The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Geese”

411CY2YVJNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

“Geese” is a perfect example of what E.B. White does like no other. It is difficult to pinpoint from where the magic emanates. It is difficult to actually label what he is DOING and why it is so damn effective. For all intents and purposes, this is a story about some geese he owns on his property in Maine. He is so good at observing animal behavior, and we’ve seen that before, it comes up repeatedly in his essays (and also in his books for children). So that is delightful. I love animals and it’s fun to “get to know them” through the eyes of someone so in tune with who they are and how they behave. But what isn’t so easily discussed is how an essay about geese manages to erupt a little volcano of sadness and mourning in me (and in others, I am sure). E.B. White does not anthropomorphize. But he does understand that animals have motivations, a reason why they do the things they do, and he unpacks that for us in the small family drama that occurs among the geese. So there’s that. But by the end of the story, I am feeling so melancholy and mournful, for some reason, and so the final line of the essay “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day” comes as a great affirmation of what I am feeling, an acknowledgement that yes, this is sad, and yes, E.B. White feels sad too.

But all along, at each step of the way, you are “merely” reading about the events in the Goose World. E.B. White does not make comparisons, does not try to widen the microscope into a telescope. He keeps his eye on the barnyard for the whole entire time.

It’s magic what he does.

The story is simple and tragic. A mother goose lays three eggs. Then one day, eggs not yet hatched, she falls down dead. E.B. White wanted to save the three eggs, and so he did a quick search to see if he could put the eggs under another hen in the district. Then he bought an incubator, but it was too high-maintenance for him and he thought, “Well, I’ll just buy three new goslings” – basically to give to the gander, who, in one day, was deprived of his mate and his offspring. He brings the goslings home and introduces them to their foster father. What then unfolds, as the makeshift family gels, makes up the majority of the essay. You cannot put it down. You wonder, “Oh God, I hope the gander likes the goslings” and “I hope the gander is okay with this turn of events” and “I hope the goslings thrive …” It’s a little cliffhanger. You care about these damn geese.

And the way it all turns out is perfect, and yet … and yet … there’s that last line to consider. Sadness is unleashed through the telling of the story … somehow … expertly … by E.B. White. I don’t know how he does it.

Excerpt here.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Geese”

My next concern was how to introduce these small creatures to their foster father, the old gander. I thought about that all the way home. I’ve had just enough experience with domesticated animals and birds to know that they are a bundle of eccentricities and crotchets, and I was not at all sure what sort of reception three strange youngsters would get from a gander who was full of sorrows and suspicions. (I once saw a gander, taken by surprise, seize a newly hatched gosling and hurl it the length of the barn floor.) I had an uneasy feeling that my three little charges might be dead within the hour, victims of a grief-crazed old fool. I decided to go slow. I fixed a makeshift pen for the goslings in the barn, arranged so that they would be separated from the gander but visible to him, and he would be visible to them. The old fellow, when he heard youthful voices, bustled right in to find out what was going on. He studied the scene in silence and with the greatest attention. I could not tell whether the look in his eye was one of malice or affection – a goose-s eye is a small round enigma. After observing this introductory scene for a while, I left and went into the house.

Half an hour later, I heard a commotion in the barnyard: the gander was in full cry. I hustled out. The goslings, impatient with life indoors, had escaped from their hastily constructed enclosure in the barn and had joined their foster father in the barnyard. The cries I had heard were his screams of welcome – the old bird was delighted with the turn that events had taken. His period of mourning was over, he now had interesting and useful work to do, and he threw himself into the role of father with immense satisfaction and zeal, hissing at me with renewed malevolence, shepherding the three children here and there, and running interference against real and imaginary enemies. My fears were laid to rest. In the rush of emotion that seized him at finding himself the head of a family, his thoughts turned immediately to the pond, and I watched admiringly as he guided the goslings down the long, tortuous course through the weedy lane and on down across the rough pasture between blueberry knolls and granite boulders. It was a sight to see him hold the heifers at bay so the procession could pass safely. Summer was upon us, the pond was alive again. I brought the three eggs up from the cellar and dispatched them to the town dump.

