Thursday, April 27, 2023

One Last Round for April

What I’m Reading

The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder, by Lawrence Block (2023). I’m faced with a tricky proposition in recommending this book, which I am absolutely doing. For one thing, it doesn’t come out until June 24, which also happens to be the author’s eighty-fifth birthday. (Preorders, as always, are welcome.) For another, I’m urging it on a very specific audience, namely people who have already made Matt Scudder’s acquaintance—and have ideally read most if not all of the books and short stories in which the character appears. Luckily, I fit both bills.

Scudder first appeared in The Sins of the Fathers (1976), and the alcoholic ex-NYPD cop turned quasi-private eye has walked the streets of the Big Apple ever since, aging in something close to real time. Larry Block, meanwhile, has embraced the changes in the publishing business to release adventurous books like Dead Girl Blues (2020), among the darkest work of his career (and is that saying something), and last year’s The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, in which he addresses the many challenges facing his long-running character Bernie Rhodenbarr by saying, “Fuck it, PARALLEL UNIVERSE!

This latest book is even more inventive, in that it is exactly what the title promises: a fictional character telling you his life story, or at least all the bits that Block chose not to include elsewhere. Scudder purports to be a real person in these pages, one whose exploits have been turned into fiction by a novelist—and Scudder isn’t entirely happy with some of the changes that scribe has wrought. (We even hear from Block occasionally if indirectly in his instructions to his subject.) It’s evident from his handling of this meta approach that Block hasn’t lost much speed off his fastball. But for devoted readers (like me), there’s an element of pure wish fulfillment at play. The book is essentially a chance to tug the sleeve of a character we’ve gotten to know quite well and offer to buy him another cup of coffee before he heads out, to hear an additional story or two and ask questions long wondered about. It’s an impressive trick that requires decades of work on the part of both writer and reader to carry off. You need to know Matt Scudder in order to appreciate this book, and if you know Matt Scudder you’ve already ordered it.

What I’m Watching

No Bears
(2022). The Criterion Channel is the exclusive streaming home for this remarkable film, which is yet another reason to sign up for the service. (Who else would bring you, in the same month, this movie and a lineup of erotic thrillers including 1994’s Dream Lover, featured in my survey of Hitchcock movies not directed by Alfred Hitchcock?) Jafar Panahi plays himself, an Iranian filmmaker barred from leaving his homeland because of his political beliefs. Undaunted, he journeys to the Turkish border so he can direct a docudrama remotely. As that project takes unexpected and disturbing turns, Panahi finds his presence—and his images—drawn into village life in ways that illuminate his own standing in Iran. A powerful work of art. (And on the day that I’m composing this come reports that Panahi has been allowed to leave Iran for the first time in fourteen years.)

What I’m Drinking

Time to sing the praises of another book at which I got a sneak peek. Eddie Muller’s Noir Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the World of Film Noir, available May 23, is a gorgeous volume, and I’d say that even if my name didn’t appear in it several times. Eddie—my friend, colleague, Turner Classic Movies host, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, and imbiber extraordinaire—spotlights fifty cocktails, some classic, some original, each one linked to a classic film noir. It’s written with Eddie’s usual erudition and verve and it’s beautifully laid out, making it a cocktail book you can actually read from cover to cover. I christened it with one of Eddie’s creations, the Sailor Beware, crafted to commemorate Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948). As Eddie writes: “I felt it needed to be done in the true Wellesian spirit: something brash and startling, using ingredients rarely if ever combined, assembled in a totally unexpected way—and then I’d walk away before I finished making it.” (Time now for a gratuitous reminder that Orson is a recurring character in the novels of Renee Patrick.)

Sailor Beware

1 ¼ oz. Irish whiskey
¾ oz. brandy
½ oz. green chartreuse
½ oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
absinthe rinse
lemon peel twist

Stir the first four ingredients, then let them rest in the mixing glass. Rinse a Nick and Nora glass with absinthe. Strain. Express the oil from a lemon peel over the surface, rub the peel on the rim of the glass, then place in the drink.

It’s a fine concoction. Raise one in honor of the Czar of Noir, who has not only joined the exalted ranks of Cecil B. DeMille, Tyler Perry, and Guy Ritchie in getting his name in the title with this book, but who will also be receiving a Raven award from the Mystery Writers of America tonight in recognition of his film preservation work.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Demented and Sad, but Social

Last week, the thought came to me unbidden: Holy shit, I have a Post account!

