Wednesday, December 18, 2019

About Schmidt

Some movies based on books adhere to the essence of the novels.  To Kill a Mockingbird is an example. Some movies take liberties with the story such that there are significant differences in the plot of the movie. An example is Presumed Innocent.  Then there are movies that change the film so radically such that there is very little about the book in the movie. An example is Up in the Air and in that case the movie is better than the book.

However, I cannot imagine a movie based on a book to have less of a connection with its alleged source than About Schmidt.  Several years ago I saw the movie with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates--and I enjoyed it.  Recently I read a review of Olive, Again (after I had written my own) in which the Schmidt of the novel About Schmidt was referred to.   At that time I did not even know that the film was based on a book.  I thought it would be interesting to read what had inspired the film I liked.

Folks, about the only significant thing about the novel that is the same as the movie is the title.  Everything else that is substantive about the book was changed in the movie.  Schmidt in the book is a wealthy ex lawyer who is recently a widower.  In the movie, Schmidt a mid level administrator, retires and he and his wife plan a new life in a camper van.  Then she dies and he travels across the country in the camper.  In the book Schmidt has a big house on Long Island, has or develops an estranged relationship with his daughter, is lonely, has an improbable affair, and drinks a whole lot without seemingly getting smashed on any particular occasion.

So, besides the fact that the movie and book are two separate works of fiction, what did I think of the book?

It has its moments.  We do learn about Schmidt more than we learn about Schmidt in the film.  He at 60 is contemplating mortality. Brooding about his age brings no sympathy from me, 10 years his senior, and not feeling particularly marginalized for the most part. But that is what makes me different from Schmidt. He, is loaded, but disconnected.  He does not like his daughter's fiance, and feels especially annoyed because the groom to be was groomed by Schmidt to work in his ex law firm where the beau presently thrives while Schmidt is treated like a horse put out to pasture. Then there's the fact that the beau is Jewish and Schmidt harbors some WASPish anti-semitism.

There are parts of the book that are well written, but other parts that are just poorly written.  Of the former there is the affair with a restaurant waitress which while not quite believable is crafted well generating no small amount of steam.  But the parts with Bryan, the waitress's boyfriend are not well done.  And the end kind of fizzles out though you can tell he is gearing up for a sequel (which I discovered when reading the review is what happens).

Sometimes I read books and because of the story lines I think the author is just horny.  So much of Schmidt and About Schmidt relates to his carnal interests. We all have them and I am happy to say that I have not lost my enthusiasm, but gee this guy meets his daughter's mother in law to be, and she flirts with him at the family Thanksgiving dinner. He had an au pair who could not wait to do the slow dance--and then there is the waitress 40 years his junior, nearly ten years younger than his daughter who knocks on his door at 1 am and after minor small talk can't disrobe fast enough. Then there is Schmidt's friend who had an affair and left his wife for the lover, only to have a torrid affair in his office and his lover turned second wife is now the jilted one.  Also, the mother in law to be relays how she, ho hum, has had a lover for 20 years.

Look, I went to school in the 60s and was single in the 70s when there was a whole lot of shaking going on, but these folks seem to be frolicking a bit more than what is normal. Either that part of the story is not realistic, or I hung out and hang out with monks--which was/is not the case.

Also, the drinking. I like to have a cold one now and again, but if I drank as much as Schmidt and his friends my liver would have been pickled before I was eligible for social security.

Do I recommend the book? Well not if you are reading it because you liked the movie.  But there is enough about it which might be engaging.  You do learn about Schmidt--the question I have is, is Schmidt that real?  In the end, I just could not buy that he was.  And I am unlikely to read a sequel.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Again, Olive

After I read Olive Kitteridge several years ago I went ahead and, over the course of a few years, read everything else Elizabeth Strout had written or subsequently wrote.  None of the other books are as good as Olive Kitteridge.

The author has just written a sequel to Olive Kitteridge called Olive, Again.  Like its predecessor, Olive, Again is a series of stories in which Olive is either a central or peripheral character.  And also like the original, the book is beautiful and moving and does what any good novel should do: help the reader think.  In this case think, as Olive does, about the past--past decisions, behaviors and mistakes--and how this past propels us towards where we wind up.

