Kook – Review

Peter Heller. Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.

Kook is memoir covering approximately two years of a man’s midlife crisis. But please, do not be turned off. Our 45-year-old author, a nature and adventure writer and resident of Colorado (not exactly known for its oceans), decides to join a friend and embark on a new adventure, learning to surf. Like so many other esoteric skills, the younger the person who learns to surf is, the better he or she will be at it. Forty-five is late to learn such a skill. Oh, it has been done—Heller describes a sixty-year-old taking his first lessons—but the abilities will be limited. Such a person will always be a kook, a rank beginner.

Parts of Kook are fun to read. We are introduced to many interesting characters along the Pacific coasts of California and Mexico. Many of these people are known to surfers but to few others outside the sport. The focus of the narrative, though, is on the progress Mr. Heller makes.

Heller naïvely believes at first that the surfing community is characterized by the aloha spirit—the welcoming spirit of love and friendship. After all, surfing originated in easygoing tropical paradises like Tahiti and Hawaii. He learns differently.

A kook is a beginning surfer, and the word is not a compliment. Heller and his buddy endure a lot of scorn though he is able to find various teachers and mentors along the way who do help him develop his surfing technique. By the end of the book, after about two years by my calculation, he can navigate about half of the famous Mexican Pipeline. No, he is no pro, but he is no longer a kook, either.

Much of Kook reminds me of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (which is still my favorite Twain book). Heller becomes more and more aware of the world around him, especially the ocean shores. Just as apprentice riverboat pilot Twain was relentlessly quizzed by his trainers to understand the environment and its significance for navigating, so the strongest parts of Kook are those where Heller is being quizzed or quizzing himself about what is going on in the sea around him.

For Heller, it is not just about the sea as it relates to surfing. He notes the wildlife, the decline of the health of the sea, and once even a grim grey tide. He takes a break in his surfing travels at one point to help an activist acquaintance of his film the deliberate slaughter of hundreds of porpoises and whales trapped by nets in a Japanese bay. (See the film, The Cove.)

As he says:

I began to see the surf trip more about loving the ocean than anything else. It was a way to know her better. It certainly wasn’t Endless Summer. [N.B. One of the greatest documentaries ever filmed.] One couldn’t do that any more, the sheer lark, not in 2008. The joy and the rush were still all there, surfing was still surfing, but one couldn’t do it without a simultaneous commitment to taking some responsibility. (192)

The second half of Kook reminds the reader of Kerouac’s On the Road. Much of that part focuses on two surfing trips that Heller takes into Mexico, first on the Baja California Peninsula, the second on the main Pacific coast south of Oaxaca. Now Heller admits that he is addicted to surfing, not drugs or alcohol, so his experiences are different from those of Sal Paradise, but he encounters some of the same kinds of people and night birds. The countryside is similar, if not identical. One part of the coastline is more protected and less developed because the local drug cartel has decided to keep it that way.

Heller’s buddy stays with him for a while, but his girlfriend sticks with him even when he goes to Mexico. Heller begins to admire how she puts up with his adventures.

Ultimately, the book that Kook reminded me most of was not a memoir at all (whether nonfiction like Twain or fictionalized like Kerouac). It brought to mind a famous sociological study. I complained in a recent review about foul language making characters unsympathetic. Kook starts that way, but as the story progresses, it seems as though Heller’s language mellows out except when quoting others.

What makes Heller’s adventure remarkable and distinctly different from either Twain’s or Kerouac’s is that his girlfriend comes with him. She learns to surf but does not get into it the way Heller does. About halfway through the book, they marry. And Heller, unlike Dean Moriarty, begins to change. Yes, his language changes, but it is more than that. As the subtitle suggests, his outlook on love and life changes, too.

His bride Kim comes to mean more to him than even surfing. He admits that he has been a jerk most of his life. Marriage civilizes him. The story is not so much that he becomes a strong surfer, but that he becomes a responsible adult man. Heller’s memoir is living proof that George Gilder’s thesis in his book Men and Marriage is on solid ground. Mr. Heller, may God grant you and your loving, patient wife many happy years.

Cardboard Gods – Review

Josh Wilker. Cardboard Gods: An American Tale. Chapel Hill NC; Algonquin books, 2010. Print.

