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The Bat Segundo Show: Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #257.

Patricia Cornwell is most recently the author of Scarpetta. This interview serves as a companion piece to Sarah Weinman’s Los Angeles Times profile.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Checked in for narcissistic personality disorder.

Author: Patricia Cornwell

Subjects Discussed: The genesis of Kay Scarpetta after three unpublished novels, Sara Ann Freed’s input into Cornwell’s early career, on being rejected by the Mysterious Press, Susanne Kirk, the unexpected success of Postmortem, how Charles Champlin’s Los Angeles Times review changed the publisher’s perception, writing a Scarpetta book before the last one was published, switching from first-person to third-person midway through the series, tinkering around in the movie business, being unable to write anymore in the first-person perspective, on later books lacking the warm element of character interaction, trying to get better through experimentation, listening to fans and readers, bringing back Benton Wesley from the dead, the differences between Cornwell and Scarpetta, writing sex scenes, privacy and reluctant fame, reporters who have the temerity to follow Cornwell into the bathroom, cops and submachine guns, Ab Fab, Judd Apatow’s films, Cornwell’s continued involvement with forensic science, taking out full-page ads to correct being misquoted by a journalist, pursuing the Jack the Ripper case, making various investments, surviving in the dour economy, and Cornwell’s political involvement.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

PATRICIA CORNWALLCorrespondent: What’s interesting too is that your career essentially started at the behest of very legendary people in the mystery world.

Cornwell: Right. That’s right.

Correspondent: And then Susanne Kirk found it at Scribner and picked it up from there.

Cornwell: And she was quite a champion for it. Because the publishing house, from my understanding back then, was very dubious about it. This was so different. Nobody wrote books like this back then really. First of all, you had a serial killer who was a stranger to the victims and a stranger to everybody. And the tradition of “mysteries” is that it was someone in your midst. And there were so many traditions that were shattered. Because real crime shatters those traditions. And I was writing about what I saw, and really taking a journalistic point of view. Although I was weaving it into fiction. And some of the rejection letters were “Nobody wants to read about morgues or laboratories.” And certainly not a woman who works in an environment like this and sees what she does. It seems silly now. But back then, that just wasn’t done.

Susanne though had the futuristic vision to think, “This is new and different. And this is pretty cool. And I want to publish this book.” But she had to have yet another opinion. She had to have another person read it. And they deliberated. And they just barely decided. In fact, the telephone call I got — the famous telephone call that changes your life — it was iffy. It was “We think we’re going to publish Postmortem, but we want to get one more person to read it.”

Correspondent: So it had to go to the editorial board in other words.

Cornwell: It was actually an outside consultant they had. Someone they considered an expert. A man, whose name I don’t remember. And they needed one more person to look at it to see if they really were going to do this. And that was my great turning point. My telephone call was a maybe. And then they did decide to take it on. But it was a very small printing. 6,000 copies. $6,000 is what I got paid. No advertising. No marketing. No nothing. And by the time people discovered it, it was out of print in hardcover.

BSS #257: Patricia Cornwell (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Allison Amend

Allison Amend most recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #256.

Allison Amend is the author of Things That Pass for Love.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering the troubling things that pass for love.

Author: Allison Amend

Subjects Discussed: Dealings with the Atlantic Monthly, what constitutes a proper golf story, miniature golf, how Jewishness and faith relates to sustaining a narrative, speaking multiple languages, Pig Latin, the connotations of “molested,” small animals in short stories, whether an author should be concerned about manipulating the reader, grabbing the interviewer by the beard, discovering stories through subconscious intent, stories that “need more gerbil,” writing stories that run counter to an innate perspective, verisimilitude, magical realism, whether multifarious themes and motifs disguise the primary premise of a story, the narrative complexities of romantic intimacy, avoiding the “chick lit” label, Curtis Sittenfeld, the Glimmer Train essay, Amend’s two unpublished novels, dealing with potential editors who issue demands to include a love story, how much one should compromise for art, authenticity vs. marketability, frequent appearances of Zima within Amend’s stories, authors who include brand names in fiction, experimenting with lists and found documents, planning the endings of stories, selecting stories for the collection, and thematic unity.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Golf figures prominently into a number of these stories. In “How Much Greater the Miracle,” you write, “The soul and golf are interrelated. I try not to wax too philosophical, but the soul is like a golf ball.” Now is this particular statement one of the reasons you frequently return to golf in your writing? Do you feel that golf gets a bad rap? Is this your way of essentially taking it, or absconding it, from the upper-class country club associations? Are you trying to counter the John Updike/Richard Ford/Kevin Costner kind of approach to golf? I think this is a very important question!

Amend: Sure, sure. I think that your answer is much better than the one I’m going to give you.

Correspondent: No, I’m sure your answer is going to be fantastic.

Amend: Which is that back when I was in grad school, Michael Curtis, who edits the fiction for the Atlantic Monthly, requested some golf stories. He was editing the fiction section of Golf Digest.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Amend: And he needed some golf stories. So I was like, “I can write a golf story.” And he said, “Oh, it’s very good. I don’t want it. But it’s a good story.” And I said, “Thank you. I’ll write another one.” So I wrote another golf story.

Correspondent: Aha!

Amend: He said, “I don’t want this either. But I like your writing.” So I wrote one more just to see. But actually I do really like golf as a literary theme. Because, first of all, it’s something for your characters to do without really having to have them do a lot of business. So everyone knows how you play. I mean, everyone sort of knows the theory of golf. You hit a ball towards a hole. And so your characters can talk a lot and can think about things without — it’s not like it’s basketball, where you have to describe the reaction all the time. So I really like golf that way. But also it’s this really absurd game. I played a lot when I was younger and don’t play so much now. But if you told me that you can’t see there’s a hole about the size of your palm and you can’t see it from here. But if you hit the ball three times, you will hit it in the hole. I would never have believed it.

Correspondent: Now you say that you had had golf experience before when you had been asked to do these stories. Or did you have to go into golf again and do a refresher course so to speak? Or a refresher run?

Amend: Well, I was at Iowa. We had a lot of free time.

Correspondent: Okay. They have golf in Iowa.

Amend: They do have golf in Iowa. And it’s actually pretty accessible. There’s a great municipal golf course. A nine hole golf course. And so I actually played a decent round of golf. But mostly I just asked my parents. They are very into golf. And so when I needed some golf details to make the story seem more authentic, I just asked them. I said, “What do you do if the ball’s on the side of a hill?” And my dad’s like, “Well, you hit down on it obviously.” I’m like, “Oh, of course.” And I’m taking notes as I’m talking to them. So that was my golf experience.

Correspondent: But this is an interesting notion of what a golf story is.

Amend: Right.

Correspondent: Because if one plays golf, it’s automatically a golf story? Or golf happens to be a motif? I mean, how golf-intensive does a golf story have to be?

Amend: You know, I don’t know. I don’t think that the golf story is going to be the next hot genre. Although there is the golf novel that does pretty well — apparently every year. But for me, it’s just a story where I have to ask my parents a lot of questions about golf to write it. So to me, that’s a golf story.

Correspondent: I’m just wondering if there’s any golf criteria for a golf story. I’ve never been asked to write a golf story. And I’ve never actually considered, until we just talked about this subject, about what a golf story entails. And so I’m wondering. Maybe it’s like a Christmas story.

Amend: It just has to be some Christmas.

Correspondent: Yeah, I don’t know.

Amend: Yeah, I think so. I’m not sure that I’m the best person to ask, since none of my stories were accepted for Golf Digest.

Correspondent: But they’re in here! There’s like three golf stories in here.

Amend: But they’re in there. In which case, golf is sort of a theme.

Correspondent: Yeah! So you are a golf story person.

Amend: Apparently, I’m a golf story person.

Correspondent: Among many other things. Well, okay.

Amend: Well, I could be. I’ve been called worse.

BSS #256: Allison Amend (Download MP3)

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2009

This is probably my last post for 2008. While I cannot personally identify the last 365 days as a triumph or a disappointment, I can say this: It was the year of promise; it was the year of squandered possibilities. It was the age when we finally realized that Bush would finally be gone; it was the age when we hoped that Obama would work his magic. It was the epoch of bailouts; it was the epoch of Madoff’s avarice. It was the season of sixty degree December days in Manhattan; it was the season of government deficits we can’t possibly pay back anytime soon. It was not so much the spring of hope, nor was it entirely the winter of despair. But many good people were laid off. And it is hard to view any of these terrible developments with beatific ecstasy. We do indeed have everything before us, but we likewise have nothing before us. Particularly when so many of us are determined to give up. And if we go to hell, then we’ll certainly fly business class. Assuming that the airlines don’t bump our flights.

Come to think of it, Dickens was a bit of a self-righteous twit when it came to establishing these dutiful dichotomies in that famous opening chapter. And I say this as someone who loves Dickens. I’ve chatted a number of people with over the past few weeks and they’ve attempted to explain to me why they didn’t fully “blossom” in 2008, concocting strange theories in the process. A redoubting Thomas looks to the year’s last integer and says, “Well, 2008 was an even year. I never accomplish much during an even year.” One’s life, however, cannot be boiled down to a ridiculous numerological maxim. You can’t apply the “every even Star Trek movie is good; every odd Star Trek movie is bad” approach to life. Life is, after all, what you make of it.

