Mrs. Harris meet Mrs. Harris: the Movies

Mrs. Harris with Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley is based on the book by Shana Alexander (reviewed here). It is an HBO movie, which means it brings with it the attendant semi-salacious content and the cast of television regulars (Frank Whaley, Bill Smitrovich, Mary McDonnell, Michael Gross, Michael Paul Chan, Lisa Edelstein, and Ellen Burstyn making a guest appearance as one of Tarnower's "ex-es"). 

The overall approach is a tongue-in-cheek look at the woman-scorned motif from a feminist viewpoint. The script utilizes the multiple perspectives of Alexander's book. Alongside the Ballroom Dancing use of "interviews" inter-spliced with action sequence and awesome big band music, it captures the nouveau riche crassness of Tarnower's world, the world that seduced Harris against her better judgment.

Kingsley and Bening do their usual respectable acting jobs. Kingsley conveys the necessary jerk charisma ("What a jerk! Eh, I guess I see why women were attracted to him.") while Bening conveys Harris's complexity with an emphasis on her increasing mental and physical strain. The movie details Harris's self-destruction--she is a willing participant in her own debasement--but less her level of self-delusion.

The television movie The People versus Jean Harris isn't really a movie. It's hard to say what it is. I'd like to say "docudrama," but it isn't even that. If anything, it comes across as a training video for lawyers. It is ONLY the trial with no flashbacks or recreations of evidence provided in testimony. The testimony is verbatim.

The "film" focuses on the personal testimony rather than the forensic testimony, which was highly confusing. Both lawyers spent WAY too much time on forensics, assuming--erroneously--that the right expert would sell the right version of the story. But every expert will be forced to qualify his or her response at some point. The end result was that the jury tried to replicate the experts' testimony. Finding it impossible, they went with the more comprehensible prosecution's version than the complicated--though very human--defendant's version. (Mrs. Harris begins with the defendant's version and ends with the prosecution's version.)

Though pointless to watch, the television whatever-it-is is interesting to listen to. Since it is based on verbatim testimony, it provides insight into the problems of the case and backs up Alexander's and Trilling's analyses. Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Harris does a magnificent job delivering Harris's quick wit as well as her feeling that the prosecution was "lying" (it wasn't) and taking things out of context (every lawyer does this). As Alexander points out in her book about Harris (building off a point made in her earlier book Anyone's Daughter about Patty Hearst), Harris came from a background that had no real experience or understanding of the adversarial system. In Harris's mind, she was supposed to be able to sit on the stand and explain things entirely within (her own) context, answering exactly those questions that would bring out the "truth" (according to her). She was utterly ill-prepared for Prosecutor Bolen's relentless questioning and his insistence that she provide yes/no answers.

Burstyn's part of the movie-thing IS worth watching. Burstyn embodies Harris's dumb-smartness. Harris was a highly educated, exceptionally bright and intelligent woman (I appreciated that for the first time while listening to the transcripts) with a deep chasm of naivety between her and reality. Lots of smarts. Not a lot of common sense--or the ability to comprehend how thoroughly divisive viewpoints can prove (when people gave differing versions of events on the stand, she was convinced they were lying, not that they were humanly forgetful or humanly different from herself). She was worldly and sophisticated but with no attendant animal instincts. All head and heart, no peasant appreciation of the physical. She was ill-equipped to survive in a milieu where people did exactly what they wanted when they wanted with thoughtless mental and physical confidence.

As the character Arthur Schulte says (based on what the real Arthur Schulte said at the time):
I was asleep. You never expect one of those wee-hours phone calls informing you that... that your good friend's just been shot dead. When Lynne hung up, I said to Viv "Well, if he's dead, why couldn't she have waited until morning?"
That's a level of indulgent self-assuredness that Harris was simply incapable of matching.

Jerry Orbach as lawyer before he became police.
Both movies do a decent job trying to elucidate the story's protagonist (despite being the murderess), Jean Harris. Both, however, skimp on Harris's natural grievances regarding money. The Law & Order episode "The Wages of Love" provides that side. While not directly based on the Jean Harris case, it bears striking resemblances: the older wife abandoned for a younger woman; she apparently commits the murder in a rage but tells changing and inconsistent versions of the event while professing great affection for the dead man--even though her motive is clearly also mercenary.

Library Poetry

To celebrate April, National Poetry Month, one of my local libraries, South Portland Library, is doing a "lines for fines" program--write a poem, you get your fines dismissed (for April, at least). 

I wrote the limericks and haikus below. One of the Interlibrary Loan poems was sent out in an email to all Maine libraries!

To My Sister Ann

There is a librarian named Ann
Who shelves books by a plan.
She’ll weed them if she must,
So don’t make a fuss.
Just check them out when you can!

Many Years Ago . . . In a State Far Far Away . . .

There once was a worker named Kate
Who checked in books by the crate.
She needed to work with speed
But she had to pause to read,
So the books piled up on her slate.



Satisfaction (Haiku)

Picture books in a pile:
Sendak, Keats, Mercer Mayer--
Everyday moments aglow.




Interlibrary Loans (Haikus)

Why be limited
When catalogs beckon,
“Read this—this—and this!”

Worldcat, Amazon:
Tempting titles whisper,
“You’ll find the time.”

Minerva, MaineCat.
Presque Isle, Auburn, Scarborough.
Watch the truck zoom by.

Blue bookmarks, pink slips:
Different policies, deadlines.
Be safe—check the dates!

Ambiguous Villains: Dr. Harrison Wells

*Spoilers for Season 1 of The Flash*

The Flash's Harrison Wells, played by Tom Cavanagh, is the best ambiguous villain I've encountered since Supernatural and the primary reason Season 1 of The Flash is so good (I haven't seen Season 2 yet).

What makes Harrison Wells, the character, such a good ambiguous villain is that his ambiguity is built into his motivations. Unlike many such villains, his ambiguity isn't the result of being pulled in two different directions (Crowley rather hilariously wants to be a respected king of hell, hang out with Dean Winchester, AND impress his nutty mother, somewhat incompatible goals).