It’s true. Back when Twitter first went into convulsions, Post seemed the most viable alternative. I set up shop, made the rounds, then promptly forgot about it. I’ll probably forget about it again soon enough.

Yesterday I nosed around Notes, Substack’s answer to Twitter. Could this be the future of social media? I have to say, it looks pretty good. It underscored how many writers I follow are already on Substack. And it has me pondering questions I have long put off: should I start a Substack of my own? Would anybody read it?

Anyway, that’s our first topic this morning. Give us a call. Our lines are open.

What I’m Reading

Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, by Michael Schulman (2023). I wrote a little about this book while disguised as Renee Patrick, mild-mannered crime novelist. (Subscribe to Renee’s occasional newsletter here.) Schulman, a New Yorker correspondent, analyzes the role that the Academy Awards have played during pivotal Hollywood moments. One of the best chapters reconsiders the 1989 ceremony, widely regarded as the worst Oscars ever. You know, the one featuring the opening number with Snow White and Rob Lowe, which is even longer than I remembered it being. (There was also a stupefying “Stars of Tomorrow” number, which is far worse.) Producer Allan Carr (Grease) bore the brunt of the nuclear-level negative reaction, which essentially ended his career. Schulman makes it plain that Carr, who had long dreamed of running the Oscars, sealed his fate by making the show partly about him. But he also highlights how much Carr got right, including several innovations that are now mainstays, and how tacky the telecast was before Carr got his hands on it. Although those two numbers are a lot to forgive.

Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess
, by Evan Drellich (2023). If you’re a baseball fan you’re already aware of this book, the definitive chronicle of the Houston Astros’ legacy of cheating, particularly during 2017 when the team won the World Series. (Recent admissions from then-Astros player Evan Gattis aren’t helping the bad blood go away, as any Yankee or Dodger fan will attest.) But I’d also recommend it as an incisive case study about how cultures are built, and how toxic ones can eat away at institutions that appear not only healthy but successful. It’s also about the financialization of every aspect of public life. One Astros player described the team’s mentality—perhaps best exemplified by owner Jim Crane bringing in McKinsey to improve operations, because playing nine innings is exactly like selling widgets—this way: “They just take the human element out of baseball. It’s hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person.” Another choice quote: “The closer I get to the world of the thirty owners, many of them are among the worst people in the world.” Testify, unnamed baseball executive. What makes it all harder to swallow is that the Astros never stopped winning. They’re baseball’s current defending champions—yet in true McKinsey fashion, they parted ways with the GM brought in specifically to right the ship after he’d won them a second title. Sometimes the bastards don’t lose. They don’t even learn.

What I’m Watching

Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (2022). When I finished reading Caro’s The Power Broker last year, I posted a photograph to mark the occasion. Caro’s four-and-hopefully-five volume biography of LBJ awaits, and this engaging documentary about his life’s work and his enduring relationship with his editor Gottlieb (made by Lizzie Gottlieb, his daughter) has me eager to read them. I was struck by the deep modesty of both men, and by Gottlieb’s belief that having unexpected and intense interests—he collects plastic handbags and consults with ballet companies—contributes to his acuity and the longevity of his career. Above all, it’s a portrait of a genteel literary life out of a bygone era. Every day Caro dons a suit and tie to walk to his office, where he puts in the hours at a typewriter and backs up his work using carbon paper. All I could think as I watched him was Who still makes carbon paper?

What I’m Drinking

Talk to bartenders and you’ll hear tell of the Great Chartreuse Shortage of 2023. This week, a friend told me that in the Seattle area, the price for a bottle has hit three figures. Jason Wilson has a nice overview of chartreuse and what brought its recent scarcity about. I’ve been rationing my own supply, recently dipping into my stash to make a Diamondback after Punch called for this boozy beauty to make a comeback. It’s always been a staple at the Chez K bar—it’s included in my cocktail book Down the Hatch, which I just realized is coming up on its tenth anniversary—but I make it with green, not yellow chartreuse, the way bartending legend Murray Stenson taught me when he was behind the stick at the Zig Zag CafĂ©.

1 ½ oz. rye whiskey
¾ oz. bonded applejack
¾ oz. green chartreuse

Stir. Strain. No garnish.