Yet if life is what we make of it, why aren’t we doing more?

One is tempted to panic, to freeze up, to defer decisions and actions to others who seem to know what’s going on in an age of social and economic crisis. But if 2009 represents an opportunity to reclaim our stunned inactions over the past twelve months (and, some might argue, the past eight years), then why not start asking questions right now or whipping up a few answers? Why not figure out some place — even a small one — where you can do something rather helpful or interesting?

I have a number of fiery opinions about current events that I won’t bore you with. But I’ll say this much. If we take any disgraceful developments lying down, then we more or less deserve what’s coming. If we continue to grant license to those who would deceive us again and again, then we’re well past the “fool me twice, shame on me” stage and comfortably nestled in the “swallow the Kool-Aid without question” phase.

The time has come to take back America. To challenge everything and to throw around interesting ideas that stick. To restore the environment we had before 9/11. To demand accountability. To refuse to accept any and all malarkey and live up to a grand American credo.

We are a nation of innovators. A nation that can produce such astonishing individuals as John Brown, Amelia Earhart, and Larry Walters, to name only a few. Where are today’s misfits and cultural revolutionaries? Where are those who would try something different? While some life choices may be limited by silent responsibilities, this does not necessarily mean that the grand range of louder choices has evaporated.

It is my hope that 2009 will be the year in which America wakes up. And by “waking up,” I am not talking about some progressive fantasy. I am talking about reviving and spicing up the national dialogue. I am talking about a nation that welcomes as many perspectives as possible. Because we’re now at a place where we need them. I am talking about a country in which the number of crazy things that happen from time to time becomes better memorialized. I am talking about mischief. I am talking about tomfoolery.

Paralysis of spirit simply will not do as we face a whole host of problems. I am speaking of a particular type of success, and the words date back to Emerson:

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.

2008 — The Year in Books

I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but it appears that I’m now on record at five separate places (with many individuals who are smarter than I am) to discuss the best books of 2008. In the past few days, Ready Steady Book has issued its annual symposium and the Chicago Sun-Times has posted its favorites for 2008. You can also find my top ten books of 2008 on this site, as well as my Barnes & Noble Review contribution and my take on this year’s essays at The Millions’s Year in Reading series.

I’m tempted to single out the top ten sentences I read in 2008, but this would be overkill. And the last thing you need is another list to sift through. But if you need more, you can always head on over to Largehearted Boy’s comprehensive list of lists.

Howard the Duck on Hulu

Ladies and gentlemen, by some miracle, Howard the Duck has made it onto Hulu. The film has never been released on DVD, although I understand it is being released on March 10, 2009. Nevertheless, having been withheld from the public eye for so long, I do not know how long the film’s availability on Hulu will last. If you have not seen this cinematic monstrosity, which is possibly much worse than The Spirit or Battlefield Earth, see it now before George Lucas’s ego pulls it down. One does not come across a film this bad too often, and its awfulness is truly a marvel to behold.

Keep Your Head Above Water

Here are a few interesting side notes. The above video clip wasn’t the only embarrassing flub that Sylvia Browne made on The Montel Williams Show. She managed to get ITV2 in trouble when Browne informed two parents that their missing son, Shawn Hornbeck, was dead. He turned up alive later. A court found that The Montel Williams Show had violated Rule 2.1 of the Broadcasting Code, which pertains to protecting UK viewers from “offensive material.” The show was temporarily pulled from ITV2.

In addition, the Guardian‘s Jon Ronson has a lengthy profile on Ms. Browne. (Did you know, for example, that Ms. Browne pleaded no contest to charges of investment fraud and grand theft in 1992?)

Syllables, Names, and Theory

There are some strange souls who loosen “France” from their lips, suspecting that there may be more to this country’s name than a word uttered in less than a second (presuming that you are not a soul who drawls out this word languorously, like the pleasant smoke emitted from a cheroot). Just as there remain a few vitiated greenhorns who cling stubbornly to the concept of freedom fries, some folks inherently distrust this name, perhaps because they are distressed by the country’s geographical proximity. Surely, a country separated by England through the thin aquatic sliver of the English Channel — indeed, one that maintains a rather prodigious cultural budget — would have more than one syllable. Or perhaps more than one identity. France is much larger than one syllable when we begin to think about it. And yet we must confine it into this established lingua franca.

Of course, “your theories” on this important subject, if we could ascribe such importance to a silly question, may be altogether different from mine. And that’s perfectly fine. But when one considers the syllable count of a name or a phrase, one realizes that a subject like this often passes for prodigious conversation in an academic environment. Theory, as we all know, is a risky intoxicant. And there are some who remain so determined to see things that are not necessarily there, because the promise remains vaguely plausible. Like that halo drifting above a church from a certain morning light suggesting metaphorical divinity, but that is really just a lovely visual image caused by natural intuitive elements. The pragmatic mind dismisses such a concern as “a steaming load of bullshit,” and it is remains the pragmatist’s right to hold onto this position.

But let us take these dabblings to their naturally absurdist level. When one looks at France’s one syllable, the amateur will certainly never state (if it could indeed talk directly to the country), “You have too much,” to France. In having one syllable, France clings to the most rudimentary requirements in language and time, and therefore presents itself to the mind as a country with a connotative perfect circle. Let us merely assign language a syllabic measure. For the latter (and possibly more important) element, let us consider the old idea of time being nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once — a quip attributed to Woody Allen, John Archibald Wheeler, and numerous other personages. (Indeed, who knows for sure where it came from?) In considering France’s syllabic count and the meaning of this syllabic count in relation to loftier matters, can we not define “time” as a natural medium that gnaws upon our existence? Perhaps it is a form of control that helpfully prevents us from wandering down unfruitful avenues.

Let us also take into account the fact that time is measured by a clock, an instrument composed of two hands. If time is one of those natural mediums which controls us, can we then declare time, by way of the clock’s elements, to keep us “on your hands” or otherwise enslaved to these basic language questions unfolding beyond comprehension in the present?

In this way (and many others), we are enslaved by theoretical constructs pertaining to really fun ideas. Small wonder then that so many with creative and intellectual promise can be seen from nine to five walking forlornly down Madison Avenue.

saramago

Jose Saramago: Death Takes a Breather

Goodloe Byron, who is not to be confused with the late Congressman, is a kind and excitable gentleman who permitted me to use a corner of his table to hawk Bat Segundo CDs at last year’s Independent and Small Press Book Fair. He is the author of The Abstract, a self-published book that he has released without a dollar value into the world. (He informs me that he is sitting on numerous copies of his book in his barn.) But he is also a big fan of Knut Hamsun and, as it turns out, Jose Saramago. What follows is an essay in which Mr. Byron has presented his thoughts on the latter.

saramagoThe Portuguese writer Jose Saramago describes humanity with the same alien fascination with which the Belgian naturalist Maurice Maeterlinck used to describe insects. This foreign view of civilization is entirely appropriate, as Saramago looks less like a man than a Methuselahan turtle, peering around with a goggly apparatus strapped to his temple.

In Saramago’s view, the world is not balancing on a precarious pin, but is pinned to the floor by violence and power. Suddenly, the impossible becomes possible: Blindness comes to replace selective attention with something that no longer selects anything; private regret transforms into public lucidity in Seeing. In The Cave, the Vegas/Wal-Mart/Condominium/uber-complex called The Center, a simulacra of Plato’s Cave, is built atop a buried allegorical site which realizes the simile as a literal state of being. But in these novels, society also accommodates the intruding impossibility: the blind are quarantined in dark cells; lucidity is diffused by propaganda, and the cave is turned into a spectacle itself. Since Blindness, Saramago’s seemingly impossible inspirations have become finely attuned Chestertonian paradoxes, and these situations, in turn, break the smooth surface of reality, exposing the tender and often stupid mess underneath. He’s studying the human being by injecting our world with an unstable but vivid isotope.

Saramago’s latest experiment has finally arrived in the United States. Death with Interruptions is about a country where people stop dying. This is not a book of wishful thinking. Death is such a pivotal structural entity in our world that any attempt to carry out our experience without it would transform it into an absurd character; insurance companies introduce a “working” death at the age of eighty four, funeral directors petition to transfer the commodities of mourning to pets and parakeets. These may seem satirical, but these exigencies are as real as the subsidies creating grain surpluses which are subsequently burned. Counterbalancing this bureaucratic response is a terrible self-honesty that would necessarily follow; our sympathy for the elderly and the infirm is not empathy. It is only because the predator of death is out somewhere ready to strike that we can rally ourselves and attempt to stave it off. Saramago pictures this dilemma as if these marked souls will linger here forever. They are not in danger; we cannot save them. Suddenly these regular tasks define a new unromantic role: the custodian of the all but dead. Knowing that their condition can only get so much worse, I personally suspect it would be tempting to place the person in a storage locker and go to Atlantic City, but maybe this admission will jeopardize my babysitting career.