Harrison Wells' desire to protect Barry Allen pulls him in the same direction as his villainy. He needs to preserve Barry's life for a certain period of time; that goal entails keeping Barry safe; keeping Barry safe involves getting to know Barry which entails a certain degree of affection.

Impressive Jesse L. Martin as
remarkable Joe West
All this is helped by Tom Cavanagh being legitimately charming and charismatic. He has the necessary villainous creepiness (and he has it from the beginning; it isn't tacked on as a "oops, I guess he is the villain" quality in later episodes). For instance, Cavanagh's Wells demonstrates a subtle yet persistent lack of empathy around the good guys; he almost can't help himself. But he is genius enough to cover these "off" moments. When Joe West raises an eyebrow over Wells' desire to "help" Barry, our ambiguous villain quickly realizes that he needs to play the father figure to calm West's suspicions.

I understand that Cavanagh reappears in Season 2. I am very pleased. Usually, I'm a fan of paying off problems within a single season, but I spent most of Season 1 thinking, "Oh, man, I hope the writers don't get rid of Wells in the end." Well, they do reveal his villainy, which disappointed me. But at least he isn't gone for good.

I have to give a shout out to two totally fun, over-the-top, non-ambiguous Flash villains: Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell pairing up again together as Captain Cold and Heat Wave. What a hoot!






Verne and Wells: the Two Sides of Sci-Fi

Verne's Wonders
Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) are both sci-fi writers, the earliest serious writers of that genre. They represent two sides of the sci-fi equation: nineteenth century sci-fi travelogue and twentieth century sci-fi story.

Verne writes the sci-fi travelogue, a sub-genre that has largely gone out of style (although Arthur C. Clarke could be similarly classified). Verne is the heir of proto-sci-fi writers Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe). Both books have problems and characters but no definitive narrative arc.

Verne likewise focuses more on "stuff happens" than on a problem followed by rising action followed by a climax. The first part of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea establishes the problem which is then shelved for approximately thirty chapters until the very end. Stuff definitely happens! But the stuff is almost entirely disconnected from the problem. And hints about Nemo's extracurricular activities are never really paid off, probably because Verne didn't care (this explains why every director feels compelled to give Nemo some type of backstory).

Journey to the Center of the Earth is so devoid of a narrative arc that the 1959 film resorted to throwing in a villain (who eats Hans's bird! really, who does that?!). Oddly enough, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D (the most recent version) backs off from a narrative arc for a series of adventures. Although I generally deplore this type of approach in modern movies, it is touchingly close to the original (the one arc that I was sure was going to be paid off in Shirley Temple maudlin fashion wasn't, which was more than slightly impressive).

Wells's narrative has a modern theme: under duress,
individuals may depart tragically from their normal behavior.
In comparison, H.G. Wells is writing story. War of the Worlds is related entirely as a narrative. There is no objective narrator--or even objective scientist character--to stand outside the action and inform the readers of its meaning or purpose. The reader is caught inside a point of view, including a problem that may or may not resolve itself. The distinction may appear subtle but relating an event from a point of view is radically different from relating a series of events as they happen to people. For example, although the reader knows how this particular event ends (germs kill the Martians; yes, it is a spoiler, but really, everyone should know that!), actually experiencing the result is awesome--in the biblical sense of the word--precisely because it is seen through the character's eyes.

Consequently, the book War of the Worlds is nearly impossible to render on film. The 1953 movie does a fine job. But it fails to capture the story (this event is happening to someone). The big picture (What is happening around the world? What is the military doing?) is too tempting to pass up. (Independence Day attempted to solve this problem by getting the audience to invest in multiple characters).

The end sequence where the hero searches desperately for Sylvia comes the closest to matching the book's unnerving tone and pace. But only a book could deliver the final sequence in which the hero, wandering seemingly deserted London, hears the far-off, monotonous cries of the dying Martian and does not yet understand what they mean. Even when he stumbles across a dead Martian, he fails to comprehend the "why?"--no third party steps in to explain what he is seeing in that exact moment.

I don't fault any movie for not being its book, by the way. The requirements of the medium dictate that a deserted city be shown from an aerial vantage, an omniscient (and non-story-like) viewpoint used to devastating effect in the 1953 film. The point is that STORY provides a differing approach to travelogue. And Wells delivered story while Verne delivered travelogue.

Not only do the two authors highlight changes in sci-fi, they highlight changes in fiction generally. Defoe gives us travelogue (Robinson Crusoe). Richardson gives us polemic mixed with story (Pamela). Austen gives us story with a semi-omniscient, wry narrator (Pride & Prejudice) as does Dickens. Conrad comes along and shatters the world with prose delivered from a single viewpoint.

But Wells got there first (barely).

Another Verne Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is a strange movie. Generally speaking, I am an advocate of movies NOT being like their books. And I would seriously cut/par down/alter Verne's book to make a movie. But Disney's changes bewilder me (I am writing this as someone who quite enjoyed Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D, starring Brendan Fraser; it is surprisingly close in vision, if not detail, to the original text):

Regarding 20,000 Leagues, here are two odd script choices:

1. M. Aronnax, who should be the protagonist, isn't. 

Aronnax is much younger in the book (forty) than Paul Lukas's respectable if unimpressive rendering, and there was no good narrative reason to make him older (other than Disney's discomfort with bromances).

Aronnax is the quintessential nineteenth century explorer-scientist, the mirror version of Phineas Fogg: a geek who is willing to risk life and limb for a hypothesis though Aronnax demonstrates far greater investment in noticing his surroundings. He focuses on expanding his knowledge not out of some tired inability to run away from natives but from choice.

The book provides multiple opportunities for Aronnax to satisfy his curiosity as the Nautilus sinks beneath the South Pole, hides inside a volcano, parks next to sunken Atlantis, and takes a roller-coaster ride through an underwater passage connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean (quite literally a "ride"--it would make a great special effect!). It is Aronnax who witnesses Nemo knifing the shark and communicating with a possible confidant (the diver) near the Greek islands. Yet all the impressive scenery and mysteries of Verne's novel are lost to the fighter (Ned Land) at the expense of the explorer. Aronnax is portrayed as a bookish gentleman whose age presumably explains his refusal to beat up people with his bare hands.