At first, I did not know the sex of my three goslings. But nothing on two legs grows any faster than a young goose, and by early fall it was obvious that I had drawn one male and two females. You tell the sex of a goose by its demeanor and its stance – the way it holds itself, its general approach to life. A gander carries his head high and affects a threatening attitude. Females go about with necks in a graceful arch and are less aggressive. My two young females looked like their mother, parti-colored. The young male was quite different. He feathered out white all over except for his wings, which were a very light, pearly gray. Afloat on the pond, he looked almost like a swan, with his tall, thin white neck and his cocked-up white tail – a real dandy, full of pompous thoughts and surly gestures.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy.”

Dorothy Parker, near the end of her life, speaking of the Algonquin Round Table:

These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. It was not legendary. I don’t mean that — but it wasn’t all that good. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.

Dorothy Parker was famous for her wit, sharp tongue, and incisive (sometimes brutal) opinions. After seeing a young Katharine Hepburn in one of Hepburn’s first Broadway roles, Parker wrote, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

She spoke and wrote the way her her mind worked: fast, caustic, competitive (she must win), and lethal. There are so many anecdotes about her, and who knows if they are all true, but I prefer to believe they are true, because somehow, strangely, it makes me believe in the possibility of WINNING. Of crushing an opponent, using just a few words. It may not be a lovable quality, but it is certainly a theatrical and literary quality. One of the most famous anecdotes is the story of Dorothy Parker and actress Clare Booth Luce approaching a narrow doorway. They both stopped, not being able to walk through it side by side. Clare Booth Luce, trying to be witty, said, gesturing for Parker to go first, “Age before beauty.” Parker swept through the door first, retorting, “Pearls before swine.”

dorothy-parker-with%20dog.jpg

I love her for her unladylike devastating meanness, but I also love that her wit was not empty, or facile. It was a true expression of her sensibility (one aspect of it anyway), and it was always funny, which is not an easy task.

Her short stories are devastating, beautiful miniature portraits of loneliness and urban life. There is a sadness in her later interviews, an awareness that she was perhaps pigeon-holed, or she had pigeon-holed herself.

Here she is, during an interview with The Paris Review in 1956:

Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated – as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.

Bitter. But making bitterness funny (“magnificent gesture”). A real survival skill, so so useful to writers.

Another quote from the same interview:

I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty. I’ve never read a good tough quotable female humorist, and I never was one myself. I couldn’t do it. A “smartcracker” they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.

This was her main struggle as a writer. I feel her “sick”-ness and “unhappiness” IN her writing, which gives it some of its oomph. She’s not a shallow person, as “wits” are often supposed to be. Quite the opposite. She’s devastated by phoniness, cruelty, bad writing. It hurts her.

She says in the Paris Review interview:

Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is a great book. And I thought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness an extraordinary thing. The start of it took your heart and flung it over there. He writes like a god. But for most of my reading I go back to the old ones – for comfort. As you get older you go much farther back. I read Vanity Fair about a dozen times a year. I was a woman of eleven when I first read it – the thrill of that line “George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his heart.” Sometimes I read, as an elegant friend of mine calls them, “who-did-its”. I love Sherlock Holmes. My life is so untidy and he’s so neat. But as for living novelists, I suppose E.M. Forster is the best, not knowing that that is, but at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think?

She said once that humor needed “a disciplined eye and a wild mind”. To me, that perfectly describes her verses, which are tight as a drum, the rhyme schemes and rhythms almost a throwback to Longfellow, who writes rhymes and rhythms so perfect, that they must be read out loud for the sheer joy of them. There are, perhaps, verses more famous than the one I’m excerpting here today (her poem about suicide – “razors pain you”, her poem about “one perfect rose”) – but her four-line stunner about Oscar Wilde is one of my favorites.