Not many of us are violent or wish death on others, but we all know that a steady stream of blood turns the mill. The mill is not turning here, but the poor are saddled with the financial burden of the permanently dying. With compassion for the ethical havoc that this would wreak on us, Saramago indicates the brutal solution at which we would certainly arrive; if no one had to die, these people would be required to die.

But thankfully, death returns! She is classically personified, coming to us with skull, scythe, and all, a contrast to the modern view of death as a biological process. Now the story happens again, localized to a single character: an unsung cellist whom death is unable to kill. Suddenly, the story focuses and takes on the tone of an old school romance, and interestingly shares some traits with romantic obsession narratives such as Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder. It is a Da Capo al Fine move, repeating the central premise of the book but altering environmental physics from the purely positive world of his later phase, into the classical fables that characterized his first. Though something along this lines was hinted at in Seeing, to my mind, this is a transition radical enough to be considered entirely new for Saramago, and it presents us with the skeleton key to the book. This time, Death is amazed by her own impotence in the face of the human being, who remains ignorant of her, a nice reversal of the working order. This goes to the core of what Saramago’s all about, recalling the distinction between the human will (the mortal, individual spirit that dies with or before us) and soul (the eternal part of man removed from its human excess) that he explored in Baltasar and Blimunda. Instead of judging humanity by what is naturally effective (a la Deng Xiaoping), Saramago is suggesting that we should judge nature by what is morally affective (which, for Saramago, is grassroots Marxism).

Lastly if I may please note: English speakers are very lucky that Saramago’s phase shift, with the arguable exception of Blindness, has been so well-amplified in the opposed translation styles of Giovanni Pontiero and Margret Jull Costa. Obviously this distinction is a bit twisted, as this good fortune has come with the expense of Mr. Pontiero’s untimely demise. Whereas Mr. Pontiero’s style appears to radiate with a formal erudition, in the service of the most exact representation possible, Ms. Costa’s weapon of choice appears to be her imagination, in which she welds with her efforts to preserve the overall style and impression of the book. This is further evidenced by her chameleonic translations of Eca de Quieroz. As a person who can only read one language, I acknowledge being a bit of a straw man on this topic. That she would be trying to single-handedly import a neglected culture into English would be commendable as a doomed enterprise, and that she appears to be succeeding at it (and perhaps this is an area where appearing to succeed is all success really is) is awesome.

Saramago doesn’t show any sign that he will rest on his laurels, nor would anyone familiar with his work expect that he would be the sort of person to consider such a thing to be a worthwhile activity. Not long ago he completed his newest book The Elephants Journey, so now Saramagoons such as myself will have something to wait for.

friedmanmoustache

Time to Reboot My Privilege

I had a bad day last Friday, a day considerably worse than Thomas L. Friedman’s, but it was an all-too-typical day for America. Because, as we all know, my own comforts and needs naturally reflect everything we need to know about America. Mr. Friedman has a ratty moustache. But I have a beard. Which means there are more follical receptors on my face for America to kowtow to my seer-like economic prophecies.

My day actually started well, where I was taking the collective virginity of three underage girls in Bathsheba, Saint Joseph, Barbados, pissing into the mouth of one, while observing two other descendants of slave laborers cry. The two crying girls had realized that they had made a big mistake, but, since I throw around money more carelessly than Thomas L. Friedman, they had agreed to my specific carnalities. I stood under the magic cabbage palm trees, and talked to my girlfriend back home, static-free, using a friend’s iPhone. Then I played around with the iPhone Fart App, and sent a few snarky emails to Paul Krugman. (Krugman may have won the Nobel, but he refuses to understand the joys of being alive. He insists on being thoughtful, and refuses to remain ecstatically ignorant. He insists that the economic underclass is composed of real people with feelings. I do not understand.) A few hours later, I took off from the Grantley Adams International Airport, after riding out there in a taxi that thankfully did not permit me any glimpse of the downtrodden. I was surrounded by rich and wonderful white people! The wireless connectivity was so good I was able to enjoy porn on the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from St. Joseph was, as I’ve argued before, like going from Mr. Belvedere to Family Matters. St. Joseph was like enjoying Christopher Hewett sparring with Brice Beckham. But you knew that Mr. Belvedere always held the upper hand and that you were paying him a lot of money, that your comforts were never interceded by the troubling presence of black people, and that good money could always be used along the way to mold assorted people like golems into the figures you needed. But at Kennedy, there was a sargasso sea of low-class Urkels to endure while picking up your luggage. Other people, who made considerably less money than I did, actually had the effrontery to stand very close to me. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a complimentary whore, who will willingly bob up and down on your cock and tell you what a genius you are as you wait for your precious luggage?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded me of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was when I first started out as a journalist and the women wouldn’t sleep with me and they all laughed because I didn’t yet write books that were international bestsellers and that regularly insulted the intelligence of thinking people.

I then went to Penn Station, where I traveled in something that people called a subway. I saw a rat scamper underneath the tracks. I took the E line. On the train, there were odious buskers who asked me for change. There was even a man who appeared on the train with his wife and daughter, announcing that he had become unemployed because of the recent job cuts and telling all who would listen that he needed money. How dare he interrupt my ruminative ride home! How dare he attempt to usurp my happy reality! I pondered punching him into the face or maybe hiring his wife and daughter to service me, or even urging him in the strongest possible terms to read my book, The Carrera and the Olive Branch. There needed to be a way to get this man to control himself. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to send a picture message of my expensive chateau in the Hamptons to Paul Krugman, just to spite the bastard, but I could not receive a signal within this goddam sewer.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why do people like me have to suffer? What has become of our infrastructure, which is crucial in subsidizing men who fall into the highest income bracket?

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode. We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with this uppity talk of Main Street, when we really need to provide for the needs of Wall Street, even if it means executive suites and high-priced hookers. It is absolutely vital that people like me have everything they want, no matter how spurious the possession may seem to Joe Sixpack, in this economic downturn. It is also important that this nation accommodate my rich Redwood-sized ego at every turn.

John Kennedy grew up in a privileged environment. Obama needs to lead on us a journey to rediscover the importance of privilege, where we can then maintain our wondrous disparity between the haves and the have nots, and I can jet around the world without thought or guilt, hiring anyone who makes under $40,000 a year to serve as a professional footstool to prop up my pedicured feet. The new president should enact legislation to ensure that the nation mourns if my type is ever pied in the face again.

Happy holidays!

haroldpinter

RIP Harold Pinter

haroldpinterA: Is Harold Pinter dead?

B: He is dead.

A: Are you sure?

B: Yes, I’m sure.

(pause)

A: Well, who will fill his shoes?

B: I will fill his shoes.

A: You will fill his shoes. Are you a playwright?

B: No.

A: No?

B: No. Nobody can fill his shoes. I could fill his shoes if I were a playwright. But I’m not.

A: You know, the thing I suspect you’re getting at here is that Harold Pinter was unlike anybody else. But on a more literal level, I suspect you may have shared his shoe size. Assuming that you pay attention to feet. Specifically, the feet of those who contribute significantly to culture. Does anybody really know what Harold Pinter’s shoe size was?

B: His wife. The Nobel Committee maybe. I’m sorry for suggesting that I could fill his shoes. That was unintentional hubris on my part. I obviously knew that Harold Pinter was dead longer than you, and I’m still grieving.

A: Maybe they’ll offer Harold Pinter’s shoes at an auction.

B: An auction?

A: Yes, an auction. It seems the best place to consider Pinter’s legacy.

B: Will they begin selling off Pinter’s scraps of paper?

A: Maybe they’ll hold the funeral at an auction house. And there can be a little sniveling man crunched down under the bier offering work that hasn’t yet been published.

B: Work that hasn’t been published?

A: Work that hasn’t been published, yes.

B: At an auction house?

A: The publishing industry may not work this way, but maybe.

B: Oh, that’s wonderful.

A: If you’ve got the cash, perhaps.

B: As it so happens, I don’t have the cash. And I’m still a bit sad about Pinter dying.

A: I’m sad about Pinter dying too, although you wouldn’t know it from my morbid sense of humor.

B: Sometimes, a morbid sense of humor is just what it takes to take in the passing of a legend.

(pause)

A: You like the idea?

B: Not really. But we can argue about it over a game of tennis, old chap.

spirit

Review: The Spirit

spirit

The critics were not happy during the screening. The critic to my left fell asleep in his chair for an hour. The critic to my right — a jovial man who really wanted to like it — gradually realized that this was a film impossible to come to terms with.

Gone were Eisner’s primary colors, replaced by muddy and amateurish black-and-white visuals with digitally added snow that never seemed to stick. The Spirit was so bad that it made Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy look like a masterpiece.

Everyone was excited at the beginning, knowing that this was Will Eisner’s classic character finally brought to the screen and that it was Frank Miller who was going to steer it forward. But one of the fascinating aspects of this screening was observing the precise point in which each audience member would give up, knowing that Miller was cheapening a legend. Knowing that the film was wasting its cast and crew. Knowing that Miller was producing something even more odious than The Dark Knight Strikes Again or that crappy Robocop comic. (And let’s be honest. Has Miller truly contributed anything important to comics in the last ten years?) Knowing that it was Mr. Rodriquez who was the great force behind Sin City, and not Miller. (And to think that Rodriquez abandoned the DGA for this hack.) Knowing that just about everybody wanted to lock Miller into a room and punch him repeatedly in the face for about eight hours for producing this travesty. Knowing that something we all had hoped would be good was such a steaming turd.