The result is that the 1954 Disney movie lacks an emotional arc since the hero, Ned Land, never changes. In the book, not only does Aronnax have to choose between Nemo and his friends, he is the only character to suffer true internal change--from respect to disillusionment (Nemo's possible internal change is only hinted at). His behavior, however lightly conveyed, is far more interesting than Ned Land's antics and his story should have been the primary arc, not the, uh, tertiary one.

Woody's dilemma mirrors Aronnax's.
2. Kirk Douglas's Ned Land is utterly annoying.

The Ned Land of the book is far more rational. Consequently, his arguments against Nemo to Aronnax towards the end of the book carry weight. Aronnax has to chose between continual exploration (satisfying his passion) and escape for himself and others. In sum, he is Woody from Toy Story 2: Do I chose the life of the museum where my value/accomplishments will be admired by future generations? or Do I escape to a life in the real world?

Kirk Douglas's Ned Land, in contrast, is emotional, histrionic, preachy, and unreliable. He is so annoying, in fact, one begins to wish that Captain Nemo would (finally) fulfill his threat and throw Ned off the boat.

Speaking of Nemo . . . 

The saving grace of the 1954 movie is James Mason. 
 
The most interesting outcome of the book and the movie is that the underwater world and the man responsible for showing it to us become too fascinating to throw away. The story is, in sum, Beauty and the Beast; by the end, the audience has come to care more about the Beast than either the problem or the solution. Okay, so Beauty is a prisoner, and the Beast might be tired of having to file down his teeth, but come on, make us happy and stay the way you are!
Mason to the left. Then Lorre and Douglas.

So it is easy to see why Captain Nemo became the remembered part of the movie (as he is of the book) rather than the Scooby Gang. Like the eponymous villain of Dracula, the supposed villain of 20,000 Leagues, once visualized, outstrips the lesser characters. It helps that James Mason's Nemo is far less creepy and more charismatic than book Nemo. It also helps that he captures both book Nemo's aloofness and passion. And, well, you know, that voice! 

It additionally helps that Mason spends about half the movie running around in a white turtleneck and getting wet. Which makes him look even sexier than usual--if that's possible.

Nemo is so enthralling that the movie's end (which I won't give away here) leaves one dissatisfied in a way that the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth--equally radically changed in many ways--does not. James Mason shows up again and doesn't disappoint. He still has that wonderful voice. He demonstrates excellent comedic timing. And he continues to look good disheveled. Plus the writers have no wariness of bromance--perhaps because they supplied the story with a female protagonist.

(Back to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Okay, I confess, I like the seal.)

A is for Lloyd Alexander: A-Z List 3

For the first A-Z list I picked a fiction author I hadn't read before from each letter of the alphabet. For the second list, I  listed fiction authors I have read from each letter of the alphabet (as many as I could remember, at least).

For the third A-Z list, I am selecting a single child's author from each letter of the alphabet.

A is for Alexander

I fell in love with Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Series when I was in elementary school. The honest truth is I took out the first book because Taran, the main character, looked like Luke Skywalker.

Yup, back then, I was a HUGE Star Wars fan. I was Luke Skywalker for Halloween one year and Princess Leia the next. And Taran was wearing the right type of clothes (see cover below).

It was the first fantasy series--actually, first series of anything--that I collected. I ended up with the entire set and even took the books with me on our cross-country family vacation. I rode in the back of our gray station wagon with my stuffed animals (the ones privileged to come on the trip) and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Series.

I still own it.

In some ways, if you have read a fantasy series, you have read the Prydain Series. All the expected motifs are there: the boy who journeys from naivety to mature understanding (see, it IS Star Wars), the wise mentor, the lovely princess-queen, the poet-warrior, the great battle.

And yet, Alexander's use of Welsh mythology grounds his fantasy motifs in a unique milieu (and he delivers the mythology consistently). Plus his characterizations make the story a story, not merely a collection of fantasy motifs. As I've mentioned elsewhere, a good fantasy novel/series involves more than putting a hero, wizard, elf, dwarf, princess, and bad guy into a bag and shaking them up.

The Prydain Series is a good series! And one that I predict will continue to last.

Updated Thoughts on Jean Harris: The Books

Diana Trilling
This is a repost of a post I wrote back in 2008. I recently reread the books listed below (both of them fall into the genre of literary journalism: fast-paced writing with $3 words and decent analysis: quick but not shallow reads). Below are my initial thoughts followed by  revisions/addendums.

Mrs. Harris by Diana Trilling and Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander are true-crime books (although Mrs. Harris is really more a memoir of Trilling's experience at the trial of Jean Harris). I urge reading both books together; they produce a multi-faceted and fascinating view of Jean Harris who killed her lover Dr. Tarnower.

Shana Alexander
In sum, Jean Harris was in love with Dr. Tarnower. At one point, he offered to marry her but changed his mind. She accepted the situation. She accepted his mistresses. She continued to go on trips with him and to stay at his house despite him having, towards the end, a serious (younger) mistress, who also spent nights at the house (and kept her things there). Harris accepted her lover's coldness, his indifference, his rudeness, his blatant degradation of her.

During this time, she was taking a massive amount of "uppers," prescribed to her by Dr. Tarnower. I consider these prescriptions (made out in various names to avoid problems at the pharmacy) to be Dr. Tarnower's major contribution to his own death although I question the so-called integrity of a woman who doesn't balk (and later claims not to notice) taking prescriptions in other people's names for nearly 10 years. [I also question the so-called independence of a woman who doesn't get her own doctor or a second opinion; unfortunately, "my boyfriend the doctor" could do no wrong in Harris's eyes.]

When Tarnower was killed, Jean Harris was in massive withdrawal due to the doctor absentmindedly not refilling her prescriptions. If she had meant to kill herself and had succeeded, her family could have sued the doctor for malpractice (and won a bundle).

The night of the murder, Harris drives up to Tarnower's house in Purchase, New York, goes in, sits on the bed next to his, tells him she needs to talk and waits for him to . . .