Obviously, Wilde was a huge influence on Dorothy Parker. He had the same brutal eye, the same caustic perfection of thought encapsulated in his epigrams – and I would say that Parker, here, is “disciplined” and yet also very “wild”. It takes a wild broad mind to write something like this, but she has reined it all in to something perfect and cool and self-contained. One of her biggest gifts.

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

I love that crazy mean dame.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged | 9 Comments

You Can Totally See Us In The Crowd.

10628464_10152255506465079_1879565604600853744_n
from Eminem’s Facebook page, picture of his recent concert with Rihanna at MetLife Stadium

… if you squint. If you squint really really hard. My sister Jean and I were sitting right above that little blurry line of red lights off in the far distance, in the middle of that line. We were in the third row. Come on, you can totally see us.

Posted in Music | Tagged | 1 Comment

The One I Love (2014)

large_2P0IeaxAGvXBEgBvOxsTOQBEKGL

Super-fun with a great premise. Avoid spoilers if you can. There are no spoilers in my review at Rogerebert.com. I went into it not knowing the twist, and am glad I did. Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss are great. I enjoyed it a lot.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

large_sin_city_a_dame_to_kill_for_ver13

The second Sin City doesn’t break new ground or explore that grimy world further or deeper. It kind of just sits in the same space that the first one did. However, I didn’t mind that. I love what it looks like, and I love the pleasure that the look of the film brings me. It covers up a multitude of flaws. And I know I’m in the minority, but I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of women at all.

Nothing really new here, and 3-D adds nothing. It kind of just sits there, in its sameness to the first. So. Take it for what it’s worth.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Praise for Love Streams

A beautiful and very kind (to the film and to my essay) review of Love Streams in the Oklahoma Gazette. Patrick Crain is great on the film and what makes it so unique. I love this:

As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes gives himself the role of a lifetime — the most representative of the Cassavetes Male. Complicated and layered, we understand Harmon in the same way we would as a fascinated onlooker. We’re not sure what drives him to be so selfish and shallow, but we’re intrigued anyway. He does insanely horrible things that we still seem to forgive due to the skill of Cassavetes as a charmer who knew how to make you realize that the majority of your friends are just as flawed as the characters he wrote and played.

Yes!

And Jake Cole reviews the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Love Streams for Slant Magazine. You can certainly feel the excitement everywhere about this film being released on DVD at all, let alone by Criterion.

You can order the film through Criterion, or it’s also available on Amazon. I’m sure it’s elsewhere, too, anywhere DVDs/Blu-Rays are sold. The Love Streams mania will soon pass. But in the meantime …

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Love Is Strange (2014)

large_2nADKgXpIfJ5yaGxnxKQbwjM7ME

You guys, it is so so good. Don’t miss it.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Sneak Peek: A Short Clip From My Video-Essay About Gena Rowlands

Love Streams is out now via Criterion.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | 39 Comments

“That’s all I’m interested in – love.” – John Cassavetes

LoveStreamsCriterion

“I guess every picture we’ve ever done has been, in a way, to try to find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film. And so, that’s why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all the stuff in that war, in that word-polemic and film-polemic of what life is. And the rest of the stuff doesn’t really interest me. It may interest other people, but I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need. ”
– John Cassavetes

The DVD of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams is finally available for purchase, either from the Criterion site, or on Amazon, or take your pick.

My video-essay, “Watching Gena Rowlands,” is included in the special features. My friends had me over for dinner on Friday night so we could have a ceremonial viewing of it. It was great, a celebratory moment, both for the fact that this nearly-lost film, never out on DVD until now, is available to the public finally, but also for my inclusion in the Criterion release. I have good friends and I am grateful for them.