I counted eight walkouts. There may have been more. But I can’t be sure. I was too busy slumping in my seat, stunned by the film’s relentless determination to sodomize Will Eisner’s corpse, assaulted by the film’s muddled script, which couldn’t even clear up the origin story until two-thirds of the way into the picture, its needless misogyny (women are either whores, nurturers, or kept in the background as laconic sidekicks), its inability to strike a single human note, and its failure to evince one note of fun.

Yes, Frank Miller should be punched in the face for this. It’s the only way to be sure.

There were jokes — one involving an ass on a copy machine — in which not a single person laughed. And again this was a friendly and rowdy crowd. But they all sunk into their chairs, feeling very angry that their time had been greatly wasted.

Oh, Stana Katic, how you tried as Morgenstern! You are as wonderful as Mageina Tovah, who played Ursula in the Spider-Man movies. I can now watch you in just about anything. And I feel so sorry for you for having your talent wasted. How much did you fight to keep the remainder of your quirks in? Bill Pope, I have admired your cinematography for quite a while. But this film was beneath your great talent and you should have known better. Samuel L. Jackson, signing on for a role just because you’re a geek simply isn’t worth it anymore.

Miller directs his cast as if they are statuary and handles his crew as if they are expected to generate magic simply by standing around. He is an ugly and crude man who does not know the human condition, and he is more interested in Eva Mendes’s ass than any innate personality she can use to sex up her role. He has tossed around crude pop culture references — including buildings and trucks named after Eisner’s collaborators — in an effort to win over the fanboys. But the fanboys will not bite. What Miller doesn’t understand is that geeks are too refined to swallow codswallop. What Miller doesn’t understand is that hell hath no greater fury than a fanboy spurned.

If there is any justice, the fanboys will lynch Miller at a future Comic-Con. If there is any justice, this film will fail at the box office and the money men will reconsider handing Miller the Buck Rogers reboot.

But there is rarely justice in Hollywood. The fact that this film was allowed to be made is testament to that.

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Review: Revolutionary Road

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In Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty, an excellent Richard Yates biography, Bailey depicts Yates’s efforts to adapt William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness for director John Frankenheimer. The film, as we all know, was never made. And although Yates took this lucrative gig to whirl away with the money, this didn’t stop the troubled and cash-strapped literary master from writing to the requirements of the cinematic medium. Yates included careful music cues (“light, tinny, inexpert” xylophone music to be played during a moment of rage), specific camera angles, and even facial expressions, but, above all, he remained faithful to Styron’s text, condensing and tweaking the narrative without sacrificing its visceral dynamic. To tamper with Styron too much or to water it down would involve a conventional and pointless facsimile, a flaccid adaptation dishonest to Styron and the possibilities of cinema itself.

Bailey concludes that Yates’s screenplay “may have amounted to a great movie adapted from a great novel.” And he quotes Frankenheimer forty years after Yates’s labor: “God, it’s good. I’d still like to make that movie.”

It’s doubtful that the team behind Revolutionary Road had any solicitude like this in mind. Justin Haythe’s unpardonably distilled screenplay “adaptation” manages to whittle away all that was interesting within Yates’s book. It is, like the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a dull and literal winnowing of a literary masterpiece. You know you’re in trouble from the get-go when Yates’s opening chapter in a community theater, which masterfully sets up the artifices of the Wheelers, is replaced with aloof flashbacks.

Clumping their heavy galoshes around the stage, blotting at their noses with Kleenex and frowning at the unsteady print of their scripts, they would disarm each other at last with peals of forgiving laughter, and they would agree, over and over, that there was plenty of time to smooth the thing out. But there wasn’t plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse.

Granted, it takes a screenwriter of exceptional talent to process those precise interior sentences into the visual exigencies of the film form. But Haythe is incapable of introducing anything that might permit us to see the wheels spinning in Frank’s head. Nor is director Sam Mendes up to the task of reinventing the Wheelers by establishing behavior that is as specifically rendered as Yates’s prose.

road3Instead of the backstories associated with this disastrous local theater run, we see Leo and Kate (certainly not anything close to Yates’s Frank and April, and considerably removed from Cameron’s Jack and Rose) looking across at each other at a party. But we have no real sense in the film of why these two would be attracted to each other, and, because of this, there’s no real reason to care. It doesn’t help that the Wheeler household looks more like a Pottery Barn catalog than a middle-class dwelling in 1955. And it doesn’t help that Mendes cannot even depict two pivotal acts of carnality with accuracy. (In the Mendes universe, couples have passionless sex and finish each other off in twenty seconds without even the tiniest whimper of pleasure. This is as preposterous and implausible as Sharon Stone’s over-the-top masturbation scene in Sliver. In a narrative that demands close verisimilitude, this is an inexcusable artistic decision.)

There’s a better effort to account for the Wheelers’s emotional deadness later on in the film, when the Wheelers sit down for breakfast after a fight. Leo and Kate deliver their lines in a husky and stilted manner, and the stale atmosphere in this scene is perhaps the closest this film comes to making something stick on the screen.

Nevertheless, I wondered if director Sam Mendes had really wanted to make this movie. Did he even understand the book? Had he even read it? In book form, Revolutionary Road is, among other things, a harrowing portrayal of potential castrated in the comforting traps of suburbia. And if you’re going to make a movie from this, you need an actor in Frank Wheeler’s role who is not only capable of selling us the masculinity muted beneath the cube worker, but you need someone who can intuitively grasp the emotional complexities carefully embedded inside the novel.

road2Leonardo DiCaprio is not that man. He demonstrates little thespic understanding of what it means to be stifled. He gives us nothing in the way of sorrow, save the cartoonish wails and the exaggerated throwing of physical objects from surfaces. DiCaprio has been relying on this ever since a few people convinced him that he was a serious actor. But he is unable to present us with some of the reasons why Frank would be tempted by an extramarital affair. He can access the territory of knowing he’s not good enough to be someone special. But when we learn how Frank Wheeler’s cavalier act gets him ahead, it is not because of DiCaprio. It is because Haythe and Mendes spoon-feed it to us ad nauseum. A scene at a beach, a scene with his co-workers at a diner, a scene with April. This is an inefficient and an insulting waste of minutes. We need not be told twice, let alone three times, that Frank Wheeler has what it takes to get ahead at Knox Business Machines. It should be self-evident in the way that Frank Wheeler acts on screen. But DiCaprio here cannot merge into the tempo established by his environment.

Some of this may be bad casting and bad direction. But it’s clear watching this film that DiCaprio’s mind, emotions, and personal experience — as portrayed here — remain unsuited to a man in his midthirties who knows nothing more than a shitty job.

As April, Kate Winslet is better. She did, after all, play Sarah Pierce, the bored thirtysomething housewife who feels entitled to something better in Little Children, nailing the opportunity to fuse hauteur with vulnerability. (Perhaps Todd Field should have been the guy to write and direct Revolutionary Road.)

But her husband is not suited to direct her. Instead of crafting a performance out of Winslet, Mendes constantly places Winslet in the center of the frame, as if this visual juxtaposition will somehow atone for the bad material.

road4Instead, Mendes and Haythe, who appear to be a writer-director working team about as competent as Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher, see Yates’s endlessly nuanced novel as an opportunity to remake American Beauty for the 1950s, with a number of sexist nods to Mad Men thrown in for commercial appeal. “I must scoot. Toodle-ooo,” says one bubbly neighbor. And this cornball emphasis suggests that Mendes and Haythe don’t see the 1950s as a time in which real people lived and wrestled with serious decision. It is a decade to be played merely for cheap laughs.

And this contempt for audiences makes Revolutionary Road a movie designed for illiterates who will likely give this dreadful film a pass because they refuse to demand better.

Perhaps Mendes and Haythe’s incompetence can be summed up in the film’s final scene, which takes a good two minutes to execute. But Yates got to the point in two sentences. It’s a pity that this film never dares to trust its audience and speed up its pace through natural beats and a meticulous attention to human behavior. If it had, it might have come close to understanding the welcome, thunderous sea of silence at the heart of Yates’s novel.

On the Unpredictability of Balding

Since moving to New York, I have developed the habit of growing a beard and shaving it off (along with the hair on my head), only to continue the cycle anew. I am not sure how or why this grooming practice began. But I will try to explain my motives. Years ago, I proudly accepted the fact that I was losing my hair, figuring that I would eventually develop the dependable crescent pattern that comes at the end of male pattern baldness. I’d eventually have a hairline that was as badass as Tito Perez‘s.

Alas, this has not happened. Despite my repeat buzzing efforts, a somewhat dependable isthmus, roughly around one and a half inches in length, remains at the top of my skull. Sure, the circumference of the fleshy ellipse (commonly referred to among men as the “bald spot”) has gradually increased. But I had figured it would have run its course by now. Factor in the onset of a few gray hairs that have cropped up in my beard and the sides of my head, and what has occurred instead is minor confusion.

