Who I’m Reading Now – And Why (Grand Prizewinner: Zzzzzzzz Headline of 2017)

As holder of the Miss Prothero chair of this scattered family, never content unless she has provided something for someone, anyone, friends, family, firemen, acquaintances, passersby, to read, it’s been a heady month.

Over at The New Yorker, its Daily Shouts editors must be panting like greyhounds, tongues lolling, with fresh outrage arriving on the half-hour.  Not all of it has been Extra Superbly Choicest, but Rian Konc’s What’s In James Comey’s Memos? this very afternoon is a keeper, if it hasn’t gone viral by the time I finish here.  RianKonc:  What’s in James Comey’s Memos?

What’s so especially nice about it is the way Konc has caught Comey dead-on, the small humble-brags with the guys “. . . probably also true that they didn’t invite me to shoot hoops with them because I’m ‘so good, it almost wouldn’t be fair.’” Also the faint prissiness, “Someone lit a bag of feces on fire and left it outside my door. . . “ that fits perfectly with Comey’s mildly nauseous constitution.

There’s just the right amount of Tradecraft for Idiots, [Trump]” . . tries to casually drop a Talkboy onto the desk behind him.”

Then there’s this, “Someone needs to get Sessions a stool.  I’m the director of the F.B.I., not of getting cookies down from the top shelf.”

It’s as though Barry Blitt were standing there at Konc’s elbow, making sketch after sketch of Session’s cookie-ready little face.  But it’s the second half of that sentence that puts me away, because I promise you, the impulse – okay, well, yes, my crappy, lousy impulse – is to say, “ . . . not the director of getting cookies down from the top shelf” thus flat-footing the rhythm.

I want to lay this perfection in Konc’s lap, not his editor’s, because he’s shown this good ear before (look up his New Yorker dossier) and, well, because it’s Writer Uber Alles in some damaged corners of this office.  Although that’s another story.

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To digress for a moment (another chair I hold), I think it’s a hand’s down, no argument that the most breathtaking Daily Shout was, of course Melania’s Diary, by the deliciously  indefensible Paul Rudnick.   God, to think of January as the easy-peasy days of affront.  Paul Rudnick:  Melania’s Dairy

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Before we leave a consideration of great voice combined with breathtaking form, let us drop a knee to Bess Kalb’s Obituaries My Mother Wrote For Me, a New Yorker Shout from April 30, 2016.  I’m sure you-all know her these days from her gently chiding Twitter life with Donald.  I’m old school and, you know, classic and so I cling to this.  Bess Kalb:  Obituaries My Mother Wrote For Me

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A movie I’m unabashedly fond of opens today, Harold and Lillian, by Daniel Raim, who seems, at his young age, to have been born with an antenna for the artisans of filmmaking –  production designers, storyboard artists, film librarians.  All of them, working alongside my family’s side of what used to be called The Business – screenwriting and costume design (men’s character design — my father never knew a gore from a gusset, but he knew what people wore from the skin out.)

Harold and Lillian got an appreciative, interested review in the Village Voice; you might very well want to see it after reading Bilge Ebiri’s commentary.  It was Ebiri’s thoughts at the end of the piece that stuck with me, when he dryly push-pins his profession:  “We love to put our blazers on and sit on panels to talk about how this or that movie redefines Truth or dares to reveal something fundamental and troubling about the Way We Live Now.  But Harold and Lillian is a movie that embodies the non-nonsense modesty of its subjects.“

He closes with an appreciation for “this charming little movie. . .[which] offers a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating people whom I had never heard of, and who shared an unlikely life filled with achievements and setbacks, wonder and pain.” It seemed so all-of-a-piece with the movie, so calmly right for its subject.  Bilge Ebiri: Harold and Lillian

I’ve been following Ebiri, a filmmaker as well as a critic, ever since I read the reviews he selected when he applied for membership in the National Society of Film Critics.  (Glad to say he’s now one of this year’s new, vigorous members.)

In the course of deftly pulling apart the threads that make up the film Arrival, which is densely concerned with language, Ebiri threw in this:  “When people ask me if switching from English to Turkish is like switching gears in a car, I tell them that it’s like stopping the car, getting out of it, stepping into a truck, and driving off in a completely different direction. I essentially become a different person.”

I think it was at that point that I became an Ebiri person.

Then, as I was writing this, I found him in last week’s Voice, wading into one of my lifetime favorites, “the magnificent Heat,” celebrating its luscious new Blu-Ray with a review and a separate, really smart, wide-ranging interview with Michael Mann.  Bilge Ebiri: Heat 

In his review, Ebiri is most deeply drawn to the counterpoint between the men’s work and their emotional, domestic lives. It shifts away from the way Mann likes to frame Heat, “as a contrapuntal, dialectical story” (which it also is) to consider  the stuff that Ebiri seems instinctively drawn to, catching a quick, untethered glance between guarded bodies, touching the bedrock of people’s lives — the essence of what fascinates me about Ebiri’s own essential humanism.