Scott Tobias, over at The Dissolve, has a very nice piece up about the Love Streams release. A commenter left the above quote from Cassavetes in the comments section over there, and it’s a beautiful quote, one that pretty much encapsulates Cassavetes’ obsessions and views on life.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Eminem and Rihanna: The Monster Tour

14957296585_6d9342e8bd_z

Eminem is practically a recluse. He rarely does press. His latest album is a brilliant re-visiting of the territory he scorched in The Marshall Mathers LP, with new more adult and, in many ways, more pained examinations. There is also a macho re-assertion of power, the most obvious example being the dazzlingly fast “Rap God.” He’s in his 40s now. His daughter just graduated from high school. He guests on other people’s albums. He produces other people’s albums. He has a movie in the works (but that’s been the truth for a while). He’s had a tough bunch of years. He beat his addiction to prescription pills. His best friend was killed. He completely retreated from public life for almost that whole entire time. He gained 100 pounds. He then lost 100 pounds and got lean again, lean and muscled like a pit bull. He doesn’t tour a lot. That’s why when I heard that he and Rihanna were doing a small tour of the United States (only a couple of cities, a couple of dates), I thought: “Who the hell knows with this guy. We should probably go see him now.” I’ve been a fan from the beginning. I’m not a big concert-goer, but this one I felt I couldn’t miss. The O’Malley family are Eminem fanatics, and so my sister Jean drove down and we went together, missing our other two siblings the entire time. They were with us in spirit!

14770634740_0c6dfbd9b2_z
The stadium

14770766667_c773b20355_z
My sister Jean, ahead of me, on our way to the stadium

Eminem has done four songs with Rihanna, a couple on his albums and a couple on hers. It’s an odd pairing but makes a lot of sense when you hear the songs. I like it when he has women singing with him (the first example being “Stan,” with Dido crooning in the background). It’s not that they soften him. It’s that their softness highlights his rage, and counter-acts it, bringing other things to the surface in him. The hurt little kid. The rage-boy. The guy who has only loved once and will never get over it. The pissed-off one-woman man. And she? She brings with her the darkness of her tabloid life, her seeming imperturbability about violence (explicitly referenced in her duet with Eminem “Love the Way You Lie”, which put him at #1 again), and her blasé public demeanor. She’s part Zen goddess part rebellious dead-eyed teenager. Her interviews are agonizing because she only has about 20 words in her vocabulary. But there is something in the pairing with Eminem that satisfies. And of course, he’s no dummy. Touring with her, where she is not just a guest-spot but shares the bill, brings in the RiRi fans, which he needs. It’s an act of generosity but it’s also smart.

14770697518_cfa7eb5397_z
It was a small intimate show.

Because she shared the bill with him, the show was kind of uneven. (The NY Times review of the show is pretty good, although I completely disagree that MM has “failed to innovate” recently. What? But there’s some really good analysis and observation there besides that.) I was there for Eminem only. You could feel the energy in MetLife Stadium pendulum wildly throughout the night, with the screams reaching Mania Psychotic Level when Eminem came on, a surge in electricity and force, where sound has feel, where it just borders violence. People cheered for Rihanna, of course, and if Eminem hadn’t been there you would have thought they were loud excited cheers. But it felt like everyone was just lying in wait, through Rihanna’s numbers, waiting for him. She’s a star. But she’s not a star like him and you could feel it in the quality and intensity of those cheers.

The show’s set-list was well-organized, despite all that. Rihanna did all her stuff in one go – as opposed to mixing it up with Eminem’s stuff, and that was a smart choice. It’s not that I suffered through her set – I find her kind of captivating, truth be told. During one of her ballads, the entire stadium held up their little flashlight apps on their phone, the modern-day version of holding up a lighter. It was so cool.

14770622520_a19f6d6f2b_z

But I was definitely waiting for him to come back. And when he did, he stayed back, roaring through a set of his greatest hits, all Eminem, all Marshall, a non-stop assault for an hour. So it was well-designed, I thought – give the Rihanna fans some uninterrupted time, and then get her out of the way for Marshall. I was happy with it, at any rate.

