Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Word of the Day: Paraffin Test

context: It’s 1968, Mexico City. The university students, like university students all over the world during this year, are demanding greater freedom and respect. The repressive national government, naturally, would prefer not to, and have been sending out paramilitary riot police to beat, arrest, and even shoot young people, usually at night when the biggest crowds have dispersed.

President Diaz Ordaz, in a speech from the city of Guadalajara, tendered his famous “outstretched hand” to the students in exchange for their submission. An outstretched hand — if you apologize.

The imaginative riposte appeared the next day on thousands of handbills and flyposters: A la mano tendida, la prueba de la parafina (Give the outstretched hand the paraffin test).

definition (courtesy the Oxford English Dictionary online):
[probably after American Spanish; use of the test in Mexico City is reported from 1931] a forensic test to indicate whether a person has recently fired a gun, in which the person's hand is coated in hot paraffin wax which cools and sets and is peeled off and tested for the presence of residue from the gun.

source: ’68 a memoir by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

An Almost Perfect Person

from the book log (2/12/89):

An Almost Perfect Person
Judith Ross. 1978. a play

I read this in searching for a dialogue to perform in Reader’s Theatre. I read snatches of it in the JC library before checking it out and it sounded promising. And it is amusing. There wasn’t a dialogue of the type I was looking for. A woman runs for a New York City congressional seat. She loses. This play documents her sexual liaison with her former campaign manager & her dead husband’s best friend. It’s quite tame and rather sit-com-y. A pleasant if untaxing play. It’s dated a little. Some good lines.

One thing that annoyed me about the JC library: before putting hardcovers on the shelf, they discarded the dustjackets. I like to include in these posts the cover image of the edition I read. In the case of hardcovers that I checked out from the JC library (and, later, the UC Berkeley library, which has the same practice), there was no cover image. Was the reason budgetary? The public library saves the dustjacket, wrapping it in mylar. Public libraries are that much richer than academic? It seems to me of educational value to retain the dustjacket. At the very least dustjackets record design history. They often also have author photos and selected critical notices which disappear when the dustjacket is removed. Blurbs give a book context. If you’re researching an author’s influences and connections I could see how looking over the blurbs given their book by more famous authors would help. Since the copy of An Almost Perfect Person that I read was owned by the JC I probably didn’t get to consider the cover image. Published plays often feature a photo of the original cast, plus costume and set. Losing that is unfortunate. I found a snapshot of the original hardcover posted at Amazon by reviewer Kim Hill. How a 70s woman politician dressed!

Monday, March 02, 2015

Torch Song Trilogy, the movie

from the book log (2/12/89):

Torch Song Trilogy
written by & starring Harvey Fierstein, based on his play(s)
1988. a movie I saw in the theater

Saw this a couple days ago. Films about gay people, even with their faults, seem to me more real than the usual hetero fare. But Torch Song Trilogy is good anyway (should I say, besides). Fierstein plays Arnold Becker, a female impersonator (his profession), who isn’t particularly effeminate when not performing. The story charts his life from when he meets and falls in love with a bisexual man. The relationship is too secretive for Arnold’s tastes. Eventually the affair ends & Arnold is pursued by a lovely young man who wants a longterm lover. This young man (David?), played by Matt Broderick is killed by gaybashers in NYC.

About a third the way through the film I noticed that it was slightly out of focus. While this has happened to other movies I’ve seen at UAs I couldn’t help wondering if it was subtle sabotage by the projectionist. I dint go out & complain as I didn’t wish to miss any of the film. If I see the film again tho’ I shan’t hesitate.

Torch Song Trilogy did not ultimately have a depressing ending, but it did leave me sad the rest of the day.

I read the play (or, rather, trio of plays) a year previous. I wrote about that 8 years ago on DIR. Sort of. Actually, mostly not. My entire review of the book version, as noted in my diary: “Quite good.” Faced with that paucity of comment, I spent more time in the 2007 DIR post talking about how out of focus the screening of the movie version was. We like our clear lines.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Go-Betweens. Tallulah

from the book log (2/12/89):

The Go-Betweens. Tallulah
1987. a record album

Very listenable. Fav. song: “Right Here.” I’ve heard it before, prob’ on LIVE 105. Have played it several times for dancing. The rest of the album is quite pleasant to have going on while I go about other things.


The sophistication of my music criticism seldom improves much on the old American Bandstand rate-a-record review: “It has a nice beat. You can dance to it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Order. Power, Corruption & Lies

from the book log (2/8/89):

New Order. Power, Corruption & Lies
1983. a record album

My fav. song is “Your Silent Face”, a mellowish, danceish, Kraftwerkish creation that sounds almost new age but is more fun. Definitely the high point of the album. The rest is okay tho’ little really stands out.


