is its greatest strength: this is a slice of life that all of us have experienced in one way or another.

Dee writes of the disorientation that comes with puberty, peer pressure, lying to ourselves (and others) to create a persona, and, most importantly, finding friends who like us for how we are, and not what we seem or wish to be.  Dee’s novel is wise in its simplicity, penetrating in its psychology, and engrossing in its raw emotion.  This is a model Young Adult novel.

Here is Lia, after concocting her first lie:  I’d like to tell you that I didn’t sleep that night, and that all of Sunday I squirmed and blushed when I thought about the lie I’d told my friends.  But here’s the truth – by the next morning I felt proud of myself.  The tiny green bud of the lie – I kissed Tanner – had bloomed into a gorgeous pink flower overnight, a great big peony I could keep in a vase in front of me and take whiffs of whenever I felt left out of the conversation.  I kissed Tanner wasn’t the truth as a statement of What Actually Happened to Me That Summer, but it was a different kind of truth – a statement of What Was Going on Inside My Brain, how all of a sudden I could come up with the details (the walk on the beach, the fifteen-second kiss, the closed eyes).  I mean, I’d never even thought of stuff like that before, ever.  Not about myself, anyway.  So I felt excited, and maybe a little bit scared, about my new power.

If you know young people who are putting together the narrative of their lives, Barbara Dee’s Truth or Dare would make a wonderful addition to their book shelves.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving at The Jade Sphinx

It seems that I have penned a special Thanksgiving holiday note since the inception of this blog; but, somehow, I missed last year.  My diaries are currently in storage, and my memory is not up to the task of going back a whole 365 days.  What the devil was I doing last year?  So, now the pressure is on to be particularly memorable this year…

In reviewing what I wrote in previous years, I seem to always say that the country is in a perilous state, that things seem particularly dire this year, and that I don’t know how we’ll overcome it all.  But, it’s our responsibility to be happy, to be thankful, and to fully realize the quiet miracle of our lives every day.

Not doing that this year, and here’s why.

News flash:  we are always on the brink and things are always trending to disaster.  I’ll be jiggered if I’m going to haul that hoo-haw out again this year, because I think pointing out the negatives in our lives doesn’t do us a whole lot of good.  So, yeah, things are terrible, it seems no one is happy with the election (even the winner), and the world as we know it is changing so fast, no one knows what to hold onto.  It was much the same last year and will be much the same next year.  Been there, wrote that.

Instead, I’m going to tell you what I’m happy about. 

I’m happy to be an American, and delighted to now be a Californian.  We may not always be satisfied with the way our government and institutions work, but they do work and that is more than can be said of many countries.  The sunny little beach town I now call home after more than four decades in Gotham has reminded me again and again of the simple decency of most people, of forgotten arts of friendliness and neighborliness I had lost in the Big City, and demonstrated that nature has the upper-hand on us, and not the other way around.  I am surrounded by good people, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I am happy that I continue to be moved by beauty.  The dangerous thing about spending too much time with people who make a career of the arts is that one can stop feeling an emotional response to them.   I am delighted to say that I still gulp before masterful paintings, am still heady after great novels, and can laugh or cry at music.  (My taste tends to run towards the Great American Songbook, which always puts me in mind of Noel Coward’s wonderful putdown: Strange how potent cheap music is.)  I am delighted that this blog has everything from Michelangelo to Charles Schulz, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Finally, I’m glad to have faith in America and Americans.  Patriotism was never popular among most of my friends; any positive sentiments towards the country are mostly met with ironic dismissal or sneering condescension.  (A gift from the 1960s.)  But I think we are a great people, or, at least, we try to be.  I don’t know the future of our land any more than you, but I do know that Americans are capable of great things, great kindness, and unity.  That last quality – unity – has been in fairly short supply in recent years, but I think it will make a remarkable resurgence in the months and years to come.  We can but hope, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Thanksgiving, make it a point to greet your family, friends and neighbors as people, and not as units of some political philosophy.  Love and nurture each other, and remember to be kind and ethical.  And, finally, remember to be thankful.  Thanks for the many blessings in your life, the bounty of the world around you, and for the quiet, ineffable mystery of your own existence.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ernest Henry Schelling, Drawing by John Singer Sargent (1912)

We continue our brief look at drawings by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) with this terrific drawing of Ernest Henry Schelling (1876-1939).  I am enjoying these drawings so much that perhaps we will come back to them after the holidays.