When I was in the hospital in August I found it off-putting to have the nurses tell me that everything I was doing was "excellent" and "perfect" and "fantastic" because I knew that some of the things I did for which I received this praise were not excellent, perfect or fantastic. And, in fact, they were at best minor accomplishments. I'd lean to my left so a nurse could pluck something from under my body and the move was "perfect."  I managed to stand up next to an 18 year old in order to put a few drops of urine into a plastic cup and I heard: "excellent!"  I managed to eat something on the second day after surgery and that accomplishment was greeted with the assessment:"fantastic."

Well while I am happy with much of what I have done in my life, I know that there have been decisions that have not always been fantastic.  And in this book the reader witnesses not only what happens to Olive, but to many neighbors and friends, who are in pain because of goofy, inconsiderate, and foolish behaviors. Yet we all have a shot to right ourselves and at least attempt to purge the pain fueled by our past.

Some problems with the novel: This book is in large part an update on what happened to characters who appeared in the first book.   That seems fair, but there are also at least two references to characters from other novels that Strout has written.  Even for someone who has read all her books, it is not easy recalling enough of the details of these prior books to appreciate fully the stories about these characters. This was most noticeable with the story called "Exiles" about the Burgess family.  The only reason I caught the reference was because the name "Burgess" rang a bell as it is in the title, The Burgess Boys. In the last story, "Friend", the central character Isabelle is from the novel Isabelle and Amy,  I barely remembered that book.

In the original, there were a few stories where Olive is a peripheral character. That is true in the sequel but there are more of these. There are, however, enough about Olive to understand how she evolves and how she realizes that this evolution is important.

At one point Olive tells young Cindy Coombs, who is sick with cancer, that the spouses of widows and widowers become saints. When Cindy recalls a bad memory and fears her children and spouse will remember a particular negative Christmas incident after she's gone, Olive tells her: "Cindy Coombs, there's not one goddamn person in the world who doesn't have a bad memory or two to take them through life."

Tis true and the message in these stories is that while there is a whole lot of emotional pain in our universe, and we have to acknowledge our complicity in creating such pain, we should not allow ourselves to be disabled by bad decisions, we have to look at them, and take steps--maybe baby steps to move on in a healthy way.

Why do we read? We read because of books like this one.  Reading can be escape reading, but it also can present characters, like Olive, who can be a catalyst for our own introspection.  Olive regrets how she treated Henry.  She knows now what a good man he was.  Fergus and Ethel come to realize how inane was their behavior within their marriage.  Jack acknowledges that he treated his daughter poorly.

We all need to take a look at ourselves. Even a stubborn Yankee like Olive Kitteridge can come around and acknowledge our responsibility to the people in our lives, and ourselves. And assess how much of what we have done is really "excellent" or "terrific" or "perfect."  Then try to purge the bad tendencies and enjoy this wonderful shot we have at life.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Kurt, Sluggo, and me

Spring break 1971.

Kurt Legler, Pete "Sluggo" Moore, and I did the obligatory senior trip driving from Albany New York to Daytona Beach Florida. We stayed in a place that as I recall was called the Seahorse. The objective was to do what college students did in Florida during spring break. We left around midnight on a cold Albany night and arrived early evening in Daytona.  I remember stopping at a package store when we got into town and being amused by the owner's drawl and shorts in March.

My recollection of the week is fuzzy. Some clear moments, but they fuse together with others.  We ran into, surprisingly, some fellow Albany students who we did not know were going to be down there.  Daytona, then and I suppose now, had one hotel after another right on the beach and the place was jammed with college students.  Just jammed. There was one forgettable night when students at an adjacent hotel had a party where a vat of what tasted like grape punch was available for the gulping.  It was loaded with toxins. I recall bumping into a few fellow Albany students at the party and we stayed up all night to watch the sun come up.  Earlier in the week I spotted another Albany woman whom I'd seen around campus.  When we returned to the university we became a happy couple towards the end of my senior year.

The drive back was not as much fun. The car had some engine trouble early on. We got into a spirited, but not uncivil, debate with the owner of the service station about the Civil War (and this was only 100 plus years after it was over) during which he told me to hold onto any Confederate money I came across because the south would rise again.  Despite the chuckling, I am not sure he was kidding.

We hit murderous traffic on the Belt Parkway and then Southern State as we were finishing the journey.  Eventually, Kurt dropped Sluggo off, and then me, and then headed to his home in Rochester.  I last saw Kurt at a reunion in 2012 or so.  He seemed great but a few years later I received the news that he had died at 65.  This morning I read a group e-mail informing all that Pete passed as well earlier this year.  He was only 68.