The record did not come with “Blue Monday,” which I otherwise would have called its high point. You could only get “Blue Monday” as a single at first. It was added to Power, Corruption & Lies when the album was released on CD.

I played “Blue Monday” on my radio show at London’s Imperial College. I have the cassette tape to prove it. Somewhere. Maybe.

Power, Corruption & Lies grew on me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Go-Betweens. 16 Lovers Lane

from the book log (2/8/89):

The Go-Betweens. 16 Lovers Lane.
1988. a record album

I really like The Go-Betweens. I first heard “Streets of Your Town” on SF’s LIVE 105.3. A station which no longer seems to come in, drat it. & I bought “Was There Anything I Could Do?” [as a 7” single] on my London trip. Those two songs are definitely big highlights of the album. I like “I’m All Right” quite as much. All these songs are on side 2. I’m not as impressed with side one but it’s certainly quite listenable. The Go-Betweens strum what the Brit press would probably call “jangly” guitars, but the music is generally friendly sounding, folky, with a beat that lets me dance.

When I started watching the “Streets of Your Town” video on youtube, it looked unfamiliar. Huh. You never know what you’re going to see for the first time that you didn’t think to think about seeing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang

from the book log (2/8/89):

The Monkey Wrench Gang
Edward Abbey.
1975 & 1985

George Hayduke, Bonnie Abbzug (no relation to the Senator [that is, U.S. Representative for New York’s 20th district, Bella Abzug]), Seldom Seen Smith (a jackMormon), and Doc Sarvis become eco-raiders. The term today might be eco-terrorists. They meet on a rafting trip down the Colorado which is led by Seldom. And they decide to do their best to rid the West of its cancer. Their ultimate goal is blowing out the Glen Canyon Dam. They don’t get to it during the course of the book, but you never know.

In the meantime they wreck a few billboards and a lot of earthmoving equipment, one and a half bridges. Abbey’s prose is sometimes verbose. On the first page — in one paragraph — I encountered 3 words with which I was unfamiliar: acedia, schmierkunst, and monovalent. He dint do much else of that — or I didn’t notice. But the adventure rollicks along pretty well once it gets going. Bonnie was rather two-dimensional, I thought. The tryst between her and Hayduke was predictable and briefly yucky. But the chases are great fun and I really liked the characters.

When I put up a DIR post I try to find the cover image of the edition that I read. In the case of The Monkey Wrench Gang there are several editions. I know I didn’t read one with an R. Crumb cover. If a cover depicts an incident or character from the novel I will incorporate the cover’s version into my reading. This may mean I will disagree with it. “That does not accurately portray that scene!” I remember not really having anything to go on with the cover in this case. I’m not absolutely certain the cover image included in this post is the cover of the edition I read but it matches my memory of an image that contributed nothing to my reading.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

positive notices

from the diary (Wednesday 2/8/89):

I was a big success in Reader’s Theatre today. We did solo monologues (isn’t that a little redundant?) I did a monologue from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Bruce (the one in the play who’s supposed to be devastatingly handsome) is telling Ned that his lover has died of AIDS.

I got very positive comments from Susan Stathus (our teacher): “You have excellent timing.”

Somebody else: “He’s not afraid of silence.”

“I almost cried.”

“I got so into it I nearly forgot I was watching a monologue.”

I wrote about finding this monologue in an earlier post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We Are Your Sons: the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

from the book log (1/26/89):

We Are Your Sons: the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
written by the children, Robert & Michael Meeropol
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975

Begins with an engrossing selections of letters by Ethel and Julius to their sons, to one another, to Emanuel Bloch, their lawyer, and to the public, most of which were written while the two were incarcerated at the Death House in Sing Sing. Michael Meeropol provides connecting narrative, filling in some of his memories of family life before the notorious spy trial and after. How he and his younger brother (by 4 years) Robert lived for a time with their maternal grandmother. This woman sided with her son David Greenglass, against her daughter and son-in-law and told her daughter as the date of the execution moved nearer: “I mean even if it was a lie, all right, so it was a lie, you should have said it [David Greenglass’ testimony] was true anyway! You think that way you would have been sent here [the Death House]? No, if you had agreed that what Davy said was so, even if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have got this!” Ethel quotes her mother in a letter dated Jan 21, 1953.

Michael and Robert were placed in a Jewish children’s house which Michael remembers as mostly torment. He was seven, Robert three, at the time of their parents’ arrest. From there they went to live with their paternal grandmother, then to a young couple. After the execution of their parents they were adopted by Anne & Abel Meeropol, although at the death of Manny Block they were nearly taken permanently from this new family via legal maneuvering by New York officials.