Eminem1

He did “Criminal,” which I was thrilled about. He did old stuff. “My Name Is.” “The Way I Am.” He did new stuff too. “Rap God,” which was even more breath-taking in person. He did “Sing For the Moment.” He did “Stan,” with Rihanna taking the Dido part. He did “Crack a Bottle.” He did “I’m Not Afraid”, dedicating it to anyone who has struggled with addiction, and to anyone who has an addicted person in their lives. Hearing 75,000 people sing along, arms in the air, was a profound experience.

14956955002_52aa9ae4cd_z

He gave us a TON of himself, with no Rihanna in sight, and the energy righted itself. He finished off with “Lose Yourself,” which blew the roof off, and then she came on, and they did “Monster” to close out the show, before walking offstage together.

I had multiple moments where I looked around me at that crowd, the crowd above me, the crowd below, and all I thought was, “Fame, man. Fame.” It’s overwhelming.

14770627040_75e75fc7ee_z
Like … what?

14770703118_f2295e6476_z
Excuse me?

It would be like being Neil Armstrong or any of the handful (literally) of men who have stood on the surface of the moon. Who do those astronauts commiserate with? No one but each other. They have had a singular experience shared by an elite group. What does it FEEL like to stand on that huge stage and look out at that? He said at one point, “This stage is HUGE, Jersey!” He ran up and down the stage, making sure to include everyone. He raised his arms to those in the highest tiers. There were gigantic screens where we could see him in closeup but I forced myself to also look at that small figure down there, to see him in his corporeality, that he really was down there, he wasn’t just coming to me via video feed. Jean said later, “I couldn’t believe he was right there.

He is incredible live, and that was the revelation for me. He was not holed up in himself, he was not relying on pyrotechnics (although there were many). He performed. He acted the SHIT out of all of his songs. He held the mike out to the audience to hear us call back to him in unison. He was drenched in sweat. He made sense of those dizzying layered tiers of lyrics, you could see the gestures, the sense in those gestures, regardless of how fast the song was. He did a couple of his dance anthems, like “Without Me,” where you could barely hear him because we all were singing along. Every single word. That sound. What must that feel like? To hear what you wrote one night on a loose-leaf pad come back at you amplified 75,000-fold?

14770625480_c90ff62270_z

As strange as this may sound, I have always thought of Eminem as an introvert. He created alter egos who could express his psychotic fantasies for him. Slim Shady. Eminem. These were the doppelgängers who allowed him to get on those stages and do the things he wanted to do, express the things he wanted to express. But he’s always struck me as an almost nerdy obsessive introvert, huddled over a dictionary, or video games, or movies, lost in his own private world. So the revelation was how extroverted, how OUT he was as a performer. He reached out to us. He owned that stage, but there was a feedback loop going on, our noise pushing him on. It was total Rock Star time. He’s so fantastic on his albums, diverse, technically brilliant, hilarious, committed, and it was awesome to see how that feeling translates to his live persona. He doesn’t “hide” in the studio. There it was: the feelings in those songs, the way those songs speak to the largest possible groups of people … coming OUT of him. No shyness. No hiding behind “fuck you, I don’t care”, although he did flip the audience off multiple times. That was more of a bratty “You and me, we’re in this shit-show together” thing though. He did not have contempt for us, he did not hide from us. He gave us the goods. He’s a showman.

The Monster Tour only has a couple more dates. Jean and I were so happy we got a chance to see him live. We would look at each other, during this or that number, with awe-struck expressions, shared moments of wordless love and excitement. The whole night was like that. When he first appeared, strapped to a table rising up out of the stage (really, Marshall?) … the sound of that crowd practically lifted the stadium up off of its foundation. Jean and I kept clutching at each other and saying articulate things like, “Oh my GOD.”

Thank you, Eminem. I’m glad you stuck around. People love you out here. That love was palpable last night.

Eminem2

Posted in Music | Tagged | 9 Comments