Both Kurt and Pete had been very successful in their businesses and family lives.  Kurt had started as an insurance agent for a major company, and then established a lucrative insurance business of his own.  Pete I had not seen since graduation, but I read today that he had had an excellent career in Pensacola owning his own automobile dealership as well as being a generous contributor to charities and his community.

Let's hope things don't happen in threes.

Seize the day.

Monday, December 2, 2019


All are shouting hosannahs because the Baltimore Ravens have won impressively the last several weeks.  You read it here first. There is no way the Ravens will win the superbowl, nor do I believe will they even get to the game despite all the gushing.

No pro team wins a superbowl with a college offense. The Ravens offense is a read option offense that works well with a running quarterback--IN COLLEGE. It is true that the Ravens have an exceptionally athletic quarterback, but he is only an average passer.  A good defensive team will stop him like the 49ers essentially stopped him last weekend.

The Patriots, my team, are unlikely candidates for a superbowl victory either, since they have no offense to speak of and Tom Brady, to date at least, is spending too much time squawking at his receivers and not enough time looking inside.  It would not surprise me if the Patriots win only two of their remaining four games.  But should the Patriots play the Ravens in a playoff game. Quoth the Raven.

You will see teams, and the Patriots would be one of them, just making sure that every time Jackson runs with the ball he gets walloped.  All it will take is one good zetz that slows him down and their offense is shot.  Once defenses do not need to worry about Jackson as a runner there will be no balm in Gilead.

I don't know if the Bills will beat the Ravens next week, but after Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh (three of the four teams that play the Ravens during the remaining regular season) get done, Jackson will not be a jolly runner anymore. He'll take a couple of shots and will be gun shy.  I saw yesterday that after a zetz he does not run on a subsequent play.

It may not be the Patriots, but it will not be the Ravens either.

Ravens fans: Quoth Zaremba, by way of Poe

Other friends have flown before.   
Quaff oh quaff,
but there'll be no kind nepenthe in the post season.
In January it will be

A Good American Family

Last week I finished David Maraniss's latest book, A Good American Family. It is about his father, mother and family who were damaged by McCarthyism.

I'm very glad that I read the book but not sure I can recommend it.  It is, or was for me, tough sledding at times and there was a good deal of detail that seemed peripheral to the essence of the book.  It was informative to read about the Spanish Civil War and important for the book to include it but the detail seemed excessive.  There were other parts which I felt were also a slog to get through.

However, the point of the book is very important and I am not sure one can write about the McCarthy era more powerfully.  Maraniss's father and mother and their children were terribly affected by accusations challenging their loyalty to America.  Dad lost his job a number of times. The family was forced to move frequently.

The elder Maraniss and his mother did indeed attend meetings of Communists and were supporters for a spell. It was myopic, as they subsequently agreed.  Communism as the author points out is an ideology that does not see the world as it is.  Yet those in the Maranisses' circle were good people who were not unAmerican in any way. They believed strongly in democracy, despised fascism, and worked hard to rid the world of dictatorships.  They raised their kids to honor American values and be good citizens.

The irony is that the people who questioned Maraniss and made political hay out of disparaging and persecuting his family were Un American hiding behind a cloak of Americanism.  One of the members was as Un American as one can be unless believing in race superiority is an American value. This House representative was involved, at least peripherally, in the Leo Frank lynching.  Others too who spewed rhetoric suggesting that Maraniss had undermined American values, undermined American values on a daily basis.  One suggested that it was startling that there were Communists even those from "good American families."  Well, the author describes his mom, dad, and their siblings warts and all, and yet--it is clear that they were fundamentally good people who may have temporarily supported an illogical political philosophy.  They were a good American family. And the people who persecuted them were, despite their duds, corrosive to our society.

Like all schoolkids of the 50s and 60s, I knew about McCarthyism, but the presentation here of the author's family--a people who were concerned for the rights of others and were willing to work to preserve freedoms--juxtaposed with the persecutors drew the picture more clearly than I had previously seen it.

I keep a list of the books I have read. I do it both to give myself credit for not being a slug and watching forty football games a week but also so that subsequently I can remember what I read. In the document I have a second section which includes books I especially liked. Despite the detail I mention early in this review, I included A Good American Family.  Subtly powerful. An odd juxtaposition, but that is how I have reacted to the book.