This wasn’t really an issue for me until I realized that the protagonist in my book, who is three years older than me and something of a parallel version of me had I made more mistakes, was experiencing the same dilemma. When I began work on the book, the not-quite-bald, not-quite-hairy condition came about as a silly metaphor. The character cannot accept that he is someone who needs to move on and make decisions in life, while likewise remaining true to his nature. But I had more hair when I began writing the book and had anticipated that my hair would be more or less gone if the book was ever published. What I had not anticipated was that some of the hair would stay.

Now I’m not going to go to the trouble of offering visual representations of my bald spot. Jonathan Ames has already made certain illustrative innovations, and I’ll let him have his glory. But I think his exercise does represent how all men within this balding stage are attempting to find a fixed bearing that is (a) not particularly fixed and (b) subject to the whims of our chromosomes. Nevertheless, if some scientist were to invent a device that could tell me the precise chronological age in which I would lose all of my hair, I don’t think I would take him up on the offer. There is a certain comfort and pleasure to this unpredictability. And I have attempted to respond to this by creating additional unpredictable methods with the shaving exercise, which has the added incentive of throwing people off. Because they don’t know if I will be bald, have hair on my head, or have a beard. And this is sometimes very good at infiltrating certain social situations in which I would prefer to observe the action and talk to complete strangers.

But I do wonder if I am in slight denial about the fact that I have not entirely lost my hair. And I am chronicling this here, in all candor, to reach out to other men who are in the same predicament. Some men foolishly cling to what’s left of their hair and even rely on combovers. I vowed long ago that I would not. But perhaps I am equally guilty with the shaving exercise.

I don’t think this is a question of vanity. It’s more about wanting to move on when my genetics refuse to. It seems absurd to bald so much, only to stop at a certain point. It seems further absurd to develop hair in unusual places when you are losing hair in seemingly vital areas. But then we evolved from monkeys. So a little bit of absurdity was always in the cards.

Perhaps what’s needed are more role models who defy the easy way out. Jason Statham is currently in this predicament, and does not really disguise his balding. So perhaps he’s our man. But I’ve lost respect for those actors and public figures who cling to hairpieces when they have perfectly respectable balding patterns. To a large degree, they are cowards. They want to pretend that they’re not balding, when, in fact, balding is often one of the most intriguing things that can happen to a man.

Temporarily Out of Service

Over the next day, I will be shifting this website over to a new hosting provider. If this site is down, well, you now know why. But I assure you that it will go back up again. If you need to get in touch with me by email, try the Yahoo address or DM me through Twitter. More geeky details TK.

[UPDATE: Okay, so it looks like we’re switched over. Not 100%, because the DNS records still need to kick in. I am gradually tweaking things. If you observe any problems, please let me know.]

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Review: Nothing But the Truth

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Before Jonathan Demme became a world-renowned filmmaker, he was a film critic working for a small newspaper. The glorious schlock producer Roger Corman was shrewd enough to give the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, the late and profoundly misunderstood Paul Bartel, Martin Scorsese, the woefully underrated Joe Dante, James Cameron, and John Sayles their early starts. And Corman saw something in Demme while Demme was working for him as a unit publicist. Demme got his first directing assignment from Corman in 1974: a not-bad women-in-prison flick called Caged Heat that features catfights, gratuitous nudity, and a score from Velvet Underground founder John Cale. Demme followed this up with two more films for Corman before being snatched up by Paramount to direct Handle with Care. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve long had a theory that the unfettered freedom that Corman gave to guys like Demme was invaluable. They became serious filmmakers a few decades later. And when we consider that some of the top-grossing Hollywood entertainments of the past decade (The Lord of the Rings, the Spider-Man trilogy) came from, respectively, Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi — two filmmakers who, only two decades ago, could not be possibly be identified as having mass commercial prospects, the theory that exploitation fare serves as an essential training ground becomes more plausible.

Like Demme, Rod Lurie was also a critic before he was a filmmaker. Regrettably, he did not have a Corman-like figure who encouraged him to go completely wild. And this apparent restraint, whether self-imposed or dictated by studio forces, has prevented Lurie from being anything more than a by-the-numbers filmmaker. One watches Lurie’s films wondering if the id will ever burst completely to the surface. Here is a man who put “win” in the names of two soldiers in The Last Castle, and was silly enough to have a scene in which a 64-year-old shirtless Robert Redford moves rocks without rest across a prison yard. There is clearly great exploitation potential here. But Lurie seems convinced that he is making a deeply intelligent film with each offering. He’s infinitely more interesting when he relies on these goofy what-the-hell moments, such as the audacious casting of Jeff “The Dude” Bridges as the President of the United States in The Contender. Not only does Jeff Bridges play, well, Jeff Bridges, but Lurie also includes a silly scene in which this President offers a ridiculously oversized sandwich in an effort to “break bread” and is taken aback when his political associate does not accept the offer.

This struggle between wanting to pound moral issues into his audience’s skulls with all the grace and subtlety of a limbless deli worker trying to use the meat cutting machine to make a hero and embracing film as something that is often fun and inexplicable is what makes Lurie’s most recent film, Nothing But the Truth, perhaps his most interesting. While my moviegoing companion dismissed Nothing But the Truth as “a steaming pile of dung,” I felt compelled to defend the movie’s odder moments, even as I simultaneously recognized it as a deeply flawed political drama.

Beneath Nothing But the Truth‘s implausible and pleasantly preposterous politics beats the half-hidden heart of a perfectly respectable exploitation film. There are girl-on-girl jail fights and a conjugal visit in which a woman screams, “Thanks for the fuck! It really hit the spot!” These are not the scenes that one expects from an austere political drama, and the film held my interest during these moments because I wanted to see just how far Lurie would go. Personally, I do not believe that Lurie went nearly far enough. And I felt sad. Because American cinema needs more people who take chances. I concluded that the only way that Lurie could get attuned to his innate craziness would involve remaking the wonderfully terrible movie, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, a script incapable of being directed with total sincerity. An Ilsa remake would put Lurie’s naivete to an end and would finally release him from the needless task of making “important” films. Failing that, perhaps Abel Ferrara could be employed to hold Lurie hostage for a month and Lurie could emerge from the smoky anarchy with a newfound determination to make batshit crazy films.

nothing2Let us first ponder why a reprogramming along these lines is necessary. The film opens with a presidential assassination attempt with an unbelievable paucity of Secret Service agents. Later, there’s a stern judge who announces “Anyone want some tea? It’s from Greece” in his chambers at a wildly inappropriate moment. The newsroom of the fictive Capitol Sun-Times, more All the President’s Men than All the Present Realities, is utterly implausible with newspaper cuts and the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy in recent headlines. Everyone seems to have plenty of time to bullshit around in an editorial meeting. The graceful Angela Bassett almost sells her silly role as a top editor, until she urges Our Intrepid Reporter Based Heavily on Judith Miller (played by Kate Beckinsale) to get some rest, a wildly improbable request when today’s newspapers demand immediate copy to fuel sales. Our Intrepid Reporter lives in a very spacious house with another writer, who has written only one novel. (It’s safe to say that Lurie isn’t familiar with the financial ups and downs that would preclude such an affluent lifestyle.)

Lurie has this funny habit of getting one fact right, only to be completely wrong about another one. At one point, a CIA agent submits to a polygraph test. As anyone who had read Ken Alder’s interesting book, The Lie Detectors, knows, a polygraph is inadmissible in court, an unreliable measure, and entirely unscientific. (For more on polygraphs, you can listen to my podcast interview last year with Alder.) But Lurie doesn’t seem to know this, or at least never mentions it. Lurie does know that CIA agents are trained to beat a polygraph test (and this is mentioned). But if the CIA agent can beat the test, why would the investigation bother to carry it out? These numbskull decisions are at odds with the movie’s (perhaps unintentional) quirky charms.

Most egregiously, Matt Dillon has been cast in the role of the prosecutor who goes after Our Intrepid Reporter.

A few words about Matt Dillon: If you need someone to play a dick or a former high-school jock who is past his prime, Dillon’s your man. If, however, you need an actor to offer convincing authority, Dillon simply cannot be taken seriously. The director John McNaughton — a man, unlike Lurie, who knows how to have great fun with sleaze — understood the Dillon dilemma when he cast him in Wild Things and played this up. And one suspects from Dillon’s memorable appearance on Fishing with John that Dillon exhibits these qualities quite naturally.

Dillon is one of those guys who could easily be beaten up by out-of-shape thugs at a suburban bar. Sure, the bluehairs accepted his unintentionally hilarious performance in Crash and nominated him for an Academy Award. But the rest of us know that his attempts to take charge of a scene and exhibit masculinity are as dopey and diaphanous as a used car salesman trying to convince that he’s a friend. Had Nothing But the Truth possessed the courage to embrace its exploitation potential, Dillon’s casting would have proven to be a stroke of genius. But Lurie wants us to accept Dillon as a threat, because he believes too much in his premise, and has Dillon spout such silly lines as, “You know, vilify me all you want, but I had a job to do.” (To get a sense of how ridiculous this line is, imagine it spoken in Dillon’s voice, with that regrettable Dillon pause at the commas.)

nothing3Alan Alda, on the other hand, is very good as the attorney who defends Our Intrepid Journalist, even when he’s given a preposterous scenario in which he essentially whines to a judge, “Oh, come on!” That Alda can work these scenarios without diminishing his authority is a credit to his great powers as an actor. Lurie was lucky to get him on board.