Lynn Tryforos is behind the doctor.
Trilling, Alexander, and Harris herself correctly diagnose that Harris expected a confrontation with some accusations, some tears, and finally, some tenderness. She probably played and replayed the scene in her head as she drove the five hours to Purchase. But Tarnower didn't respond. He knew she was coming and didn't leave the light on. He was grumpy when she woke him up. Even after he was fully awake, he didn't want to talk, closing his eyes and hoping she would drop the whole thing and go to bed.

So Harris wanders into the bathroom, sees his other woman's stuff, and all hell breaks loose . . . in a terribly literal way.

Both Alexander and Trilling fault the doctor for not responding to Harris' distress that night. Okay, so she woke him up, but once he was awake, he should have responded as he would to a man friend; he should have noticed her condition was worse than usual. The murder could have been averted if . . .

Alexander and Trilling have the honesty to admit that, well, that wasn't the guy's modus operandi, was it, and how stupid was Harris anyway? But I think they both miss another factor, the thing that gives me some sympathy for Tarnower.

Only cats belong on pedestals. 
Harris didn't leave Tarnower despite every instigation to do so. He made her happy, she claims in letter after letter that she sent him after their jaunts abroad and to Florida. She can't live without him. Alexander correctly perceives that Harris needed to believe she was wasting (oops, spending) her time on a worthwhile person. Trilling more perceptively points out that Harris would have had to re-evaluate her own taste and choices (and supposed high ideals) if she'd accepted Tarnower as he actually was. In any case, Harris's actions before and after Tarnower's death tokened an almost pathological need to keep Tarnower on a pedestal; subsequently, she invested everything he did with pedestal-quality meaning.

Alexander points out that if Tarnower said five mean things to Harris in a conversation and one nice thing, she remembered the nice thing: the nice thing became the only thing the conversation was about. And while I'm sorry Harris felt the need to do this, I'm also sorry for the guy. Because living on a pedestal can be tiring. Having one's every action, whim, bad temper, passing comment, minor thought invested with THAT MUCH MEANING would be unbelievably exhausting.

I'm not saying Tarnower is an innocent here. When he was younger, I'm sure Tarnower enjoyed Harris' adulation. He was an arrogant, self-involved person, and it gave him a thrill to have a reasonably intelligent, well-read, pretty woman think he was "all that." As he got older, it began to tire him. It is notable that the two women he went back to (without dumping Harris) in his later years were women who accepted him as he was. The first woman accepted him as he was and walked away from the romantic side of their friendship because, well, she saw him as he was. The second woman, the direct rival to Jean Harris, Lynne Tryforos (the only person involved in the case who behaved like a real lady and kept her thoughts to herself), saw him as he was and worshiped him. No matter what he did, she thought he was wonderful. No matter how few the crumbs he scattered, she gathered them up. He never had to meet her half-way.

And sure, that's sexist, and no self-respecting woman should put up with it; still, the guy never pretended he was anything other than a role model for narcissism. In fact, I got the impression that towards the end, he was trying to force the notion of his self-involvement down Jean Harris' throat: This is who I am, I'm not going to change, nothing is going to be different; let it go, let me go.

Jean Harris at trial.
Unfortunately, Jean Harris was just smart enough and just proud enough and just besotted enough with her "script" (as Alexander calls it) to need more than crumbs and indifference. The relationship had to have meaning: meaning to her, meaning to him, meaning to her sense of self, meaning to her past, her future, her life, her career, meaning, meaning, meaning.

The guy was nearing 70; can you blame him for being tired of it all? I don't think Tarnower noticed anything different in Harris when she showed up that night. Based on Alexander's excellent, detailed summary of their relationship, Harris was throwing off the usual "I want you to play a role for me" signals. And he didn't want to play. And he ended up dead.

As the dominatrix on CSI points out, in a domination/submission relationship, the submissive party does have power. It's no bizarre mischance that the supposed dominant party in the Scarsdale murder ended up dead. The woman who made the relationship out to be something it wasn't triumphed; she killed the disillusionment and hence, enabled herself to live forever in her delusion. And though he may have been a jerk, and he may have brought it on himself, his family at least didn't deserve his demise. (Although from a Freudian point of view, if one puts an Electra complex into motion, one should hardly be surprised by the result; still, despite reading Herodotus, I don't think Tarnower was prepared for Greek myths to re-enact themselves all over his bedroom.)

NEW THOUGHTS

I still mostly agree with my views stated above. However, I do hold Tarnower more responsible than I did after my prior reading. It is so difficult to like Jean Harris (as Alexander and Trilling point out, people tended to have polarized responses to Harris: one either loved her or couldn't stand her), my sympathy slid off her self-delusion towards the doctor.

He doesn't deserve it. As a prior commenter pointed out, Tarnower not only was responsible for Jean Harris being on drugs and for her massive withdrawal, he was responsible for prescribing contraindicating drugs and the WRONG drugs in the first place (the family truly would have won a civil lawsuit). He was blithe, indifferent, and lazy in his doctoring and largely responsible for creating Harris's state of mind the night of the murder.

He was not only an irresponsible doctor, he was an irresponsible lover. I feel even more strongly now that he was trying to get Harris to dump him in their last year together (it wouldn't have worked); if I expect a woman to take responsibility for calling things quits, I should expect the same of the man. If five years earlier Tarnowner had said, "I am breaking off with you completely" (rather than trying to get Harris to guess that he wanted to break things off), he would . . . likely be dead by now. But he wouldn't have died that night.

But he couldn't be bothered to break things off. He was an entirely indolent man when it came to moral decision-making (and a blowhard, if that matters).

And yet, as Trilling points out, it is Harris, not Tarnowner, who holds one's attention. I think both Alexander and Trilling were attracted to Harris's story by the same inconsistencies that strike me: the bizarre cognitive dissonance between Harris's perception of herself and her actual behavior/choices. She resented being seen as Tarnower's kept woman, insisting that he never bought her clothes. Yet she went on trips where he paid for the tickets and the hotels. She insisted that she was happy, yet she was constantly embroiling herself in sordid arguments with Tarnower on how his other mistress had supposedly treated her. She claimed to be his intellectual equal (she was actually a cut above him intellectually), then insisted on helping him edit his trite diet book. She claimed she didn't want credit for editing the trite book; she only wanted to express her affection. Yet the Scarsdale Letter* revealed that she was keeping a careful reckoning of who got what.

