Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Beginnings

After my recent post concerning memorable opening lines to novels, I spent additional time glancing through some of the books in our home, books that I have read and enjoyed but have not picked up in years. I was pleasantly surprised to see many of these books contained openers as memorable as those I previously quoted. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, sets the tone for The Great Gatsby, with the following opening:

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

Virtually any work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose opening to One Hundred Years of Solitude I quoted in my earlier post, contains a memorable introduction. Love in the Time of Cholera begins with the following line (translated from the original Spanish):

"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

I have therefore prepared a second list of memorable opening lines. None of the authors referenced below were included in my initial list. Again, the list is far from exhaustive, is presented in no particular order, and includes works translated from other languages:

“Harry locked his mother in the closet.” Hubert Selby, Jr., Requiem for a Dream.

“Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree.” Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song.

“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.” Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum.

“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.” Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one.” Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove.

“After his wife stole the gangster’s money and split on him, she wanted to rub his nose in her deed, so she sent him a note.” Daniel Woodrell, The Ones You Do.

“When I was five years old, and still in quarantine for the case of tuberculosis I’d picked up in Guatemala the year before, Abuelita, that is my mother’s mother, sent us an orphan girl to be our maid, and this was Flor de Mayo Puac.” Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens.

“Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather.

“In early June Chief William O’Connell of the St. Louis Police Department announced his retirement, and the Board of Police Commissioners, passing over the favorite candidates of the city political establishment, the black community, the press, the Officers Association and the Missouri Governor, selected a woman, formerly with the police in Bombay, India, to begin a five-year term as chief.” Jonathan Franzen, The Twenty-Seventh City.

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…” William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Low and Outside

The Florida Marlins will sell all of the team’s players and field a squad of handicapped 12-year old Guatemalan orphans in 2011, according to an internal memo leaked to the website Deadspin.com. The news comes on the heels of the website’s release of the Marlins’ 2008 and 2009 financial statements, which disclosed a net profit of $49 million for the two year span in which the team claimed to be losing money and maintained the lowest payroll in baseball.

Team President David Samson blasted the anonymous leak of the internal memo, calling it “fundamentally unfair.”

“As a franchise, we and I are very disappointed that this information was leaked,” said Samson. “We try very hard to keep this type of information from our fans because it may give the mistaken impression that the Marlins are in this solely for the money, and not to try to win games.”

Samson stressed that the use of handicapped Guatemalan orphans is essential to the future of baseball in South Florida, particularly since the team has committed millions of dollars to the publicly funded retractable-roof stadium due to open in April, 2012.

“It’s very easy,” Samson said. “We can keep our present players and not have a ballpark, but that would not be fair to the 5,000 fans who regularly attend our games. We always base our decisions on the long-term viability of the ballclub.”

Samson added that the team’s decision to further cut payroll and employ handicapped children should not diminish the fans’ enjoyment of the product on the field.

“The Guatemalan kids we have assembled will be around long after our current players have left the game. The fans will have the opportunity to watch them grow – at least those who survive. The fact that they are overcoming physical obstacles should give an indication of the character of these players. We are confident that our fans will come to embrace them.”

Samson would not comment on the rumor that the team is also involved in negotiations to sell its mascot, Billy the Marlin, to a third division soccer team from Croatia.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Blogshead Revisited

My recent posting on memorable film titles generated some feedback. Kevin Couch was one of several readers to question the exclusion of director John De Belo’s 1971 cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! To Kevin I say: This film is very dear to me. I once won a game of Charades due largely to the film. It took my wife all of five seconds to guess the title that I acted out. I do not know what this says about me or the nature of my marriage, but perhaps it is best not to speculate.

Larry Ehmer suggested two titles. The first was the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson vehicle, Snakes on a Plane, directed by David R. Ellis and Lex Halaby, which Larry indicated could be the best title ever. To that I say: I disagree. The title is indeed simple and descriptive, but the best? I think not, particularly in light of Larry’s other suggested title, director J. F. Lawton’s 1989 film Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. To Larry’s suggestion that this film should have been included in my original list I say: You are correct. It was an inexcusable omission which I will never live down.