An interesting and fast-reading book. It gives few details of the trial or the adult Rosenbergs other than those remembered by Michael and, of course, the words of the Rosenbergs themselves in their letters. …

Robert recounts the brothers’ adulthood experiences. Each became involved in the youth movements and New Left of the Sixties, although in somewhat different ways.

Finally the book ends with Michael’s political analysis of the events leading up to and the reasons behind the prosecution (persecution?) of his parents.

I think this is a valuable book. I have a couple other books waiting that delve into the case itself, but this is a rare memoir — the testimony of two innocent victims of the Cold War. And the Death Penalty. Hm. Four innocent victims? I was thinking of Robert and Michael, yet Ethel & Julius went to their deaths proclaiming their absolute innocence.

For my Reader’s Theater class I performed the letter from Ethel Rosenberg which I excerpt above.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by the US government in 1953 for providing the Soviets information on creating atomic bombs. Did they do what they were convicted of? If they did spy for the Soviets, was executing them appropriate?

I remember my mother being uncomfortable when she saw me reading this book. I don’t think we figured out how to discuss it. The Rosenbergs were her contemporaries, only 3 to 6 years older, and I’m sure she had opinions about them at the time.

We Are Your Sons was the first work of any substance that I read on the case. Robert and Michael are convinced of their parents’ innocence. It was easy to take their side. How could you not feel for someone whose parents were killed, even if by the state for supposedly just reasons?

My mother was a proponent of the death penalty. As a kid it made sense to me; doesn’t a murderer forfeit his right to life? Gradually my sympathies shifted. The criminal justice system is fallible. Some laws are plainly unjust. I decided it was better not to give the government permission to kill people. Better to err on the side of mercy and put the priority on addressing the social causes for crime than go along with the mistakes that will take the lives of innocents. My mother may have come around. I don’t remember exactly, but I did talk her into changing her mind on some things.

What made me pick up the book in the library? Part of it would have been its uniqueness. Name another memoir written by the child of an executed spy. Part of it would have been a couple novels, which I had either read recently or considered reading at about that time. E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel was based on the Meeropol boys and was made into a movie in 1983, the title shortened simply to Daniel. I hadn’t seen it but I certainly heard about it. I read The Book of Daniel at some point. Probably before reading We Are Your Sons, but I don’t remember how the reading of either book informed the other. The second novel would be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which doesn’t spend much time on the Rosenbergs but has that striking first line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs …”

Monday, February 23, 2015

“Unlock Your Heart” by Kenyth Mogan

The sweet crackle of cellophane opens to rainbow candy.

Mostly what pop culture knows of The Wizard of Oz is the MGM movie, and that’s certainly the case here. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t fresh things you can do with familiar elements.

Found this one at Towleroad.

Kenyth Mogan has a Facebook page.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fanny and Alexander

from the book log (1/25/89):

Fanny and Alexander.
A film by Ingmar Bergman. 1983. 3 hours 10 min. Watched on TV.

Emilie loses her husband (heart attack?), marries The Bishop who is an ogre and treats her children, Fanny and Alexander, terribly. Emilie finally flees him back to her dead husband’s family.

That’s the extremely condensed version. Quite strange and hypnotic at places, especially when Alexander wanders through Uncle Isak’s house and meets Ishmael. Fanny’s place in the title is her biggest role, tho’ she’s a cute little dickens. Dickens … the story rather reminded me of Dickens. Ghosts and evil grown-ups and big family gatherings. I loved the grandmother and Uncle Isak, just like I was supposed to.

Ingmar Bergman is a giant of world cinema. So by now I should have seen more than one of his films, right? If only for my cinematic literacy. Somehow I’ve never gotten around to it.

I remember watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert review Fanny and Alexander on their TV show; what was their show called by that time? At the MoviesSiskel & Ebert & the Movies … ? They loved Fanny and Alexander. Loved it! For some reason a clip they showed of the family playing at a party, especially a man chasing a woman around the dinner table, flickers in my memory. I can’t dredge up anything else. Still, I do remember enjoying the movie, and that it held up throughout its 3+ hours. I can even feel a twinge of anger at the cruelty of the stepfather, though perhaps that’s more from reading an overview of the plot than anything else.

The Criterion Collection makes available the 5 hour version that showed on Swedish television, for those who want to see Bergman’s “vision … expressed at its fullest.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

a cold wind off the ocean

from the diary (Tuesday, 1/24/89):

”What are you thinking?” said Glenn to Garin.

“I was just thinking I’d like to take time off from work and go up to the snow.”

“Do you ski?”