I don't fault her for the last; it's very Jane Austenish (yes, money and love are linked!). What is so unnerving is how far Harris went to persuade herself that she wasn't concerned with things that she was obviously concerned with.

Harris was granted clemency 11
years into her 15-year sentence.
The oddest, and most untenable, was her claim before, during, and after the trial that she wasn't jealous. She was upset because Tarnowner's association with Lynne Tyrforos denigrated the doctor. Both Trilling and Alexander see through this; Harris was incredibly jealous not only over for the loss of affection but over her reputation. Tarnowner choosing a woman so different from her sent the message that she was interchangeable; any woman would do.

Since the doctor actually SAID as much outright, an objective outsider finds Harris's avowal of unconditional love and lack of jealousy unbelievable. The jury rejected it. Faced with uncertain forensic evidence, they might have acquitted. Faced with a woman who could lie so thoroughly to herself, they had to ask, "What else is she lying about?"

Voluntary manslaughter would have been the correct verdict. Harris's lawyer offered Murder in the Second Degree or Acquittal ("Go for broke!"). The jury could not in good conscience state that Harris hadn't had murderous feelings towards SOMEONE that night: the Scarsdale Letter* belied any other interpretation. Yet her lawyer--and Harris--refused to entertain the more useful defense of killing while emotionally disturbed.

Everybody in the world said, "Are you kidding me? Of course she killed him in a rage!" And Jean Harris went to jail.

 LATER: I review the movies.

*The Scarsdale Letter, a ranting screed of accusations and resentment, was written by Jean Harris the day before the murder. She sent it certified mail to Dr. Tarnower. The day after she mailed the letter, Harris called the doctor and told him to ignore it because it was "whining." Both Trilling and Alexander make exceedingly wry comments about Harris's description.
"[Calling it a whiney letter]," writes Alexander, "is rather like calling the Book of Revelations 'a very downbeat yarn.'"
"For all of its complaints," writes Trilling, "it is a tearing scream." 
Twenty years later, Harris would have written an email. It's that kind of letter--the one that someone writes late at night at the end of his or her rope and then wishes, "Oh, I shouldn't have sent that!"

Harris's lawyer retrieved the letter from the post office before it was delivered (to the dead doctor). Whether the letter should be produced at trial went to the State Supreme Court. Harris's lawyer ultimately decided that it would help Harris by revealing Dr. Tarnower's horrible treatment of her (something he wasn't allowed to do directly in court due to his client's wishes). He was mind-blowingly wrong. As insight into Harris's jealousy and emotional imbalance, it would have been quite effective. In the face of Harris's denial that she never meant the doctor harm, it created exactly the opposite impression.

XYZ is for XYZ

Contains a short story by Yolen. Often shelved in
children's or YA sections, this book struck me as
a good transition to the next list: Kids' books.
For the first A-Z list, I read Xenophon, Yancy, and Zama.

I have, perhaps not surprisingly, few authors to add to this second list:

Yolen, Jane: She may belong in the children's list, but she writes everything, so I'm including her here.  Mostly, I have encountered her as an excellent collector and editor--along the same lines as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling--of fantasy, science-fiction, and folklore short stories.

Generally speaking, I see writers/editors like Yolen, Datlow, and Windling as the second generation of artists who restored fantasy as a legitimate genre--after the revolution caused by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in the 1960s.

Yeats, William Butler: I haven't been including poets in this list, but hey, I was desperate! And Yeats is a great one. He produced, among others, the poems "Leda and the Swan" and "Second Coming," the latter with the provocative and (intellectually overused but still stunning) phrases, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

And there's the end of the second A-Z list. What this list taught me is that I've forgotten more books than I would have thought possible--which means I've read more books than I realize and yet, there's SO MUCH MORE out there! Altogether, a comforting thought.

The third A-Z list will tackle Children's Books.

W is for Wild, Wacky, and Woodbury

Walsh, Paton Jill has written several Sayers' tributes. The first based on Sayers's notes, Thrones, Dominations, is quite good. The others are . . . okay. I don't agree with her interpretation of Charles Parker, so I mostly don't read them any more (to me, Parker IS the reason to read the novels). But they are well-written and reasonably well-structured if not quite the same as reading Sayers.

Wells, H.G.: I recently started War of the Worlds and good grief, that book is violent with some of the most memorable imagery I've encountered in any book. I never thought I would say that of a nineteenth century text (I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and didn't blink an eye). I'm not sure what I think yet . . . Verne is much easier to handle.

Westlake, Donald: I've read a few Donald Westlake novels. He tends more to the action rather than cerebral side of mystery fiction; I prefer the "locked room" problem to the "how can I prevent these five guys from beating me up" problem (yet another reason I don't much care for mafia stories).

Wharton, Edith: I had to read Wharton in high school. I loathed Ethan Frome. I quite like the short story "Roman Fever." I mostly remember Wharton because when I was growing up, my family would visit her home, The Mount, in Massachusetts to watch Shakespeare plays on the lawn.

White, T.H. wrote the amazing Once and Future King. I often reference the first part, Sword in the Stone, for examples on analogy: Merlin teaches Arthur about leadership by having him experience life as different animals.

Wilder, Thorton: Generally speaking, I've stayed away from plays in this A-Z list, but I have to mention Thorton Wilder for Our Town. I have just started The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Willig, Lauren: I have read several of her Pink Carnation books. Lots of fun! Like many series, I was ready for Jane's book much sooner than it was actually delivered.

Willis, Connie: One of my favorite science-fiction writers and a great short story writer. I have mixed feelings about her latest, the two-part time-travel books about World War II. Willis often utilizes a motif--the seeming randomness of events prevents easy solutions--that has merit but gets a tad overworked in Blackout and All Clear. However, I read both novels in record time; I couldn't put them down! My favorite Willis novel is Passage which utilizes the Titanic as metaphor. 

Wodehouse, P.G.: I wish I liked Wodehouse's writing more; there are so many books!  I do greatly enjoy the BBC series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (see below).

Woodburys! There are lots of us writers in the Woodbury clan, including my sisters Beth Hart and Ann Moore. Eugene Woodbury's books can be located at Peaks Island Press (and yes, I have read them and yes, I recommend them!).