Schelling was an American pianist, composer and conductor.  He was principal conduct of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1935 to 1937, and was also a composer of note.  He wrote for the piano, orchestra and chamber ensembles, but most of his work is now forgotten.  His major success was a symphonic poem, Victory Ball, based on the anti-war poem by Alfred Noyes, which was a success in early electrical recordings, recorded by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He was also the first conductor of the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic, a tradition most famously carried on by Leonard Bernstein.

Schelling was married twice; he married Lucie Howe Draper in 1905, and remained with her till her death in 1938.  In August, 1939, he married his second wife, Helen Huntington Marshall, when he was 63 and she was 21.  A member of the venerable Astor family, Marshall and Schelling would remain together only four months: he would die of a brain embolism in December 1939.  Marshall was at his bedside at his death.

There are many things to love about this drawing.  First, look at how Sargent uses the paper itself as a drawing tool.  The paper has a high rag content, giving it more “tooth.”  This allows the paper to capture more of the charcoal dust.  (My former teacher, artist Ephraim Rubenstein, once told me that drawing in charcoal was “rearranging dust.”)  The charcoal also has a harder time of reaching the deeper ridges of the paper, which gives some charcoal drawings a luminescent quality.

If you look really closely, you can also see the paper-maker’s monogram (Michaellet) to the left of Schelling’s head.

Now, look at Schelling’s hairline, right over the bridge of his nose.  Sargent captures the flow and direction of his hair with a few very bold and very dark lines, the rest is just a dark mass (probably rubbed in with the artist’s finger), and lighter highlights were created by using an eraser.  On the right side of the picture, Sargent suggests Schelling’s hair against the dark background by simply applying the charcoal more lightly – there is no “hard” line to separate the figure from the background.  Simple, elegant and effective.

Look at Schelling’s jawline going down the left side of the canvas.  You can actually see one or two initial lines Sargent made before deciding on his final line; he also offsets the very hard line of Schelling’s chin by erasing the line of his head (probably by using his thumb – the mark looks about thumb-size).

Schelling’s mustache is more suggested than rendered.  If you look closely, you’ll see that it is a swatch of dark charcoal with a few outgoing directional lines to make it flow. 

Sargent makes the eyes limpid and alive by applying the eraser to pupil to create a sense of reflected light.  He also suggests depth and delineates the eye sockets at the same time with a single, strong line over each eyelid. 

He also manages to create Schelling’s costume with a few unfussy lines (notice how one shoulder is almost invisible). 

This is a little master’s class in how it’s done.  Anyone interested in drawing – as artist or aesthete – can learn much from a close examination of the work of John Singer Sargent.

A special Thanksgiving message tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Drawing of Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent (1922)

Though it takes us by complete surprise, this week is Thanksgiving; and with that means the holidays are upon us, ready or not.

I wanted to start the season with something that resonated with the child within us all, without yet fully embracing the holidays.  Who better than Kenneth Grahame to meet the need?

We here at The Jade Sphinx think one of the greatest classics of English literature is a novel for serious children and frivolous adults, the magisterial Wind in the Willows (1908), by Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932).

Willows, like most of Grahame’s oeuvre, focuses around ideas of escape: Rat and Mole spend their boyish bachelorhood picnicking along the riverbank, simply “messing around in boats.”  His book the Pagan Papers (1893), is about the joyous sense of freedom he had in his youth (and, by comparison), the lack of such freedoms he had in adulthood.

This is not surprising considering Grahame’s tumultuous life.  He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His mother died when he was five, and his alcoholic father gave young Kenneth and his brothers and sister to the children’s grandmother, in Cookham in Berkshire.  Grahame loved the countryside there, and it was there that he was introduced to the pleasures of boating.  These years in Cookham would be remembered as the happiest of his life.