The bottom line is that there were many additional titles that could have been included, but were not. To partly remedy this deficiency, I am supplementing my earlier list with the following classics:

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916), Director: Unknown. Comment: I know nothing of this film, other than it is listed by IMDB.com as a silent sports comedy written by George Ade. However, with both golf and baseball in its title it fits neatly into this blog.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Director: Stanley Kubrick. Comment: One of the all-time classics, perhaps the best dark comedy ever filmed.

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1964), Directors: Peter Balakoff, Ray Dennis Steckler and Ed McWatters. Comment: This is actually three 16 mm shorts, edited together into a single film. The segments’ titles: The Lemon Grove Kid, The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady from Outer Space, and Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood.

Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Director: Anthony Newley. Comment: Womanizing, middle-aged director portrays himself as a marionette controlled by an unseen puppet master. All this and Joan Collins, too!

God Was in the West Too, at One Time (1970), Director: Marino Girolami. Comment: Italian film with the tagline “An orgy of bloodletting that very few will survive.”

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971), Director: Ron Omond. Comment: Communist infiltrators seek to brainwash Christians, so says the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle.

Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987), Director: Ken Dixon. Comment: The tag line for this film was “Big Movie, Big Production, Big Girls.”

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2D (1991), Director: James Riffle. Comment: Its sequel was titled Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Sub-Humanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 3. The inclusion of “sub-humanoid” in the sequel was a nice touch.

Attack of the Flesh Devouring Space Worms from Outer Space (1998), Director: Michael A. Martinez. Comment: Extraterrestrial giant worms in Arkansas.

Biker Babes from Beyond the Grave (1999), Director: Todd Sheets. Comment: The title says it all.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Odd Callings

As a teen, I was intrigued by Robert M. Pirsig’ s 1974 philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, not because of any interest I held in metaphysics, but due to the strangeness of its title. Ever since, I have kept an eye out for books with unusual titles, and have seldom been disappointed. Dozens of books are published each year with odd appellations which catch the eye and stir the imagination.

Apparently, I am not alone in my intrigue for unusual monikers. Since 1978, the London-based Diagram Prize has been awarded annually to the book with the oddest title. The award, sponsored by The Bookseller, a British trade magazine for the publishing industry, is decided annually by a public vote on the magazine’s website. Below is a selection of some of the early winners, with brief descriptions of the works (I will deal with later winners in a future posting):

1978 Proceedings Of The Second International Workshop On Nude Mice, Various Authors. Description: Analysis of medical studies using laboratory mice with inhibited immune systems.

1979 The Madam As Entrepreneur: Career Management In House Prostitution, Barbara Sherman Heyl. Description: Management guide for the oldest profession.

1984 The Book Of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, And Its Role In The World Today, Anne Wilson. Description: The title says it all.

1985 Natural Bust Enlargement With Total Power: How To Increase The Other 90% Of Your Mind To Increase The Size Of Your Breasts, Donald L. Wilson. Description: Bust enlargement through positive thinking.

1986 Oral Sadism And The Vegetarian Personality, Glenn C. Ellenbogen. Description: Collection of articles on psychiatry.

1988 Versailles: The View From Sweden, Elaine Dee and Guy Walton. Description: The influence of French Baroque and Classicism on contemporary Swedish design.

1992 How To Avoid Huge Ships, John W. Trimmer. Description: The dangers of shipping lanes.

1994 Highlights In The History Of Concrete, C. C. Stanley. Description: So many from which to choose.

1995 Reusing Old Graves: A Report On Popular British Attitudes, Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw. Description: Taking recycling to a whole new level.

1996 Greek Rural Postmen And Their Cancellation Numbers, Derek Williams. Description: What more can I say?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Waiting Game

I last visited Minneapolis in the summer of 2007, a few weeks before the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. I was there with my son, on our way to a hockey camp in the upper lakes. The city provided a brief respite before we loaded our rental car and headed north. We spent our only night in the city strolling through Nicollet Mall, gazing at the shops and sidewalk cafes before settling down for dinner at a local sports bar.