Wroblewski, David: I read the entire The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the whole thing! Truth is, I usually pass on books over 300 pages. The Story is 566; I suppose that says something.

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part III

1956
The 1956 movie is a love song to travel. It is beautifully made (if incredibly long) with many scenic pauses. The 1989 miniseries is a romp.

The 1989 miniseries is less accurate to the book; however, BOTH the 1956 and 1989 productions expand the Europe section with added twists and turns . . .

Including the balloon.

Yep, that's right, the balloon isn't in the book.

In the 1956 movie, the balloon gets Fogg and Passpartout from France to the Spanish coastline. It is completely gratuitous but does allow for the beautiful scenery mentioned above. (Watching the 1956 movie is rather like watching an adventure tale plus three National Geographic episodes all at the same time.) 

1989
In the 1989 miniseries, the balloon is an early Hindenburg creation, which at least satisfies the Verne-Steampunk aficionados. Still, one is left with the impression that the balloon is there because a balloon was in the 1956 movie; it is certainly not in the book.

In the book, the "modern" part of the modern world is glided over with little to no comment. Fogg and Passpartout make it from England to the Mediterranean with no extraneous adventures. Why would they? Getting from England to the Suez is about as boring, in Verne's eyes, as describing a commuter flight from New York to Buffalo.

But the handling of Europe in the various versions does bring up an interesting problem that I mention in connection to Lord of the Rings. A book can dispose of scenes and places in a few well-chosen paragraphs. Okay, so everybody got from here to there; let's move on the main adventure.

But in a MOVIE about going around the world, appearing to skip the first part of the journey would look like cheating. Even Michael Palin, in his own trip around the world, spent time exploring Europe. To do anything else gives the appearance--gasp!--that one simply flew to the Mediterranean.

Michael Palin sets forth.
Interesting enough, it is now so easy to get around the world (even without flying) that Palin's crew scheduled breaks and interviews and sight-seeing. Palin is filmed being more of a Passpartout than a Fogg. This does cause complications and Palin has to get creative to stay on schedule. Still, this is NOT Fogg jumping quickly from train to steamer to elephant to rickshaw with no time to stop and peruse the scenery. This is a crew realizing that it over-scheduled its star (granted, an interesting problem in its own right: missing a boat becomes a huge deal; people just don't travel--actually travel, not cruise--by ship anymore).

In any case, the result of needing to add in Europe means that both the movie and the miniseries spend WAY more time on Europe than is all that necessary. But then both the movie and the miniseries were aimed at American audiences who presumably didn't mind more Europe despite this entailing, later on, less America.

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part II

There was a board game! Before the movies!
In Jules Vernes' book, Phileas Fogg pays little attention to his surroundings. Yes, he is going around the world but not in order to SEE the world. He is going around the world to prove the advent and importance of modernity. Consequently, he never sight-sees and remains consistently indifferent to the various cultures through which he passes.

Both Foggs (of the 1956 movie and the 1989 miniseries) retain this perspective--to a point. It's part of the joke that neither one cares much WHERE they are, so much as WHEN. Even in the latter case, Fogg remains relatively indifferent to set-backs; it is his companions who get frustrated by delays. The only time Fogg gets irked is when he bops Detective Fix on the nose for arresting him (and the 1956 Fogg doesn't even do this!).

In his tongue-in-cheek book How to Talk About Places You've Never Been, Pierre Bayard argues that Fogg's detachment actually makes him a more objective and reliable witness. In the end, he'll be able to deliver the big picture while his companions will be stuck with their subjective experiences.

The problem with this wink wink nudge nudge approach, at least from a film perspective, is that viewers find it hard to invest in a story whose main characters are not invested.

In a book, the investment can be solved through an omniscient narrator; in a movie, viewers need to care about something or someone and if that something or someone is going to travel around the world, it would be nice if it, he, or she cared a little.

In the 1956 movie, this person is Passpartout (as he is in the book to an extent). Like the reader and viewer, Passpartout becomes invested in Fogg's success (despite knowing the ending, I found it almost painful to watch the end of both productions: Oh my gosh, is he going to make it?!). Passpartout is also the one who wanders through the cities in which he and Fogg dock. He eats the food, takes on work, gets lost, meets people . . . In addition, he is largely responsible for acting on Fogg's plans; it is Passpartout who rescues the princess and Passpartout who saves the train.

In the 1989 series, Fogg becomes more invested as the journey evolves. Almost against his will, he is forced to participate in increasingly complex (and many non-book-related) adventures. He is forced to care, to problem solve and physically act. At the end, he is as devastated as the viewer is to believe that he has failed (though he hides his emotional upheaval better). Most touchingly, he and his companions finally arriving at the Reform Club, he almost turns back when they stop at the doors. He has come so far with them, he expects to keep going with them.

"Go on," they cry, and he goes on.

Nellie Bly went around the world in
72 days in 1889. Verne met her at the
the start of her journey and sent
her congratulations after.
Although this view of Fogg is not in keeping with Verne's vision, it is easy to understand why a scriptwriter--faced with an ostensible hero (the man who made the bet) and an action hero (the servant who does the heavy lifting)--would be puzzled at how to proceed.

After all, the Finch-Reese dynamic hadn't yet been invented--though one could argue that Steampunk-beloved Verne foresaw it. The man who wins the bet and the girl is the geek, the guy who knows his modern world so well, he knows that it can be circumnavigated in less than 80 days (the extra days are there in case).*

*Verne was right. Before the turn of the century, a number of people went around the world in 72 or fewer days!

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part I

I recently read Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. To celebrate, I watched the 1989 miniseries, starring Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle, Peter Ustinov, and Julia Nickson after which I rewatched the 1956 version, starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and a WHOLE bunch of other people.

This series of posts will focus on the differences and similarities between the versions.

First up: the Phileas Foggs.

Both David Niven and Pierce Brosnan do respectable jobs conveying Fogg's personality, including his discipline, kindliness, and sangfroid. Brosnan is slightly more relatable for several reasons, most of which come down to the following:

The miniseries presents Fogg in a way that Verne himself did not--as a young man who is altered slightly by his experience. 