Following his years at St. Edward’s School in Oxford, Grahame wanted to attend Oxford University.  He could not do so, his guardians claiming that it was too expensive.  Instead, this sensitive and introverted boy was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, where he rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908.  The reason for his retirement was that an anarchist broke into the bank and shot at Grahame three times, missing each shot.  The incident forever shattered his nerves; he would move back to the country in an effort to find peace.

Grahame published his first book, The Pagan Papers, in 1893.  He would follow this with his first two great novels about children, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).  He would not write again until after marrying Elspeth Thomson in 1899.  They had one child, a son named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born blind in one eye and plagued by various mental problems.  Grahame would tell Mouse stories about the woodland denizens around them.  These stories would eventually morph into Wind in the Willows.

Sadly, the stories provided only a limited amount of succor to Alastair, who would commit suicide by lying on a railway track two days before his 20th birthday.  The train would completely sever the boy’s head from his body, and Grahame was called to identify the remains.  The sight would haunt him for the rest of his life.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

We will look at Sargent’s life in a little more detail tomorrow, but for now: after a lifetime of painting some of the finest portraits of his generation, Sargent painted less and drew more as he grew older.  He found drawing a release from painting; providing him with much the same sense of freedom Grahame had sought all his life. 

Sargent was able, with a stick of charcoal, to capture the essence of his sitter in a few hours (sometimes … a few minutes), relieving him of the burdensome process of multiple sittings and coloration. There are dozens of Sargent portrait drawings … and after the holidays, we’ll look at a few more.

But now, look at how Sargent masterfully captures Grahame.  Drawn in 1922, just two years after the suicide of Alistair, here is a man who was shot at in more ways than one.  His face has an austere quality, which is not surprising as he was reported to be emotionally distant … but what Sargent captures more than distance is disguise.   Grahame’s mouth is large and sensual, his chin strong and resolute.  But both of these features are hidden by an enormous walrus mustache; these were not uncommon in Edwardian men, but one feels that Sargent knew that the point was concealment and not fashion.  Half of Grahame’s face is in shadow, as if he would hide from us, if he could.

In terms of technique, it’s amazing what Sargent can accomplish with a few simple strokes.  His drawing is never fussy or overdone; the scattered quality of Grahame’s hair is suggested with some powerful strategic strokes, his shirt and jacket survive as just the barest outlines.  The planes of his face have been roughed-in with some hatching on the side of his charcoal, but the wonderful (and evocative!) lower lids of his eyes have been caught out with eraser. 

The entire picture is a little master’s class in quick portraiture, and it tells us a great deal about the genius behind The Wind in the Willows.  A sad and tragic man is here, revealed by Sargent’s incomparable skill.

Another Sargent drawing tomorrow!

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Last Command: Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, by Kirk Stirnweis (2001)

The dramatic defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876 has been the subject of several paintings by major artists.  But for today, I thought we would take a look at a work by the relatively little-known, working artist Kirk Stirnweis (born 1967), The Last Command: Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

Stirnweis was born in Suffern, New York, and grew up in Connecticut. He would eventually move with his own family to Montana, Arizona, and then back east to New Hampshire; while keeping a foothold in Loveland, Colorado.  His father was a professional illustrator, and his mother had a background in graphics.  He drew constantly as a child, and his family would often discuss art around the home.

During his high school summers, Stirnweis would draw and paint at the nearby Silvermine Artist Guild. During the same period he studied anatomy with a retired surgeon, taking one of the doctor’s first classes working with professional artists. Stirnweis was taught to master composition by copying the works of the Great Masters, and was encouraged to go into illustration to hone his skills to a professional level.

Kirk was educated at several different schools studying marine biology and medicine, holding degrees in radiologic sciences and Medical imaging. But his scientific studies did not keep him from art: immediately after high school he did illustration for Field& Stream, Harlequin Romance Novels and Leisure Books, and the Danbury Mint. 