About halfway through Cardboard Gods, I wondered about the subtitle, An American Tale. Josh Wilker’s memoir did not on the surface seem terribly American. For years of his childhood, his family consisted of his older brother Ian, his father, his mother, and his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, his father moved out. It sounded more like A Swedish Tale. We are told that in Sweden only a small percentage of parents bother to get married, even if they are living together.

There is an ache through the story. At times it is maudlin or bathetic. Josh Wilker is looking for something to soothe “that ache in my chest.” (240) He idolizes his older brother, and he continues to do so even when it is clear his brother is making some really bad decisions. He follows in the footsteps of his mother and her friends by trying various chemical stimulations and trying, always without success, to learn from nature.

The single concrete continuity in his life is provided by his baseball cards which he collected from 1975 through 1980. He is fascinated by the players—all of them, from hall of famers to some who only played a handful of games in the major leagues. Yes, that is distinctly American. It is ultimately an American tale, during a time that America was developing an ache in its collective heart. As the author shares the baseball-life stories printed on the back of the cards, he interweaves a memoir.

The memoir would have been pathetic, possibly even repulsive, like one of the author’s “night horrors,” had it not been for the baseball cards. He describes the cards by picking out one or two significant details, and then tries to measure the lives of the players by them. At the same time, he is struggling to add some measure or meaning to his own life.

Many of the cards in Cardboard Gods depict men who would only be recognized by card collectors. Was there really a baseball player with the name Carmen Fanzone? Isn’t that the name of a sports web site now? But even those players take on significance.

He calls the cards and the players on them his cardboard gods, not because he idolizes them (although he does come close to idolizing Carl Yastrzemski). No, the cards bring him closer to his older brother, and they provide some kind of focus and source of knowledge in his unfocused, experimental childhood.

Some of his descriptions are beautiful. He finds meaning in some of the most obscure players. And he is a gem with the good ones. His description of pitcher Dock Ellis’s no-hitter—probably the ugliest no-hitter ever pitched—is delightful. (Eight walks, one hit batsman, but no hits). This is really a collection of essays that piece together the author’s life. It is an original approach to say the least.

He identifies with Kent Tekulve—the heroic relief pitcher loner of the champion Pirates’ “We are Family.” He cannot forgive Bill Buckner, and, like this reviewer has great respect for Dwight Evans and Jim Rice as ballplayers and men of character. His description of the 1976 Johnny Bench card makes us see that at rare times the picture on the baseball card is a work of art. As an aid, and perhaps a nostalgic treat for some, each essay is introduced by a picture of the card that the author is meditating on.

The memoir can be annoying or painful at times. As teens say today, there is TMI—too much information. Portnoy’s Complaint is notorious and descriptive, but it not one of Philip Roth’s best works. However, the meditations on the continuity of baseball and life provide substance to the memoirs.

True, ballplayers, like all mortals, are merely cardboard. “We strut and fret our hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.” Our life is transient. We contribute annual statistics for a few years and then pass on. Cardboard Gods is a reminder of what both Augustine and Pascal observed—that ache in the heart is an emptiness that everyone experiences. King Solomon noted that God has put eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) And only the Eternal One can fill that space.

  • N.B.: If books were rated like films, this would be at least an R for strong language, adult situations, and drug use. It seems too bad, especially the language. Now, I am no prude. I was a sailor. I have worked with people coming off the streets. However, in most cases even realistic writing uses strong language for a purpose. For example, the great novel To Kill a Mockingbird uses some offensive language. But most of that language is spoken by offensive people. I wonder if Wilker had toned down his own language a little more in the memoir, that the reader might have found him more sympathetic.

The Making of The Godfather – Review

Mario Puzo. “The Making of The Godfather.” 1972. Ed Falco. The Family Corleone. New York: Hachette, 2013. Print.

This fifty-page essay, with an introduction by author Ed Falco, is an appendix to Falco’s The Family Corleone. It was written by Mario Puzo after the success of The Godfather novel and after the film was produced but before it was released. Puzo writes that he was satisfied with the film but had no idea how it would be received. Now we can say that it was received pretty well to say the least.