Beckinsale is okay. David Schwimmer is ridiculous. Vera Farmiga has been better elsewhere. But I liked Floyd Abrams as the Judge. (This may be because he’s a well-known lawyer. Perhaps he gave Alda some helpful tips.)

Even Alik Sakharov’s camerawork here is befitting of a quickly made film produced by Corman: lots of long lenses with soft and blurry backgrounds, too many closeups, muddled editing. This appears to be an effort to create claustrophobia. But it only serves to reinforce the rhetorical Don Edmonds question raised above. What would Lurie do with Ilsa?

I am not quite sure if I’ve written a bad review. But I have spent far more words than I expected to on Lurie’s latest opus. And there are pages of notes I haven’t even touched on. I know that Rod Lurie is a bit obsessive about leaving comments at nearly every website that reviews his films. Perhaps he cares very deeply what some of us think. So, Rod, if you are looking for advice, do yourself and the film world a favor. Remake Ilsa. Stop injecting your screenplays with silly moral predicaments. Be honest for once and realize that there’s a great big cornball exploitation filmmaker inside you. If you’re true to that voice, then maybe you could be a Demme decades down the line.

What Everybody Can Learn from Anita Bruzzese

As a guy who writes unapologetically for both print and online outlets, I have a lot of fun reading smug and woefully out-of-touch posts from alleged “journalists” dictating precisely how to go about conducting this business. Thankfully, much of Anita Burzzese’s work is online, offering invaluable lessons for writers of all stripes on what not to do.

1. Don’t treat the reader like an idiot. In Ms. Bruzzese’s December 14th column, spends five needless paragraphs providing dumb buildup about why Kathy Caprino thought that losing her job was the best thing that happened to her. Instead of offering an uninterrupted paragraph of quotes, Ms. Bruzzese feels the need to interject this question to the reader, “So why does Caprino feel so great about what happened?” Actually, that’s what the journalist is there to tell us. Except that Ms. Bruzzese, who has both a focus and a worldview about as wide as a vise in a high school shop class that can’t be untightened, hasn’t considered that the average newspaper reader may not have Capirino’s expendable income, much less the remains of a “well-paying, high-powered position” to start a new life. Frankly, it’s insulting to the average newspaper reader to offer such a sheltered tale of redemption in a time of economic crisis. The more journalistic angle would involve Ms. Bruzzese asking Caprino why her life-relaunching strategy simply isn’t possible for a working mother who works two full-time jobs at minimum wage. Ms. Bruzzese doesn’t seem to understand that because you are published in a newspaper, this does not necessarily mean that you are a journalist. Journalism involves asking critical questions, not propping up gratuitous and self-serving figures for human interest stories. The reader wants to understand issues. And that means questioning everything and everybody, while likewise presenting many sides of the story.

2. Don’t rely on one source for a trend piece. In the same article noted above, it’s worth observing that Ms. Bruzzese has talked with only one person — Caprino — for a story that is ostensibly about how women can thrive in a tough economy. Now a real journalist would talk to some of the women who Caprino talked with, corroborating Caprino’s claims against those of others. Even if Ms. Bruzzese had juxtaposed even one additional subject against the others, it would be far more substantive than this puff piece. Furthermore, a real journalist would take the Caprino claim that “seven out of 10 working women report that they are facing a major turning point in their careers” and compare it against other sources. But Ms. Bruzzese is such a lazy journalist that she can’t be bothered to sift through the material in front of her. I’ve looked through Caprino’s book courtesy of Amazon’s Inside the Book feature and can find no trace in the text or the footnotes of “seven,” “7,” “ten,” or “10” that matches up to Ms. Bruzzese’s claim that Caprino notes in her book that “seven out of 10 working women report that they are facing a major turning point in their careers, especially middle-age women.” We are informed by Joyce Lain Kennedy that Caprino herself conducted this study with the Esteemed Women Foundation, an organization founded not by a scientist, but by a filmmaker. This is an organization that likewise features on its homepage an over-the-top, scantily clad image of Paris Hilton and an image of astronaut Eileen Collins standing in her flight suit, with the caption, “Which One Will Your Daughter Want to Become??” [sic]

What this tells us is that Ms. Bruzzese not only did not bother to read the book in question, but listened only to what Caprino told her. Never mind that the study is hardly objective, suggesting an inherently sexist and outdated dichotomy in which women are either pop stars or thoughtful astronauts. Since Caprino’s book is more of a motivational tome rather than a legitimate study, would it not have been journalistically responsible for Ms. Bruzzese to disclose the Esteemed Woman Foundation connection? (Oh, dear me. Such basic corroboration would require too much work!)

3. If your quote establishes a concept, there is no need to browbeat the reader with an additional paragraph. In Ms. Bruzzese’s November 30th column, we again see her troubling habit of offering a paragraph that explains what the source is going to say, only to have the source repeat what is essentially the same information.

Facella says the history of “elitism” by some workers — especially young employees — who believed they should be paid top dollar when they had little experience, may have been driven from the workplace scene by the current financial crisis.

“I think a lot of folks are going to be humbled by this experience,” he says. “I think they’re going to see that it’s OK to learn from the bottom and work your way up. They’re going to find that learning the ropes before taking over a business makes sense.”

If I were working the copy desk, I would demand this rewrite:

Some workers once believed that they could be paid top dollar for little experience, but Facella suggests that “a lot of folks are going to be humbled.” The current economic crisis may even cause a few workers to develop a new work ethic. “I think they’re going to see that it’s OK to learn from the bottom and work your way up. They’re going to find that learning the ropes before taking over a business makes sense.”

Not only have I cut thirteen words from Ms. Bruzzese’s two paragraphs, but I have improved the flow, captured the essence of what Facella told Ms. Bruzzese, and framed the quotes with topical thrust in mind.

Considering these severe missteps (only a handful of Ms. Bruzzese’s inefficiencies), I think it’s pretty safe to say that Ms. Bruzzese is ill-equipped to tell anyone how to practice journalism. Particularly when she remains mostly incapable of doing it herself. And that’s truly the appalling thing to consider here.

(Tip via Books, Inq.)

Statement of Current Intentions

You may have observed a slight downturn in new content in the last week. In an effort to organize and clear away needless detritus, I’ll be stepping back a bit from these pages during the next month or two. There will still be fresh content and new podcasts over the next several weeks. (The subject of dogs keeps coming into these podcasts, and I’m not sure why.) But my attentions are currently required elsewhere.

There are several reasons for this. Beyond my freelancing responsibilities, I’m trying to take advantage of the winter slowdown to (a) make a serious push forward on the manuscript, which involves considerable rewriting and a sustained burst of about 30,000 more words before I get to the end (very painstaking, but loads of fun), (b) get certain technical aspects of this website streamlined, (c) perform a continual series of mental resets* to ensure that I can stick with point (a), and (d) check in on people and otherwise ensure that folks I know are okay. Aside from this four-point framework, there’s a good deal of pleasant anarchy. Notes and papers are shuffled daily on the kitchen table.

I am trying to replace one routine (offering a blog post or three every day) with another (working on the manuscript every day). There has been some discombobulation, but I’m now getting the hang of it. And I now see that this beast will, at long last, get finished.

Because there could be several days between posts, I may enlist a few guest bloggers to keep this place thrumming. If you’re interested, feel free to email me.

In the meantime, I may perform a few experiments pertaining to this novel-in-progress. What I may do is throw you dutiful readers such strange questions as: “If a gun was pointed at you just after you’ve pissed your pants, what circumstances would cause you to remove your pants?” (That question, incidentally, has been answered.) You get the idea.

Again, I must point out that if you have been adversely affected by the current economic crisis, please do not let this stop you from doing what you do. The defeatism that has taken hold of some anonymous pessimists truly isn’t constructive. The time has come for all of us to push forward with solutions. Try and take this time to do something wonderful in a time of crisis. Support your local bookstore if you can. And if you’re a writer, above all, stay writing.

* The mental reset has involved long periods away from the Internet. I am now on a strict reading and writing regimen that involves an improvised mathematical formula establishing the number of hours I abstain from the Internet. (Don’t ask. But I assure you that it makes sense.) Since my laptop is currently temperamental, I have shifted back to thick books and five-subject notebooks and writing atop the manuscript by hand. I have also decided to limit the amount of information I ingest during any given time, because I am now at a place where I need to think long and hard about a number of complicated issues pertaining to points (a) and (b).

New Richard Powers Novel Has Title and Release Date

FSG has recently announced a spate of titles for fall 2009. Among the bunch is Richard Power’s new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, which is set for release in October. As soon as I determine any additional information, I will certainly report it here.