Stirnweis says, For the past 20 years I have been painting and sculpting western/historical subjects, mostly Native Americans, mountain men, prairie women, land and seascapes nautical subjects and wildlife of all kinds. Out of the blue I was commissioned to paint Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn; a daunting task. To complicate matters I had virtually no knowledge of U.S. cavalry at the time and only scant knowledge of the battle. After months of intensive research, hours spent with experts on the subject and several visits to the battlefield; I started painting. Three months later I completed The Last Command. The homework was exhaustive but well worth it, the painting had reaped the distinction of being written up by a West Point graduate and historian as: “The most accurate depiction of the Custer Battle EVER!” An enlarged Copy of the painting now hangs in the renovated Museum of Military History in KS. Subsequently, I was invited to the 125th anniversary of the Little Big Horn Battle, where I met with Native American Veterans of Foreign Wars and Chiefs of the Crow Nation. They expressed their appreciation for the noble way that I depict their culture in my paintings and sculpture.

This is quite a dramatic painting, despite some rather telling flaws.  While Stirnweis has a great gift for painting dramatic faces, the figures all seem to inhabit different pictures, rather than act as an integrated group.  Indeed, in some figures, it seems as if they have no lower body whatsoever.  (Where is the rest of the bugler and his horse?)  Also under-realized are the two fallen horses, one on the left and the other, right.  Neither seem to fully inhabit the picture, and it looks like Stirnweis relied too heavily on tall grass to address issues of foreshortening.

But Stirnweis’ failings are solely those of technique: in terms of drama and composition, he performs admirably.  The gentle rise of the mountain allows the eye to read the frame from the fighters on the left, through the main action on the rise, and then scan back left (to the beginning) by following the trajectory of the arrows.  Stirnweis also uses the empty bask spaces of the West to heightened effect:  aside from another regiment battling in the distance, these men are alone and vulnerable.

Stirnweis also amps the drama by depicting many of the men already wounded or injured, but continuing to fight on.  The look of steely determination on the faces of the small knot of five men dead center of the picture tells the entire story. 

This is an admirable addition to the iconography of Little Bighorn.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles (2015)

A fabulous book.

Many of us think we know George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) because we know how he died: at the battle of Little Bighorn, he and his men slaughtered by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors.  Most people see Custer’s end as a cautionary tale: one of hubris, or racism, or simple tragic miscalculation.  But Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles believes that this end-is-the-beginning approach is overly reductive.  In fact, the only way to make sense of Custer, he thinks, is to embrace the totality of his experience, and to understand how he was both a player and observer in a changing America.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America argues that Americans saw their world radically remade during Custer’s lifetime.  Custer’s life is the story of the American Civil War, the Westward expansion, and the Indian Wars.  Through it all, Custer was a study in contradictions as he struggled to find foothold in an earth that was ever-changing beneath him.  He was a brave Union solider who sympathized with the South.  He freed countless slaves, but was openly hostile towards people of color.  He was a dutiful and obedient soldier, but he also suffered from a crippling vanity and need for acclaim.  He behaved with reckless abandon and considerable courage on the battlefield, but it is unlikely that he ever fully internalized war’s catastrophic human cost.

Because of these contradictions, historians (and armchair philosophers) have had their way with Custer for decades.  Stiles argues that Custer has been left to be misremembered by each succeeding generation.  Because he is so contradictory a figure, he very much symbolizes to people what they like or dislike about American history.  Is he a hero who died to spread Western civilization, or a murdering racist who targeted Native Americans?  Is he representative of the heroism and valor that is part of the American character, or is he a bully and braggart?

Stiles believes that asking these questions is a losing game:  Custer does not need to bear the full weight of American history, and that his life has significant meaning outside of the narratives told by defenders or debunkers. 

In reading this long and well-argued book, I’ve come away somewhat surprised by how much I liked Custer.   There were many, many things detestable about the man by 21st Century lights, but to condemn (or praise) figures of the past by the dictums of today is ridiculous.  Historical figures need to be seen in historical context, and to do otherwise would make as much sense as a Venusian judging a rural American through his interstellar worldview.  The differing points of reference are so vast as to render the exercise meaningless.