The whole hilarious point of Verne's book (and the 1956 movie) is that Fogg doesn't change after going around the world. He falls in love: that's all. But his cool-headed worship of timetables . . . one gets the impression that Mrs. Fogg will still be expected to get to the breakfast table on time, and if she doesn't, she'll get a mild-mannered yet cool rebuke. (The 1989 Aouda Fogg, played by Julia Nickson, would bop her Phileas over the head for being so ridiculous.)

David Niven gives us this unchanged Phileas. This makes sense since one suspects David Niven would--in real life--go right on expecting, say, the same level of hotel service during an earthquake as during a non-earthquake.

1989 Aouda
1989 Fogg, while not losing his quintessential reserve, subtly alters his views and life goals during his journey. He even (occasionally) gets emotional. For instance, a great deal more attention is paid in the miniseries to the romance between Phileas and Aouda; the Aouda of the miniseries is also far more outspoken and plays a far greater role in the group's adventures.

Brosnan's Fogg is also younger than Niven's. Brosnan was 36 when he did the miniseries (and looked younger) while Niven was 46 when he did the movie. Consequently, when Brosnan's Phileas pulls out a card deck on the train across America and insists on teaching strangers whist, it's completely hilarious, precisely because it is so incongruous. When Niven does it, well, it seems kind of normal. I mean, I would do that (says the woman in her 40s). The older one gets, the more one realizes that reading and playing cards are excellent ways to get through troubling (and/or boring) times, from a train trip to an earthquake.

Likewise, when Brosnan's Phileas arrives at the Reform Club at the end of miniseries, there is about him a kind of suppressed exhilaration. Despite greeting his fellow club members coolly, he is practically shaking with excitement, which makes him utterly adorable.

It's sort of hard to find David Niven adorable. Great actor! Totally personable! But adorable . . . ?

While Niven's Fogg's character is already set (and solidifying), Brosnan's Fogg, on the other hand, is at the mercy of his own youth: how much of his rigidity has been a pose? Believed in--but a pose nonetheless? (Brosnan's Fogg reminds me of Dana Andrews' cop character in Laura; he comes across as laid-back but resorts to playing a boy's game when under stress so he can keep his cool.)

All this is not to say that Niven's interpretation is wrong or uninteresting. It is more to say (1) the two films have different agendas (more on this later); (2) the 1956 film is more Passpartout's while the miniseries is more Fogg's.

To be continued . . .

Guest Blogger: Mike Reviews the Latest Star Wars

Let’s be honest. As a Star Wars fan, I’ve been hurt before. When the Prequels first appeared, I was as happy as everyone else, and I clung to the fantasy that those movies were good perhaps a little longer than other people. Soon, however, reality snuck up, and with Episode 3, I had to admit that Lucas had, in fact, let us down.

And so, I rejoiced when George finally decided to hand over the rights. Finally! We had a chance at redemption! The inclusion of JJ Abrams was also a positive. I’ve been an on and off fan of his as well. If JJ could rein in some of his tendencies, then we might just have a chance. (For the unaware, JJ Abrams loves mysteries . . . but he doesn’t like solving them or explaining them; as a result, many of his revelations are either absent or disappointing).

But then word started to leak. Sure, the old cast would be back, but so would the Empire. And the Rebellion. And, oh yeah, peace hasn’t come to the galaxy. This worried me, because more than anything else in the original series, the thing I loved the most was the happy ending. The bad guys were beaten, the heroes had found love or closure, and some characters even found redemption. It was perfect (well, perfect enough).

The Star Wars kid in all of us.
With this stark news, I couldn’t get excited. I refused. I was a tense, angry, frustrated fan that was still going to see it opening day . . . but there was no way I would be fooled again. I drew a line in the sand and swore that if the new movie crossed it, I would reject it and storm out of the theater. Some friends pointed out that I might be going about things the wrong way. And they were probably right.

Regardless, opening day I was there with my son. The opening scroll started, and I was a kid again, against my will. And to my surprise, I found myself happily laughing, clapping, and even cheering along with the film. As the film wound towards the final scenes, I found myself loving it dearly. But then . . . something happened.

It’s been months, so chances are you already know what happened. But just in case, SPOILERS lie ahead, young Padawan.

*SPOILER ALERT*

One of Star Wars' many Prerequisite Bottomless Pits
Throughout the film we discover that the new villain, a whiny emo clone of Darth Vader (who is oddly fun to watch), is actually the son of heroes Han and Leia. As the heroes rush towards the final battle, Han decides to try and save his son with an ill-advised heart to heart on a narrow bridge over the prerequisite bottomless pit. Things don’t go as planned, however, and the almost touching moment ends with Han being stabbed through the heart with a light-saber and then dropping into the conveniently located pit below.

I was mortified. This film, which had so skillfully coaxed out the young and exuberant Star Wars fan inside this man, suddenly, ruthlessly and traumatically murdered his childhood hero before his eyes. It’s like getting a beautifully wrapped present on your birthday just to find a decapitated head inside. My son was equally horrified. I was numb throughout the rest of the movie. Sure, there were some cool moments; I vaguely remember a light-saber fight, a big celebratory ending, and even some swelling music at some point. But my mind kept going back to that one horrifying moment, as Han tried to connect with his son, just to get a badly designed light-saber in the chest for his trouble.

The rest of the movie was a dull, emotionless blur for me. I was devastated, horrified, and angry. This wasn’t how Han decided to go out. He was a hero, dammit! He had earned a happy ending! At very least, as a rogue, hero, and true friend, he deserved to go out in a blaze of glory defending his friends: a kamikaze run for the ages. Instead we get a badly lit lifetime moment followed by millions of Star Wars fans crying out.

It’s hard to get past this moment. I’ve seen the film 3 times now, and all in all, I think my feelings for it lean positive. I like the new characters, though their pasts are all shrouded in Abrams' usual fog of mystery. The existence, motivations, and even structure of the villain is shady and unclear as is the need for the new rebellion. I’m confused why the galaxy would need a non-government run “Resistance” to fight what appears to be a rogue terrorist group. Rey, the new main character, is strong and compelling though it’s hard to imagine that the answers to her past will be as interesting as the mystery itself.