And if you somehow missed out on the comprehensive roundtable discussion of Powers’s last novel, The Echo Maker (which included a contribution from Powers himself), you can revisit the conversation here.

[12/17 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by several sources that the new novel is about the discovery of a happiness gene, which certainly places Power’s recent essay on the human genome in an interesting light. More info as I uncover it.]

Macmillan Lays Off 64, FSG in Severe Trouble

Shortly after last week’s wage freeze, Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot is reporting that Macmillan Publishing has eliminated 64 positions. This is 4% of Macmillan’s U.S. workforce.

The Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh has more. There are currently unconfirmed rumors that as many as 15 people could be let go before the end of today. Among the FSG casualties: head of production Tom Consiglio and editor Denise Oswald. The Faber & Faber imprint appears to be getting absorbed or is possibly toast.

A report from the New York Times‘s Motoko Rich reveals that current Henry Holt president Dan Farley will assume responsibility for the newly formed Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. But who will lead Henry Holt? Is this where more cuts are going to occur?

More details as they come in.

UPDATES FOLLOW BELOW:

3:45 PM: Based on tweets and emails, here is what I’ve been able to determine: The publicity department should be okay. Picador, Henry Holt, and Tor (latter bit via @pnh) appear to remain alive (for now). The cuts appear to be directed at FSG, aimed at fitting FSG imprints into the new reorganization. I am hoping to have specific reports to draw on later. But if you need to get some bearings on what’s happening today, this is the snapshot of things to come. Jonathan Galassi will be issuing a statement of some sort later today.

4:06 PM: @PublishersLunch: “Truman Talley, 84, is retiring after 11 years at the eponymous SMP imprint, and 60 years in publishing.”

4:09 PM: The Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh is reporting that the FSG children’s division is gone, and that it will be incorporated into the new Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. No official word or statement yet from Galassi.

4:41 PM: No word yet from Galassi, and I’ve got to split. Do check out Twitter and the dependable Leon Neyfakh for any official word.

A Decent Issue of the NYTBR for Once?

I am especially surprised to see that this week’s edition of the New York Times Book Review has a lot of good material. I don’t know if some crafty editor over there who still cares about books had the bright idea of tying up Sam Tanenhaus and throwing him into a closet for a week in review. I cannot possibly envision Tanenhaus coming up with the brilliant idea of having Tom McCarthy review Jean-Philippe Toussaint (a literary translation, Orthofer, can you believe it?), getting Douglas Wolk weigh in on Spiegelman, Ames, and Heatley, and securing Sophie Gee to politely dismiss the Hensher novel, among other things.

This issue seems to have arrived from a parallel universe in which Tanenhaus declined the Times gig and finished his Buckley bio. There is a whiff of revolution in the air. The deputy editors seem eager to seize the means of production and make the NYTBR matter again. Yes, the NYTBR could certainly improve its terrible male-to-female ratio. But this week’s articles don’t bear the sleazy telltale assignment pairups that regularly spawn from Tanenhaus’s grubby little mind. This is an issue written by informed people who wants to assess literature and who are chomping at the bit to go all the way. Which is all that many of us have been asking over the years. None of Tanenhaus’s stuffy and out-of-touch regulars — Joe Queenan, the hopelessly unfunny Henry Alford, Lee Siegel, the pair of thirtysomething dopes Troy Patterson and Dave Itzkoff, et al. — are in here this week. (But sadly, neither is the one good regular mainstay: Liesl Schillinger.)

If the issue still carries the stigma of sleazily tendentious decision making, at least it has managed to restore itself with pretty decent coverage.

Of course, I fully expect next week’s issue to go to pot. It has become abundantly clear that Sam Tanenhaus is the primary reason why the NYTBR is mostly a joke. Keep Tanenhaus away from the cookie jar, and the NYTBR has some chance of recapturing a modicum of its former glory. And we’ll all have some tasty gingerbread to munch on.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #255.

Paul Schrader is a filmmaker who is most recently the director of Adam Resurrected. The film opens in limited release on December 12.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Waiting for Deborah Harry to call him.

Guest: Paul Schrader

Subjects Discussed: Being asked to direct vs. originating a film project, Jeff Goldblum working against his natural tics, Goldblum’s considerable preparation for the role, balancing the element of play with too much preparation, making a film from Yoram Kaniuk’s untranslatable novel, initial efforts to adapt Adam Resurrected, defying the fixed notion of a Holocaust film, adapting books into films, working with cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, mimicking the memory of specific historical times, making a film without the prospect of financial returns, why the present time is the worst for independent film, clarifying the details about Extreme City, recent events in Mumbai, the opening scene in Lolita, allowing for a minimum of verisimilitude within a magical realist narrative, actors barking like dogs, clearing up some of the information in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, keeping a loaded gun, Sam Peckinpah, the importance of being crazy, and whether or not Schrader has exorcised all of his demons.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

schraderCorrespondent: Did you have any of the actors study dog movement at all?

Schrader: Jeff did. He hung out with this guy. The dog whisperer guy. And the boy who plays the dog….

Correspondent: Tudor [Rapiteanu]?

Schrader: Tudor. He spent a fair amount of time with dogs. And the dog in the film, Sam, he was with us quite a while. Jeff spent quite a lot of time with Sam. The two of them.

Correspondent: Tudor is hiding under the blanket. At least, that is what we are led to believe. I don’t think that he hid under the blanket the entire time. Or did he? Was there at any point somebody else? Did he have a dog double? Was there a Tudor double? Was there an actual dog there?

Schrader: Oh, no, no. That’s always Tudor.

Correspondent: Really?

Schrader: Yeah. He’s a rather exceptional kid. He was twelve at the time. Smart as a whip. He had just placed fourth in the Romanian Academic Olympics. But he was totally into that whole dog. He would play a dog even when we weren’t shooting.

Correspondent: And the actors were perfectly okay and happy? They felt fairly safe being dogs like this? Because you’re working on all fours. I don’t think I’ve done that for longer than an hour, I suppose, in my life. And so I’m wondering, what did you do to ensure that their performances would be safe? To perform and have this, I guess, canine verisimilitude.

Schrader: Well, you have to sort of watch out for their knees. You can hurt your knees trying to go around down on all fours.

BSS #255: Paul Schrader (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nacho Vigalondo

Nacho Vigalondo appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #254. Vigalondo is a filmmaker who is most recently the writer and director of Timecrimes, a film that opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 12.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for future Bats.

Guest: Nacho Vigalondo

Subjects Discussed: What to expect when attending one’s first press day in New York, being isolated from the Hollywood scene by making films in Spain, unexpected attention, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the current speed in adapting comic books, Mark Millar, the Timecrimes remake, the pink bandaged head as an old Universal Horror motif, finding the monster within the movie, writing a script out of sequence, Steven Zaillian, trying not to bore the audience, showing the ridiculous side of the situation, using the best bits of Karra Elejalde’s cinematic career for the different Hectors, the influence of fashion choices upon performance, making a movie work in a natural way, the criticism of “improvisation,” criticizing the reasons behind Chica’s nudity, not explaining everything within a movie, the tendency for music to blare throughout every environment, learning from Hitchcock, practical locations vs. planned sets, and making a timeless movie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

nacho-vigalondoVigalondo: When you’re writing a script, sometimes the script is put into a nightmare. Sometimes, it’s giving you some gift. And in this case, when I was writing Timecrimes, I found a monster inside the story. But the story itself gave me the monster. I needed someone with a hidden face, with a scissors on the hand. So I found out that the story was building a monster. A monster that had these classical resonances, as you are telling. So I feel so fortunate. Because when you have a monster in your movie, the movie gets better most of the time. Every movie with a monster is better than the same story without the monster. You can apply this to all the other — to every example. I don’t know. If Million Dollar Baby had a monster, it would be a better film.

Once you find a monster inside your film, well, in my case, it’s something you have to celebrate. For two reasons. It’s a monster that sounds like a Universal classic film monster. And at the same time, it’s a pretty cheap Halloween costume. If the people like your film, they can disguise as the big mummy with little money on the bandages and the scissors. So if you want to dress like Freddy Krueger, it’s more expensive than my monster in my film. So it’s like giving something to the people. In depression times, giving cheap monsters to the people is something I really appreciate. (laughs)

BSS #254: Nacho Vigalondo (Download MP3)

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Cry of the Hornet

The loud flashes pierced into his eyes as they ushered him before the cameras. The shrapnel of sharp questions sliced into inextricable loss that the men behind the massacre could never tally up or scratch away, and for which they still hadn’t apologized.

He still flinched from the stench left in the wake of the carcass that had once been his home, the hillock of his humble life, the now obliterated pile for which he had moved hard mountains. He had wanted to die with them, but he was halfway through a twelve-hour shift when he got the call. At the moment his cell phone chirped, he was selling a pack of Marlboros to a gloomy guy sliding dimes across the counter, grumbling about the economy. But he knew he had to go on.

He couldn’t believe the news and he couldn’t close the store. There was nobody else. And if he didn’t move a hundred dollars by day’s end, they’d be short for the month. There were no savings.