Custer was profoundly needy, troubled by self-doubt, and always hoping to improve himself.  Last in his class at West Point (a position routinely called ‘the goat’), Custer wanted to live up to his romantic ideals of military life.  His romantic ideals are not to be sneered at: they often translated into bravery in battle, magnanimity to captured enemies, and selfless protection of others.  One of the most telling stories in the book is Custer demanding a litter to take a wounded comrade away during a retreat – while his brother soldiers opted to leave the man behind.

Custer was not a bogeyman or devil nor an angel or a demigod; he was simply a man, with all of the qualities and flaws attendant to that designation.  And in reading this excellent book, Stiles allows us to know that man a little better.

Best of all, Stiles tells his tale with a novelist’s dash.  Here is a representative passage: She emerged into a clearing and encountered mayhem.  Custer’s brigade fought amid a sea of enemy soldiers – bullets cracking overhead, artillery shells exploding, mounted Confederates charging here and there with sabers swinging.  The wagon master approached Custer and asked if he could lead the wagon train to the rear.  Custer looked around and said, “Where in hell is the rear?”

This book is highly recommended to students of Custer, the Civil War, or simply American history.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Education of a Wandering Man, A Memoir by Louis L’Amour (1989)

We recently reviewed a graphic novel based on the work of Louis L’Amour (1908-1988), and we have certainly read many of his novels in the past.  But … we knew precious little about the man himself.  So, it was a delight to come across his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, revised and published in 1989.  It is a remarkable book.

It puts us in mind of the old Chinese legend about tests: the student sits down and simply writes down everything he knows.  L’Amour doesn’t quite do that, but he does create a fascinating account of his own intellectual development, and his deep and passionate engagement with reading.  If you are at all interested in the effect that reading has, and what a tool it can be to enlightenment, then certainly read this fascinating book.

L’Amour’s engagement with reading in his early life is not surprising when one looks at his major characters.  The typical L'Amour hero was a strapping young man in his late teens or early 20's, a romantic, nomadic figure dedicated to self-improvement. His character Tell Sackett carried law books in his saddlebags; Bendigo Shafter read Montaigne, Plutarch and Thoreau; and Drake Morrel, a one-time riverboat gambler, read Juvenal in the original Latin. 

Much like L’Amour, himself.

L’Amour looked like one of his own literary creations – big, ruggedly handsome and self-contained.  He was born Louis Dearborn L'Amour on March 22, 1908, in Jamestown, ND. He was a son of a veterinarian who doubled as a farm-machinery salesman, grandson of a Civil War veteran and great-grandson of a settler who had been scalped by Sioux warriors.

He quit school at 15, roaming the West working as a miner, rancher and lumberjack before taking off for the Far East as a seaman. By the time he was 20, he had skinned cattle in Texas, lived with bandits in Tibet and worked on an East African schooner.  He managed to survive a walk through Death Valley on his own with little water, and rode the rails as a hobo.  He worked as a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.  And all the time he was on the road, he was reading: Shakespeare, Byron, Wilde, Ibsen, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Sheridan, Bacon, Tolstoy … and many, many others too numerous to mention.  L’Amour provides his reading list during the period at the end of the book and, frankly, it made me deeply ashamed of my own profound failings as a reader.

I read Balzac, Victor Hugo and Dumas before I ever read Zane Grey, he said in an interview.  His first book was not a Western, but a collection of poems, published in 1939.  But despite his immense erudition, L’Amour could not reconcile the disdain the literary elite had (and has) for novels about the Western experience.  If you write a book about a bygone period that lies east of the Mississippi River, then it's a historical novel.  If it's west of the Mississippi, it's a western, a different category. There's no sense to it.

Here is L’Amour writing about talking to people of the Old West during his wanderings in the 1930s:  Yet there was no better time to learn about what the West had actually been.  Many of those who lived it were still alive, and as the years of their future grew fewer, they were more willing to talk of what had been.  Old feuds were largely forgotten, and time had given the past an aura.