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I know exactly what brought me to the great contemporary Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya:  this photograph in Ilya Kaminsky’s arresting New York Times review of her “slender, fragmentary memoir,” The Girl from the Metropol Hotel.                                                 From The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

NYTimes Book Review: Enemies of the State

Could you have resisted wanting to know more, knowing everything possible about this ten-year old, homeless “enemy of the people?”  Of course not, or you wouldn’t be here with me now.

The first, selfish fact I grabbed from this surreal, crazed, triumphant story was that Petrushevskaya, born in 1938 (and 10 in that photograph) is very much alive today.  Alive, alert, what the reviewer proudly calls  “uncrushed” – hah! if you look at those eyes, crushing was never in doubt – in full voice and absolutely rocking her Madwoman of Chaillot hats.

Ludmilla Petroshevskaya

This is the Metropol Hotel’s most precise observer on her days in the streets :  “In the summertime I begged.  I didn’t beg by holding out a hand on street corners, no.  I performed, like Edith Piaf.” She began with songs, then found that reciting Gogol’s “The Portrait”  “stunned” her audience of  kids and grandmothers in apartment courtyards. Once, it got her a rare heel of bread, another time, at the top of dark and possibly dangerous stairs, “a door opened, and a woman with a face wet with tears offered me a green open cardigan that I put on immediately.”

“The Portrait,” which Petrushevskaya’s grandmother had recited to her from memory, was talismanic to the writer-in-the-making. “The story of a young artist compelled by a mysterious portrait to sell his talent, left me dazzled,” she writes.  “To this day I considered its subject, bartering one’s gift for the worldly glory, the most important among humanity’s collective tales.”

Who could do justice to the wickedness of her childhood?  Today’s cutting- edge animators perhaps, who could show us how Petrushevskaya’s mother and her scrawny child slept under the massive dinner table in Grandpa’s room throughout their “enemies” time. Years.

“Its legs were connected with a thick plank,” she remembered, “so that one had to sleep with her feet either over that plank or under it, which was extremely uncomfortable.” Finally, with a stretching string-bean bedmate, her mother tenderly arranged a bed for young Ludmilla in the common hallway, on top of Grandpa’s trunk. Her first time sleeping alone.

“The Metropol Hotel” is fragmented, its narrator is sometimes an observer of her headstrong self and sometimes in the very thick of it.  But I know precisely when I just gave up and began hoarding her collected stories like the precious objects that they are. It was when she says of her barefoot, ragged, snot-streaming, furious self, that she lived “like Mowgli.”

I will now let all of you who’ve been light-years ahead of me in Petrushevskaya-land have a nice, collective eye-roll.  Be nice.  And yes, The New Yorker was onto her in January of 2016, when it published one of her original fairy tales. Of course. As I have to say to my far-more-knowing-how-the-world-works husband, time to time:  “You were not born knowing that.”

Finally, a full-throated shout to the design geniuses at Penguin whose simple-, sophisticated cover art for Petrushevskaya’s mordantly funny, casually heartbreaking stories keeps perfect company with the pure essence of Russia’s most dangerous export.  (For home grown ones, go back up to the James Comey link)

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From Mother Russia to Mother’s Day.

My mother considered Mother’s Day a meaningless Hallmark/FTD money-grub. Dead right. Celebrating it at our house meant scrounging the day’s ripest, tackiest sentiments — the outsize cards, the heart-shaped pillows, the tiny bottles of cloying perfume — and presenting them for the outrage we knew they’d get. And proof of our cool.

Oh sentiment.  Oh principles.  Oh motherhood.  Want to see every hand-glued card I’ve gotten since 1956?  Top drawer of my father’s desk in the bedroom.  Mostly.

Have to say, I’ve been giving the matter of mothering a hard look recently.  A young, prolific film historian, Dr. Jennifer E. Smyth (American born, UK based) contacted me and my sister last year. In the course of researching a book on studio-era writers and women in Hollywood she’d become “fascinated and puzzled” by why Mary McCall, our mother, was so rarely mentioned in histories of screenwriting and the Screen Writers Guild in spite of her enormous work on both fronts.

Scarcely a year from her first letter, my sister Mary-David Sheiner and I were perched on high stools at the Writers Guild Theatre for a tribute to our mother, complete with a screening of her adaptation of Craig’s Wife, directed by Dorothy Arzner.  I think the night’s title, Madame President, picked last year, was supposed to be an echo of the country’s equal exuberance.  Sigh. Let’s not go back there again.

You won’t find a more succinct or impassioned case for a night of celebrating  Mary McCall than Jennifer’s introduction.


Mary C. McCall Jr. 1942

Here it is, and with a nod to the world’s love of irony, happy Mother’s Day, dear Mamie! Jennifer Smyth: Madam President