The pilot had lived, ejecting just before the Hornet rammed into their humble stucco home. He wanted answers, but his neighbors only offered spooky silent stares. Shadowy details loosened once they saw his dark inquisitive face. The deaths had been sudden. The wreckage would be remunerated. The tall thin plumes could be seen as far away as Poway.

Now he was here. Lost in a crackling haze of slapdash queries he’d somehow felt obliged to answer. The journalists asked him what he thought of the pilot, but they’d never know the fluke of this sacrifice. They asked him what he was going to do next. Forgive so that he could go somewhere and grieve, but not forget.

God, he had loved them. It wasn’t so much not seeing his daughters grow up or his wife grow old or even his grandmother’s kind smile, but the comforts of their happy routine. The knowing twinkle that came when she read his mind. His kids discovering some pedantic joy he’d somehow overlooked. All now dry and irreplaceable rivers frozen into the hazy pool of memory.

He couldn’t remember the words that the cameras and the microphones had recorded. But he must have said something. The phone never stopped ringing. The letters kept coming. They’d even tracked down his email address. They called him a hero, but he had only done the right thing. And he wanted to go back to work because it was the only regular routine he had left. Even if it meant crying and remembering in the lonely terrain of the dark while they sung the stark ballads now attached to his name.

Revised Thoughts on Twitter

Twitter has changed everything for me. I say this after last year’s unsuccessful initial plunge. Back then, I did not understand Twitter and dismissed it, as Tito Perez suggested in the comments, with the reactionary zeal of an old fogey waving a scolding finger at blogging. Perhaps part of the problem was that Twitter hadn’t quite found its sea legs. Much like the early days of blogging, Twitter was then an unruly expanse of stray text messages. It was a bit like attempting to sail in a murky lake littered with barnacles and driftwood. You’d hear sharp cracks against the hull when all you really wanted to do was sail forward.

But now that I’ve warmed up to it considerably, I’ve found Twitter to be an essential medium that can be used to collect interesting bits of information and communicate with others. It’s something of a conceptual lab, where everyone can throw around crazy ideas. It’s also a handy way of checking in on friends. Much like Wikipedia, it provides invaluable (and possibly untrue) leads that you can independently corroborate. And when you verify something, you begin to think about it. And when you think about it, you begin to write in some relatively cogent form. Twitter may very well be one of the reasons why my already overactive brain is capable of churning out a livelier conceptual stew. (In cases like this, where concepts often threaten to dislodge the noggin, I find it wise to heed ZeFrank’s helpful advice about “brain crack.” Assuming people are using Twitter the way that I am, perhaps Twitter is, in its own way, assisting people in departing from their brain crack.)

Because the medium is communal, and because there are so many tweets that fly across your screen, the power laws controversy that riled up bloggers back in 2003 may not necessarily apply here. I understand that there have been efforts to log the most popular Twitter users, but such exercises miss the point of tweeting. Yes, you’ll find John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Warren Ellis, and Shaquille O’Neal. But since you determine who you follow, you likewise determine how Twitter works for you. You can avoid the charlatans who want to sell you things, the newspapers and websites who spam you with thirty links in three minutes, or the narcissists who want to drag you into the morass. And when someone tweets you out of the blue, you then find another interesting soul to follow or tweet with. Somehow, it all works out. It never becomes too overwhelming. As someone who was around during the early days of blogging, which some have framed as a golden age of possibilities, I find myself having similar thoughts about Twitter. Yes, it will likely become monetized. These mediums always do. But for now, enjoy it while it lasts. It’s a tool that can work for you.

It is possible to spend too much time on Twitter and get on a mad roll of prolific tweets. With the exception of important political events or live coverage, I try to avoid such exercises out of deference to my followers, who I know are following other people. (I remain quite surprised that apparently some people are interested in what I have to say within 140 characters. You will not find much pith within this barrier.) To negotiate Twitter, one must practice some restraint. Just as one must practice some restraint in relation to the Internet. Because I’ve seen good people go mad. Twitter, like anything, can overrun your brain. And it is vital to think.

But Twitter has also had a positive effect on this blog and my writing in general. I find myself writing slower here and faster on Twitter. Suddenly, the roundups that I’ve generated sometimes seem like extraneous exercises. I’ve become more inclined to go on mad tangents. After all, I’ve already thrown the link around on my Twitter feed. I find myself more enthralled with the long form. More willing to be some kind of half-assed chronicler. Maybe Twitter is just what the blogosphere needed to mature. It’s not so much about who links where. It’s now about the voice, which is what attracted many of us to this medium in the first place.

The folks who run Twitter have found a way of making feeds work for us. Just about any self-respecting geek has long hoped that RSS feeds would catch on. But they haven’t. At least not in the way that the feed founders intended. Mechanisms such as Google Reader, Twitter, and podcasting permit us to visualize and use the feed in a way that makes it work for us.

Having said all this, I don’t see how Twitter can make any money. So many people use it. And there are often regrettable Twitter outages. But there is no Con Ed representative to shout at. If these outages come at times when you need to sift through information, it can feel something close to withdrawal from a drug. Yes, one can plant some of the information into a blog entry. But it doesn’t feel the same. The Twitter interface is very particular.

For now, the great circus carries on, sans advertisements or sponsored links. The truth of the matter is that we’re all waiting for Google to buy it. But in the meantime, many of us can use it and feel that we’re now in the midst of something exciting. Until Paul Boutin writes his premature elegy for Twitter sometime in 2010.

My experience with Twitter has caused me to attempt a shift in direction for this blog. Something akin to what I tried with the Filthy Habits incarnation of this site before I returned back to the quasi-Reluctant voice. I’m going more long-form. I’ll be putting up posts that are around 600 to 1,000 words. Strange essays. Prose exercises. I’ll even review a few things here. Books and movies. Etcetera. I think this website is probably going to be more like a newspaper column than a blog. And I’ll still happily edit anything that people want to send me. But I have no conscious plan other than long-form musings. I’m going to see how this all plays out while I do it. If you’ve liked the short form, well, you can always follow my Twitter feed.

I have Twitter to thank for this wholly unintentional development.

Roundup

  • Bookbrunch is reporting that, contrary to Robert McCrum’s insistence that the literary lunch is dead, recently sacked Telegraph literary editor Sam Leith was indeed taken out to lunch by Bloomsbury and commissioned to write a comic novel called The Coincidence Engine. By the way, if anybody wants to take me out to lunch and talk to me about my novel-in-progress, let me know.
  • It seems that on Facebook, happiness isn’t really a warm gun, but it can be found through a friend you add. My own tendency is to pretty much say yes to anybody on Facebook. The other day, Anne Rice, whom I do not know and whose books I have stopped reading, asked me to be your Facebook friend. Now if Anne were a real friend, we’d hang out and have mojitos during happy hour. She’d tell me her latest troubles over the phone. I’d offer a shoulder to cry on. We’d have a number of exciting adventures with other friends. But since this was Facebook, this typical friendship was probably not going to happen. Nevertheless, I figured, why not? Maybe Anne’s lonely. Maybe if she’s Facebook friends with me, this will make her happier. Then again, maybe “happiness” is being confused with an opportunistic marketing move. Is it really Anne Rice at the other end or some young and savvy publicist who wants to use the latest technology to get hip with the kids? I am sometimes suspicious of authors who add me as Facebook friends only a few months before one of their books is published. There have been a few instances in which I’ve run into an author in person, an author who added me as a Facebook friend and who initiated the step, but who did not recognize me. Presumably, their gesture for friendship was somewhat phony or motivated by something else. But since adding a Facebook friend hurts nobody, why not add them? It’s the virtual equivalent of cheering up a stranger in the elevator!
  • Ingrid van Vliet has a very interesting way of answering questions.
  • Benjamin Black profiled at The Elegant Variation: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. What you may not know is this: Jim Ruland just happens to be a pen name for Mark Sarvas.
  • Tina, Dahling, if you’re serious about it, dahling, why don’t your Daily Beast editors return emails?
  • If you’re a struggling freelancer who doesn’t have a Y chromosome, consider donating eggs to make ends meet. (We men get a mere $100 to donate sperm. You know, it’s very humbling to know that your mojo has as much value as a pretty decent Strand haul.)
  • And I’m with Timothy Egan: the time has come to beat the shit out of Joe the Plumber.

Alternate Final Paragraphs for the John Sargent Memo

Gawker recently republished a memo distributed to Macmillan employees that announced a pay freeze for anyone making over $50,000. The memo contained one of the most heartless final paragraphs contained in a publishing circular this year.

By a strange coincidence, Reluctant Habits has obtained a list of three alternate paragraphs that Mr. Sargent briefly considered:

1. I know that this news feels as if we’re ass-raping you and your family. And quite frankly, we are. But I trust that you and yours will have a happy and healthy holiday season as we are systematically sodomizing your relatives.

2. I know that I’m an insensitive clod. But the money men have insisted that I should reach out to you in some way. So a happy and healthy holiday season to you and yours. I’d take you to Malibu with me. But times are tough.

3. There is really no way that I can end this memo without coming across as an asshole. But thank you so much for your efforts, and for taking one for the team. A happy and healthy holiday season! It’s all about sacrifice!