The old cowboy might appear to be as dry as dust, he might scoff at some of the stories, but he was a figure of romance in his own mind (although he would never have admitted it) or he would not have become a cowboy in the first place.  As the years slipped away, he began to want to tell his stories, and I was often there, a willing listener, knowing enough to sift the truth from the romance.

In every town there was at least one former outlaw or gunfighter, an old Indian scout or a wagon master, and each with many stories ready to tell.

One story engendered another, and sitting on a bench in front of a store I’d tell of something I knew or had heard and would often get a story in return, sometimes a correction.  The men and woman who lived the pioneer life did not suddenly disappear; they drifted down the years, a rugged, proud people who had met adversity and survived.  Once, many years later, I was asked in a television interview what was the one quality that distinguished them, and I did not come up with the answer I wanted.  Later, when I in the hotel alone, it came to me.


This is great stuff, one step removed from prose poetry.  We here at the Jade Sphinx (having recently moved our own library from the East to West Coast), sympathize with L’Amour’s acute bibliomania:  A wanderer I had been through most of my early years, and now that I had my own home, my wandering continued, but among books.  No longer could I find most of the books I wanted in libraries.  I had to seek them out in foreign or secondhand bookstores, which was a pleasure in itself.  When seeking books, one always comes upon unexpected treasures or books on subjects that one has never heard of, or heard mentioned only in passing.

Now I know what I wished to learn and could direct my education with more intelligence.

Slowly I began to place on my shelves the books I wanted.  When the shelves were first installed, one workman doubted they would ever be filled, yet a few years later they were crammed with books, filling every available niche.

What I find most refreshing here is L’Amour’s own determination to educate himself, his active engagement with his own intellectual development, and for the breadth of his knowledge.  Here is a wonderfully prescient passage: If we had only Greenwich Village as an example, it would tell us nothing of the rest of America, yet often one discovers a writer, or several of them, giving just such a narrow picture.  One should tread warily when using the life-style of any group as an example of the thinking or practice of a people.

This is a warm, wise and essential book.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zack Dundas (2015)

Few figures have loomed across the cultural landscape more largely – more constantly – than Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant consulting detective of 221B Baker Street.  From his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1887) until today, his cultural currency has been remarkable.

The profile, deerstalker cap (not really part of the original canon), the curved pipe (ditto), and ever-present “elementary, my dear Watson” (ditto-ditto-ditto), are recognizable the world over.  “Sherlock Holmes” has become shorthand for many things, from “detective” to “intellectual” to “smart ass.”  He is the first fictional character to inspire a slavish fandom, predating such masscult figures as Dracula, Superman and Harry Potter.  Now, 129 years after his initial appearance, Sherlock Holmes is the lead character in one American television series, one (infinitely superior) UK series, and a string of (negligible) international blockbuster adventure flicks.  And I have the sneaking suspicion that he’s only just starting…

Novelist-physician-adventurer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote the first Holmes novel in just three weeks at the tender age of 27.  The initial book was well-received in the UK and did fair business; American audiences, however, ate it up, and made the novel a great success.  Doyle followed it with an even better book three years later, The Sign of Four, and literary detective fiction has never been the same since.

Many of us (Your Correspondent included) first find Holmes in our adolescence.  For the vast majority, Holmes is a milestone passed on the way to greater, broader reading.  But for many, Sherlock Holmes becomes a defining figure in the cultivation of the self, a guidepost to a life of the mind, intellectual acquisition, and moral conundrums.  One of my dearest friends, the New York-based Sherlockian Susan Rice – a woman of remarkable intellectual attainments, generous instincts, expansive humanity and great good humor – credits all the many good things that have come to her in life thanks to her association with Mr. Holmes.  I could think of no higher accolade for a work of art.

In The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Portland-based writer Zach Dundas tries to capture the immensity of the impact Conan Doyle’s creation has had upon the culture, and upon the many individuals who actively take part in the Sherlockian experience.  And while he does not quite succeed in his expansive brief, he provides a journey that is engaging, amusing and informed.