“No. Everyone I know who’s gone skiing has broken something. I used to love to sled.”

“What else are you thinking?”

“It’s blank. I’m not thinking anything.”

“The wind blows right through, hm?”

“What are you thinking about?”

I said: “You.”

Garin and I went to the beach today — Salmon Creek. Mom says they are going to be closing [the] old favorite parking lot but they haven’t yet. The weather was gorgeous. No fog. We got there early — elevenish and the beach was actually warm for a couple hours. A brisk wind from the ocean became quite chill on the way back to the car but the sun was still comfortable. …

Garin claims he was badly hurt during the affair with David W. … These people who say they are so hurt by a previous relationship that they … [w]on’t … jump into anything — … seem to jump [pretty fast] when they find Mr. Beautiful.

As I remember it, the wind off the ocean was so sharp and cold that it drilled into my ear and brought on a headache, which eventually turned into a migraine, probably one of my more memorable if only for the poetry of it. Garin and I did not go out on another date.

Friday, February 20, 2015


from the book log (1/20/89):

This is a monster movie. A fairly well-made old fashioned monster movie mercifully shorn of gobbledygook.

You have the minimal characterization — stock characters — the horror of justice and injustice, the teenagers, the ugly monster. You see, this group of youngsters goes to country to ride their motorbikes — a little boy gets run over by one. The daddy gets very pissed and asks the wicked old witch of the forest to sic Pumpkinhead on the bad old kids. Pumpkinhead does a pretty good job but every time he kills Daddy goes all funny inside. Daddy decides he’s done bad, rushes to save remaining kids. As a change of pace I thought Pumpkinhead might kill the “good girl,” the good girl has been surviving too many of these [horror] movies. Let’s have a slut come out on top.

Pumpkinhead had decent special effects, enough corniness to make you feel good & a few scary parts — generally above average for the genre. Unfortunately, I should prob’ly say, it is likely well above average.

Maybe give it a B+. Your basic scary fairytale ghost story.

I met my brother in Santa Rosa to see Pumpkinhead. David was riding his motorcycle, wearing the Christmas present Mom gave him, a helmet! We both enjoy a good monster movie. I no longer say I like horror movies. The genre got hijacked by the serial killer. In a monster movie the monster is out of this world, supernatural or extraterrestrial, and the humans unite against it. In serial killer movies the monster is too human. That’s no fun.

There’s a character in the Oz series named Jack Pumpkinhead. Jack is a somewhat flimsily constructed wooden man with a carved pumpkin for a head. Though Jack’s character is sweet and innocent, he is tall and that jaggedly carved grin is a little scary. I was hoping the monster in the movie would be a little bit inspired by Jack Pumpkinhead. Sadly (or fortunately) I must say there is no resemblance.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Handful of Dust

from the book log (1/18/89):

A Handful of Dust
Evelyn Waugh. 1934

This is the first novel I’ve read by Mr. E. Waugh. The movie version was playing in London while I was there, but I dint see it. The book is a new paperback edition with a promo photo of the three actors who portray the main characters. One, the one (I suspect) who plays Tony, was Maurice in the movie Maurice (or he looks like the same guy) [James Wilby]. The one who must be John Beaver [Rupert Graves] is very sexy in a white and black sort of way.

I enjoyed the book although the ending is quite dastardly. It’s a Very English novel. Upper crust sorts going to parties, saying clever and witty things, emoting in the most subdued ways. Tony & Brenda Last seem to be enjoying a harmonious and loving marriage, but then Brenda unaccountably falls for the unlikable John Beaver who (unlike Tony) has no money and is described by one character as “London’s only spare man” as he is often invited to parties merely because a previous invitee couldn’t come. Brenda leaves the Last estate for an apartment in London where she carries on with John (unbeknownst to Tony). Tony & Brenda have a son also named John who is killed about this time in a riding accident. (The two children in the novel, John and Winnie, the child of a prostitute, are quite unpleasant creatures.) The death precipitates divorce, which Tony ultimately decides not to go through with. In a bizarre turn Tony decides to accompany a boisterous explorer to the wilds of Brazil to find a lost city. Where this came from I don’t know — it’s quite unexpected. They never find the city, by the way, and John Beaver, the opportunist, doesn’t do well by Brenda and, except for some people we don’t know, there isn’t really a happy ending. Very odd. Lots of eccentric folk populate the scenes and every happening is recounted in the same wry, dry tones. The narration is not at all intrusive. I liked the feel of the style, the words.

I have not read any more Evelyn Waugh, not even Brideshead Revisited, which I keep thinking I should read. I know I have a copy around here somewhere. Probably a move tie-in paperback.