My impression of the city was quite favorable. The streets were clean, the shops and restaurants inviting. I was most struck, however, by the friendliness of the people and the sense of contentment that was apparent wherever we went. Perhaps we were merely witnessing the relief of summer after what was undoubtedly a harsh winter (many of the downtown buildings are connected by elevated skyways, which are used to traverse the area when the cold pervades). Whatever the reason, it was clear that the pace of life in Minneapolis is much slower than that of Miami and New York, where I have spent most of my life. Drivers are much more courteous, residents much more patient.

The people of Minneapolis will need every ounce of their patience to deal with what has become an annual sporting rite. Every year at this time soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre begins his game of “Will He Or Won’t He.” Fabre is now 40-years old, and clearly does not relish the idea of spending late summers in camp, training with teammates for the upcoming season. Thus, every year he wavers between retirement and return to the NFL, feeding the media’s appetite with occasional comments of non-committal.

Perhaps to justify Favre’s apparent indecision, and the long, drawn-out process that inevitably results in his return, each year rumors circulate about injuries Favre has suffered and must overcome. Last year speculation centered on Favre’s shoulder, this year on his ankle. Each year, however, the pattern is the same: as the start of the season approaches, Favre’s aging body stages a miraculous recovery, and he is able to join his team for one final preseason game before the NFL campaign begins anew.

The impression is that Favre is playing a game that he seems to relish more than what he does on the football field. He enjoys being the center of attention, and will keep his employer guessing while he appears to weigh options and makes daily headlines. The Green Bay Packers and New York Jets both tired of Favre’s off-season game, and moved on to new quarterbacks who may not share Favre’s celebrated status, but can be counted on to be there, ready to play, at the start of training camp.

The Minnesota Vikings, Favre’s present team, is taking a much more patient approach, perhaps reflecting the attitude of the citizens of Minneapolis. The team and its fans appear willing to sit back and wait while Favre makes up his mind about what will be his 20th NFL season. They have reason to be patient: last year the team missed the Super Bowl by the narrowest of margins, eventually succumbing to the New Orleans Saints and a last-minute interception by Favre. This year, with Favre expected at the helm, the Vikings are again among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl. However, before they do, and before the first regular season game is played, the team and its fans must sit back and await Favre’s decision, a process that will inevitably tax their patience but result in the aging quarterback’s strapping on pads yet again is his search for victory, glory, and one final headline.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

At Death's Door

He was a lawyer, insurance executive, and one of the most celebrated American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. He published his first collection in his mid thirties, and the quality of his work was universally recognized. In 1955 he won the Pulitzer Prize and was offered a faculty position at Harvard University. He turned it down to remain Vice President of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

The poem below is perhaps his best known. Its subject is a dead woman being prepared for viewing. The presence of the emperor in both stanzas makes clear who he is, the sole survivor when all else is gone.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month' newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Monday, August 9, 2010

For Openers

Call me Ishmael.

It is perhaps the most recognized opening line in American literature, conjuring images of Melville’s Ahab, the whale, and the search for the unattainable.

Over the years I have focused on opening lines of all types of novels and found many surprisingly memorable, even if the stories themselves sometimes fell short of the initial promise. Here, in no particular order, are ten opening lines that stand out – the list is far from exclusive and includes one translation of a work written in a language other than English:

1. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

2. “People go to Key West for many different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.” Laurence Shames, Florida Straits.

3. “He always shot up by TV light.” James Ellroy, American Tabloid.

4. “‘I know a story,’ said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda, the Wild Queen of the Amazon.” Kevin Baker, Dreamland.

5. “When I was nine, I fell in love with a girl of twenty named Barbara, who killed herself.” Peter Lovesey, Rough Cider.

6. “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.” Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

7. “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.” Irvine Welsch, Trainspotting.

8. “All this happened, more or less.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.

9. “My desert island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth, 2. Penny Hardwick, 3. Jackie Allen, 4. Charlie Nicholson, 5. Sarah Kendrew.” Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

10. “Call me Smitty.” Philip Roth, The Great American Novel.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


He was smashed into the boards from behind. His helmet struck with an echoing thud and his body crumbled to the ice. The referee, a teen not much older than the players, blew his whistle and skated to the scene. The coaches jumped over the boards and cautiously slid to where he lay. I jumped from my seat in the stands near the blue line and hurried towards my son, looking for signs of movement.