For Dundas, the beginning and end of all essential knowledge about Holmes can be found in the four novels and fifty-six short stories by Doyle.  But, he also believes that Holmes is a never-ending work-in-progress, a cultural and imaginative construct that is revised and refitted to meet the needs of succeeding generations.  There has been no shortage of Sherlock Holmes pastiche since nearly the beginning (Doyle actually read some knock-off stories written by both fans and celebrated professionals, like J. M. Barrie), and all of this material has built the decades-long conversation we have had with Holmes. 

Dundas first got the bug while a young man, starting his own Sherlock Holmes society and exchanging letters with other young fans around the world.  He later returned to Holmes, attending the Baker Street Irregulars annual dinner in New York, chatting with people in the Holmes societies around the country, and even tracing the great man’s footsteps throughout London and the English countryside.

Through it all, Dundas returns to what it all means to him – the individual stories and novels, the fandom, the experience of immersion in the Sherlockian world.  There are few efforts to put the Sherlockian phenomena in a larger context, but within the realm of personal experience, his anecdotes sparkle.

He is also laugh-out-loud funny.  Here is a footnote about Jude Law (the recent big screen Watson): Law makes a terrific Watson, whatever one thinks of the movies.  (I enjoy them in the same I enjoy cotton candy, roller derby, and dubious pop music.)  Or, better still, the end of a longish footnote on following Sherlockian leads on YouTube: This can lead, algorithmically, to the hour-long English language cartoon version of Hound from 1983 (with an incredibly fat Watson), not to mention a funky fan-made remix of clips from the splendid 1981 Soviet film adaptation.  Be careful.  You can do this all day. 

Writing about his early infatuation with the tales, and the worlds they opened up for him, Dundas says, I had arrived too late, doomed to be part of a generation clad in oversized Quicksilver T-shirts and sweatpants, fated to live behind a chain-link fence.  A gasogene?  A tantalus?  New Coke had just come out.

Dundas is perhaps at his best detailing the explosion of Sherlockian fandom in the wake of the BBC’s popular Sherlock series.  Historically, Sherlock Holmes devotees have been remarkably different from, say, science fiction buffs or Tolkien geeks or those sad people who obsess over Dark Shadows.  Once a high-camp joke shared largely by New York’s literary elite, Sherlock Holmes fandom has become remarkable inclusive.  It has gone from upmarket game to masscult fandom.  This once all-male preserve has successfully been mined by women (starting with the organization The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, begun by Evelyn Herzog with a cadre of brilliant college-age women in the 1960s who may be ultimately responsible for keeping the movement alive at all), and now includes people who know only the films, or the various television shows … or the contemporary novels featuring an elderly, married (?) Sherlock Holmes.  This seismic shift has shaken some longtime Sherlockians to the core, and Dundas makes hay with various ‘scandals’ in the Sherlockian world. 

Dundas has written a book that is alternately discursive and solipsistic, as well as endlessly funny and often insightful.  However, it is also ultimately a little … thin. He presents us with all the materials necessary to create a fascinating mosaic, but ultimately fails to be them into a beguiling sequence.  I kept waiting for the defining moment, the passage that put it all – Holmes the man, the friendship with Watson, Doyle, the devoted fandom, the nearly unending fascination with this character – into some kind of final context, and was left wanting.  Dundas has no cohesive argument; he just has stuff.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that twelve decades of Sherlock Holmes is enough Sherlock Holmes, but that the saga is really only just beginning.  That it is too early in the creation of the Sherlock Holmes myth to put it into any type of perspective.  There are many literary creations that were as large a presence as Holmes that have fallen by the wayside (think Tarzan or Buck Rogers or Fu Manchu and, to an extent, James Bond); but Holmes has outlasted all of them with a vengeance.

I recall thinking that, while reading the recent novel about an elderly Holmes facing dementia, A Slight Trick of the Mind, that Holmes will continue to resonate.  Not only resonate, but actually be the lynchpin for champion literary novels in the future. 