Abrams and THE star of Star Wars
The return of practical effects was welcome, and the return of old characters was wonderful. The film, on the whole, is a love letter to the old films. It’s when Abrams tries to move the Star Wars universe toward his vision that the movie struggles; not so much that his vision betrays the old films, but in that this new direction lacks the logic, reasoning, and emotion that served as foundation of the original trilogy.

In the end, it’s the death of Han and the method in which the film chose to do it that feels the most out of place. While I feel I understand the choices and what function the event serves in the story, the method in which it was carried out felt excessive and cruel. The film was looking for a shocking moment to sell it, and it found one; unfortunately, it may have lost some of the more sensitive fans along the way.

So, if you’re looking for a fun romp in the Star Wars universe, the new film may just be for you. But if the happy ending of Jedi means anything to you, you might want to stop there.

You can read more reviews by Mike (and about Star Wars) here

U is for Uh . . . V is for oVaj (er)

Considering that Firefly IS Steampunk, it is entirely
fitting that Nathan Fillion played tribute to the genre in
Castle; the episode "Punked" contains Verne references!
Uhnak, Dorothy is the mystery writer I read for the first list.

Uris, Leon: I read Leon Uris for 9th grade history. Yup, 9th grade! We read ALL of Exodus, which amazes me even now. I remember absolutely nothing about it except that it wasn't boring, was very long, and was about Israel right after WWII when it was still occupied by the British before it became the current state of Israel.

For the same class, we read Nectar in a Sieve, which I still consider a rather pointless book on par with The Pearl.

Van Dine, S.S. is the (other mystery) writer I read for the first list.

Van de Wetering, Janwillem: I am fairly certain that I've read a Van der Wetering (Grijpstra & DeGier Mystery) at some point in my life. As I reach the end of this second A-Z list, one thing is becoming alarmingly clear: I have read far more books than I will ever remember. When Sherlock claims that our brains throw things out when they get too full . . . okay, so he isn't technically correct, but it sure feels like he is. 

Verne, Jules: I am currently reading Around the World in 80 Days. I have seen the 1956 movie at least twice; my memory of it is, That is one long movie! (At 167 minutes, I'm not wrong.) Consequently, I didn't appreciate the dry humor of the actual book until I picked it up (since Phineas Fogg is played by David Niven, I should have anticipated the dry humor). Considering Verne's influence on Steampunk--which I greatly admire--and Doc Brown's admiration for him in The Back to the Future series, I plan on delving into more of his novels. 

Vonnegut, Kurt: I am fairly certain I've read something by Vonnegut but it is possible that I am mixing him up with Ray Bradbury--not exactly cousins under the skin but not exactly not either.

The Political Storyline: Three Types

Crime meets politics in The Closer.
The political storyline is one that is motivated by political needs rather than social or personal ones.

Characters are fighting a war. Character A wishes to win the war to expiate feelings of guilt (The Four Feathers); Character B wishes to win the war for the sake of his or her fellow soldiers (just about every war movie ever); Character C wishes to win the war to open up a trade route.

The last reason is political. When, in 37 Days, Edward Grey (Ian McDiarmid) argues that not coming to Belgium's aid will compromise Britain's international reputation, that is a political argument. When another member of the cabinet argues that the war will drag on, draining Britain's populace of working young men, that is also a political argument.

Political plots combined with Character A and Character B motivations are better than political plots without them, which brings me to the following three categories (as with my romance plot posts, I reserve the right to expand this in the future):

1. The Objective Plot: The characters enter a new/strange/changed political situation and determine to make the best of it and/or make it work to their advantage. They analyze problems from an outsider's perspective.
In Person of Interest, enemies become friends as the
political landscape changes.  Politics places necessity
above morality, which causes Finch internal conflict.

Elias (Person of Interest) falls into this category as do the characters of manga series Maiden Rose. Despite being a crime show (see below), The Closer falls more into this category than the third category; Brenda as an incoming outsider has more options than characters in Plotline #3.

The Objective Plot does carry with it a kind of fatalism; however, unlike the third plot in this list, it is an acknowledged fatalism. Both Elias and Dominic define the whole world in terms of their personal confrontation; what keeps them from the self-indulgence of Plot #3, is that both acknowledge this perception as a choice.

2. The Transcendent Plot: The characters rise above the political situation, leaving it behind.

Many religious narratives fall into this category, which is why--from a purely humanistic point of view--they last. The African-American folktale "The People Could Fly" is a great example.

Fantasy novels/movies with political plots often utilize the transcendent approach. Dune, which is categorized on Google as both sci-fi and fantasy, arguable utilizes all three approaches with an emphasis on this one.

Occasionally, sweetly, a political plot will resolve itself with unremarkable transcendence (though transcendence nonetheless)  Manga series Black Sun ends with the characters working for the same government but in jobs they actually like. The Bourne movies usually end with Bourne settling happily for a "little" life (if he could just be left alone).*

3. No Way Out: The characters are stuck in the political situation and see no way out. They scramble for existence within the only world they know and understand.

This plot pretty much describes every mob movie ever. It is also the underlying plot line of many, many crime shows (Law & Order, not Columbo). And the primary reason why I dislike both mob movies and plot lines involving government corruption. 

Good political Law & Order's episode: "The Troubles"
There is a great deal of truth to scrambling for existence in the only world one knows. People mired in their cultural, social, and political contexts (all of us) find it difficult to break free of those expectations and necessities. We do tend to stick to the troubles we know and to come up with solutions that resemble the lives and blueprints that surround us.

But it's terribly depressing. It is difficult to watch people being chewed up by a system. And it isn't as realistic as "it's realistic!" literary types would argue. People do get chewed up by systems, and they do run out of options, but they also spend a great deal of time doing other stuff, like buying groceries and watching football. Life is rarely as streamlined as narratives suggest.

*Action movies don't require a political agenda, only a political premise (Get Those Bad Guys!). The Bourne movies, however, establish a character within a political network--one domino falls, the next one follows. (In Die Hard, in comparison, the problems are always entirely personal.)
Transcendent end of Bourne Legacy