He was never a big kid. He was born small like many twins and did not register on the growth charts until he was nearly four. He was inquisitive and active, often reminding me of the lead character in the Calvin and Hobbes comics. Unlike his father, he never seemed particularly interested in organized sports, preferring instead to play made up games with friends.

At the age of nine he discovered hockey. It happened while attending a birthday party at one of the few ice arenas in South Florida. There were two rinks, one of which hosted the party. The second rink staged a practice by one of the in-house teams. My son made his way to the second rink and watched the players engage in skating and shooting drills before playing an impromptu pick-up game. I believe it was during that game that he fell in love with the sport, relishing the speed and pageantry displayed on a stage of white.

He began skating lessons soon thereafter, and within a couple of months played his first organized game. His skating was at first choppy, but he kept at it and became one of the faster skaters in his age group. He continued to work on his stickhandling but had a habit, common to new players, of sometimes looking down at the puck and losing sight of the action around him.

On the day of the hit he was skating towards the corner of his own zone, trying to reach and clear the puck. He never saw the big kid from the opposing team come at him full speed from behind. The blow therefore caught him by surprise. He had no time to brace for the impact and flew head first into the boards.

Play came to a halt. Players on both teams skated nervously while the coaches knelt over him on the ice. I continued making my way around the rink to the spot where he lay.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but was likely no more than a few seconds, he sat up. He was helped to his feet by the coaches and skated over to his team’s bench while several of his teammates slapped him on the back. He jumped over the boards and sat on the bench next to his coach, who continued talking to him.

The big kid from the opposing team was sent to the penalty box, given two minutes for boarding. The players on the ice lined up for the faceoff. The referee skated over to the faceoff circle, holding the puck in the air for a fraction of a second as he stood between the two faceoff combatants.

The puck was dropped. The game resumed.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

Some of the worst films ever made were blessed with memorable titles. Below, in chronological order, is a list of ten such films. Though I have not seen most of the films listed, I regrettably admit that I have viewed some (I will not say which):

1. Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Director: Curt Siodmah.

Key Plot Points: (1) Plantation owner kills elderly employee, (2) marries dead employee’s beautiful wife, (3) old native witnesses murder and turns him into gorilla.

2. Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). Director: Roger Corman.

Key Plot Points: (1) Lonely Viking women search for their missing men, (2) barbarians capture Viking women, (3) enter the Sea Serpent.

3. Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Director: Bernard L. Kowalski.

Key Plot Points: (1) Local moonshine swiller sees giant creature, (2) people begin to disappear, (3) local game warden and dynamite mean the end of the leeches.

4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1962) Director: Nicholas Webster.

Key Plot Points: (1) Santa kidnapped by Martians, (2) Earth kids meet Mars kids, (3) Santa turns Mars robot into mechanical toy.

5. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964). Director: Ray Dennis Steckler.

Key plot points: (1) Jerry falls in love with stripper, (2) stripper takes Jerry to gypsy fortune teller, (3) fortune teller’s sister turns Jerry into psycho killer.

6. Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964). Director: Rene Cordona.

Key Plot Points: (1) Lolita (the Golden Ruby) and her sister battle evil Princess Fugiyata and her Asian female wrestlers, (2) Xochitl the Mummy helps the good gals, (3) Xochitil can turn into a snake or bat.

7. Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966). Director: William Beardine.

Key Plot Points: (1) Dracula goes West, (2) has Indians kill stagecoach passengers and assumes the identity of one of the dead, (3) under his new identity, arrives at town and meets the sister he has never met – and her fiancĂ©, Billy the Kid.

8. Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid (1986). Director: John Golden.

Key Plot Points: (1) Overweight patient escapes from mental institution, (2) travels to New York City, (3) hilarity ensues.

9. Surf Nazis Must Die (1987). Director: Peter George.

Key Plot Points: (1) Post-apocalyptic future, (2) neo-nazi surf punks, (3) bloodthirsty grandma.

10. Hitler Meets Christ (2007). Director: Brendan Keown.

Key Plot Points: (1) One man in a train station believes he is Hitler, (2) another believes he is Christ, (3) hilarity ensues.