Perhaps the story of Sherlock cannot yet be told because it’s only just begun.  Maybe … the game is afoot.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

These Three, Starring Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea (1936); Part of The Joel McCrea Blogathon

We are delighted to participate in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea blogathon.  Toby is the mastermind behind the always-delightful 50 Westerns From the 50s blog (see link to your right), and Western lovers – and you know who you are – should visit regularly.

Joel McCrea (1905-1990) has long been one of our favorite actors.  He was equally terrific in comedies, dramas, love stories and westerns.  It would be hard to select a single McCrea performance as his definitive role, as it is really the body of his work that is most impressive.  Some actors – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart come to mind – often play extensions of themselves.  Their screen personas are so clearly delineated that they all play within the confines of their screen characters.

But McCrea’s art was more subtle.  It’s not that he always played himself so much as he always played … us.  One of the great (and certainly the most missed) inventions of the mid-20th century was the idea of the American Everyman.  Sometimes comedic, sometimes crusading, always savvy, unfailingly honest and always representative of the best in ourselves, the American Everyman was an idealization that did not strain the truth.  This is how Americans once saw themselves, and few actors better exemplified the American Everyman, with all his flaws and virtues, better than McCrea.  We didn’t want to be him, but, on our best days, we were him.

It’s not surprising that McCrea would eventually morph into a western specialist.  The West is the defining American myth, and McCrea was our surrogate in that world.  Whether opposing outlaws, crooked business interests, Washington fat cats or homicidal Indians, McCrea met the challenges of the West with honesty, integrity and modesty.  McCrea was the natural choice to play many of the great figures of the West, Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody among them, because we would like to see these great figures much like we like to see ourselves.  He made them real by making them like us.

It is too easy to forget how terrific an actor he could be when rising to a challenge. There are two versions of Lillian Hellman’s (1905-1984) 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, and the 1936 version, called These Three and staring McCrea and directed by William Wyler (1902-1981), is easily the best.

Wyler would remake the film himself in 1961, with James Garner (1928-2014) in the McCrea role.  Because the play deals with two women teachers who find their lives ruined when a little girl accuses them of a lesbian relationship, one imagines that the later film would be superior, if for no other reason than Wyler could openly address the scandal.  However, that is not the case:  Wyler’s handling of the situation in 1936 actually has great emotional resonance and honesty.  His 1961 film is so over-the-top in its hysteria, that it lurches into melodrama, and then camp.

With his 1936 cast, Wyler had to change the story to fit the Hays Code: here, a little girl (the magnificent Bonita Granville – justifiably Oscar nominated) ruins the lives of teachers Merle Oberon (1911-1979) and Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972) by starting the rumor that the women are involved in a ménage à trois with local doctor, McCrea.  As a result, their school is ruined and they are later financially crushed when they unsuccessfully sue for libel.

McCrea – quietly heroic, rankling at injustice and eager to set things right – stands by both women.  It’s not that McCrea has any showy scene or overly dramatic monolog: no, it’s his presence.  Here once again McCrea is our surrogate, doing his best in an unwinnable situation … much as we hope we would behave ourselves.  In the later film, Garner (usually a more subtle actor) broadcasts at high volume his integrity and decency, becoming a cartoon.  McCrea just … is, the perfect friend and protector that we would want to be.

Amazingly, Wyler wanted to replace McCrea with Leslie Howard (1893-1943), which would have been a catastrophe.  A terrific actor (in fact, a better actor than McCrea), Howard would have played his helplessness in the situation, providing only dignified weakness, much like his turn in Gone With the Wind (1939).  The friction between Wyler and McCrea is not evident, and one wonders if he changed his mind after the finished film. 

One final note – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves reflect our points of view and how we interact with the world.  That sense of a national identity – and American Everyman – is impossible in our currently fractured state.  Wouldn’t we be better off if we had a presence like Joel McCrea … who reflected the best impression of ourselves? 

One cannot help but think that we need a hero, not a figure in tights with superpowers, but one who embodies the best qualities in Americans as a people.  I, for one, would certainly welcome the return of more actors like Joel McCrea.