Hot Air: Books (And One Or Two Other Things) Will Save Us

Tons o’folks are in the running for the title of Madame-or-Mister Bloomington. I can name at least a dozen off the top of my head. One of my faves is my pal David Brent Johnson, jazz maven over at WFIU, 103.7 FM.

He and I just exchanged book rec’s. It seems appropriate since the whole world is stuck inside trying to figure out how to pass the 103 hours of every day now. Loads of ’em are buying books. Margaret Taylor, the big boss at the Book Corner, tells me the phone is ringing off the hook with calls from people living all over the country wanting to order books. She takes the orders and ships the desired titles out in minutes. That’s cool, considering not too terribly long ago many observers were singing dirges for independent booksellers. Then, about five or so years ago, the indies became hot as Dragon’s Breath Chili Peppers. See, scads of people didn’t want to enrich the already far-too-loaded Jeff Bezos and plutocratic villains like him by ordering from big box outfits and online mega-retailers.

For more on the mini-mania for independent booksellers, check out this piece.

And if you’re curious about the Dragon’s Breath Chili Pepper, as my next door Tom is sure to be, it was developed by a hobby gardener in Wales (who’d’a thunk?) and has a Scoville Heat Unit rating of 2.48 million (that’s right, million). The damned thing is so hot it actually burns human skin. The gardener, a fellow named Mike Smith, apparently is the Dr. Frankenstein of tongue-frying inasmuch as his peppers are too hot to actually eat. They’re so hot that medical researchers are looking into using carefully — very carefully — measured quantities of their volcanic molecules as a topical anesthetic. Just the right dosage, they hope, will deaden the skin nerves for people who are allergic to conventional anesthetics.

The Hottest Pepper On Earth.

Back to DBJ and me. Both of us are voracious readers under normal circumstances — and these, of course, are not. I just got finished re-reading The Third Man, the novella by Graham Greene. And if you’ve never seen the 1949 film noir of the same name and directed by Carol Reed, friend, get on it this minute. The movie, starring Orson Wells, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and the Italian actress Alida Valli, is a masterpiece. The late film critic Roger Ebert said of it: “Of all the movies that I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”

The British Film Institute declared it the top UK film ever made in 1999.

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There are so many bits of fascinating trivia surrounding this movie. The screenplay was written by Greene himself. He actually wrote the novella as a warm-up to penning the script. He explains his thinking:

To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script…. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.

Welles whose character, the shady Harry Lime — we learn at the start of the movie — is dead perhaps murdered. In a flashback he delivers one of the most memorable lines in cinema. He and his friend, the pulp fiction author Holly Martins (played by Cotten) are on top of the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna’s historic amusement park, The Prater, looking down at all the people below. Lime regards them as ants or insignificant dots because that’s the kind of person he is. Lime and Martins descend and get off the ride. For some reason, both Reed and Greene felt something more was needed to be said, both for tempo and for closure to the scene. Welles ad libbed this:

You know what the fellow said. In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love in 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.

That line, of course, was not in the novella or the screenplay. Nor was it of Welles’ own creation. He’d simply recalled a similar line uttered by the Gilded Age painter James Whistler (whose “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” is more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”). Fellow painter Theodore Wores once said to Whistler that San Francisco surely would become one of the world’s great birthplaces of art, considering the natural beauty in and around it. Whistler would have none of it. He said:

Consider Switzerland. There the people have everything in the form of natural advantages — mountains, valleys, and blue sky. And what have they produced? The cuckoo clock.

Acc’d’g to Welles in the book This Is Orson Welles, after the movie came out he was flooded with protests by Swiss people. They told him the cuckoo clock actually was made in southwest Germany’s Black Forest.

When you watch The Third Man, you may notice the entire musical score is performed on a single instrument, the zither. The score was written by an amateur zither player named Anton Karas, an Austrian. While touring Vienna in preparation for shooting location scenes, Reed dropped in at a wine bar and heard Karas playing in a corner. Just like that, he asked Karas to score his film. Karas told Reed he didn’t even know how to write music. Reed said that didn’t matter and insisted Karas come back to England with him to write the music for his film. Karas did so under protest.

In any case, the final shot of the movie, set in a cold, lonely cemetery, ends with Valli’s character, Anna Schmidt (Lime’s girlfriend) walking briskly away from Lime’s grave as the casket is being lowered into the ground. Martins, who is attracted to her for a couple of reasons (watch the movie to find out) stands at the entrance to the cemetery, expecting her to acknowledge him. But Schmidt, staring icily ahead, ignores him and walks out as the lonely-sounding zither music (“Harry Lime’s Theme”) continues to play for a long moment. It’s one of the simultaneously sweetest and saddest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Greene’s novella, by the way, opens with this line: “One never knows when the blow may fall.” That’s as apt a line as any for the moment we live in right now.

Okay. So book rec’s. DBJ urged me to read 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan. In it, Kaplan argues America, along with much of the world, leaped into the modern age. As evidence he cites that year’s invention of the microchip; Castro’s revolutionaries seizing power in Cuba; the launches of the USSR’s Lunik 1 and the USA’s Pioneer IV (the first human-made objects to break free of the Earth’s gravity and soar into outer space); IBM’s introduction of the first practical, affordable business computer; Martin Luther King, Jr’s visit to Ghandi’s pacifist disciple, Vinoba Bhave, in India; the federal government acknowledging widespread institutionalized racism in the United States; in music, groundbreaking jazz LPs issued by Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman; in literature, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, as well as John Howard Griffin beginning to travel the south disguised as a black man for his exposé Black Like Me; in movies, the American releases of John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”; the Searle company’s application for approval of the first birth control pill; and much, much more. All of these events profoundly changed their respective fields or participants or culture and society in general. It’s a good read.

In return, I rec’d to him Erik Larson‘s new book, The Splendid and the Vile. It’s about Winston Churchill’s first year as British prime minister. The cover note explains:

On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally — and willing to fight to the end.

I understand from reading other World War II histories that Hitler was baffled that Great Britain would not come to the bargaining table despite the bombing, despite Dunkirk, and despite the fall of virtually every other domino in Western Europe. The Nazi leader didn’t really want to invade England — in fact, he rather admired both that country and the United States for their supremacist bents — but invasion seemed an inevitability after Churchill essentially hand-held the British people to resist the Germans to whatever end, bitter or not.

I just got my copy of Larson’s latest in the mail and I can’t wait to dig into it. Most people know Larson as the author of The Devil in the White City but I was particularly taken by his In the Garden of Beasts. The man is a superb historian and storyteller, so much so that many readers think his books are novels. They are not; every single one is a nonfiction history, based on contemporary accounts, archives, records, journals, other histories, and the private and published papers of each book’s characters. In fact, I’ve had several arguments with people who swear Larsen’s books are fiction. Again, they aren’t; they’re that good.

Reading’s going to get us through these homebound days. I had good preparation for this when I underwent chemoradiation therapy for cancer in 2016. To get through that ordeal, I simply refused to think about today — this moment, when I was sick to my core and unable to move from bed or couch — and thought only of a day in June, months hence, at which point I’d be able to…, well, move again. I got through it; not easily, by a long shot, but nevertheless successfully. And I feel I — we — will get through this too.

This time I have the added hope that none of us lose even one friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. That’s why I’ve been signing off my emails of late with this entreaty:

Please don’t get sick and die.

That’s all I ask right now.

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