Anyone interested in writing, producing, or acting ought to read this. Puzo shares his own struggles as a writer. He had been writing for about twenty years, mostly freelance articles because back then magazines and newspapers still paid something. He had had two books published. He got mostly good reviews, he says, but made very little on them. They did sell well later, after the success of The Godfather. That tells us that good reviews are worth something, but word of mouth and name recognition make the best salesmen.

Of course, word of mouth often means “rumor.” I can recall that when The Godfather novel became popular, rumors swarmed around it. Some even claimed it was more authentic than The Valachi Papers, which was an autobiography of an actual mobster. Yet Puzo confesses, “I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research.” (553)

He says that he was familiar with “the gambling world” but not much else. He was happy to say that when he was introduced to actual mobsters, “They refused to believe that I had never been in the rackets…But all of them loved the book.” (553) That has to be taken as a compliment. It reminded me of stories of Civil War veterans who said that The Red Badge of Courage was the most realistic book of any work written about that war, even autobiographies, though its author Stephen Crane was not born until after the war was over. Both Crane and Puzo had had serious writing experience before their masterpieces, and both knew how to do research.

One other rumor I recall floating around the novel was that the singer Johnny Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra. According to some sources, Sinatra’s first wife Nancy had a gangster cousin who got him out of a recording contract by threating his band leader. Puzo tells something similar, though more dramatic, about Johnny Fontane (horse head anyone?).

Puzo notes that Sinatra was really ticked off about that character. Puzo pleads that Fontane was a minor character—true enough—and that he had no one particular in mind. After all, there was a large number of Italian crooners popular in the forties and fifties besides Sinatra. Martin, Damone, Martino, Como, Dion, Lanza, Pinza, Darin are ones I can think of off the top of my head. There were hundreds. Sinatra was probably the best, and Johnny Fontane was no Sinatra in The Godfather stories. In the essay Puzo shares his personal encounters with Sinatra. They are amusing, and Puzo is able to relate them in a good-natured manner.

Puzo is clear about what a racket both publishing and film production are. It is clear that he got taken advantage of. One example, he said that the publisher of his second novel boasted in advertising that it had sold two million copies. He said that he was paid in royalties about thirty percent of that. And he mentions the well-known fact that film studio auditors are famous for massaging figures so that anyone getting a percentage—be they actor, writer, director—seldom gets anything. Still, he says, “…no one blames any businessman who hustles.” (564) Very charitable.

He notes especially how difficult it is for actors to get any kind of break. Most never get picked from auditions. Most who are picked, are cast in films or television shows that never get produced. Most films that are produced are unknown to most people. Even the few actors that succeed “are badly exploited by their producers, studios, and agents and assorted hustlers.” (568)

He tells of meeting an aspiring teen actress whose last name was Puzo. After some phone calls back home, he determined that they were not related. Still, she told people she was his niece. He did not mind. He wrote that her only mistake was saying that she was his niece. She should have said she was Coppola’s or Brando’s niece.

Puzo is grateful that compared to many writers, he did retain some control over the script. Still, he believes Hollywood’s biggest mistake is that they do not respect writers enough, nor do they hire the best writers.

Most movies are lousy, and they are lousy because the people who have final say really do not know how story and character work. Hollywood still hasn’t caught on that it’s money in the bank to promote a writer to a status equal to producer, director, and (dare I say it) studio chief. (549)

I recently read a review of a film that noted the film had five writers but apparently none of them communicated with any of the others. The review was not a positive one. Mr. Puzo, I am sorry to say that things have not changed. I could share some more personal knowledge, but I am reluctant to, other than to say that, if anything, things are worse.

There is a lot of good humor in the essay. A group calling itself the Italian American League objected to the characterization of Italians as leaders of organized crime. Coppola, the director, met with them and agreed to remove all mention of the Mafia in the final cut of the film. Puzo notes that nowhere in the script was the Mafia even mentioned.

Puzo admires the different specialists that filmmaking requires. He admits that writing the film is just one part. He says that if he had been directing the movie, he would have wrecked it. “Directing a movie is an art or a craft. Acting is an art or a craft…And though it is easy to make fun of studio brass, those who study miles and miles of film, year after year, have to know something.” (587)

I recommend this essay today, not only for fans of The Godfather stories, but also for anyone thinking of writing for publication or going into the entertainment industry. Sure, some things have changed. The Internet did not exist in 1972. Nowadays there are fewer markets for short stories and virtually none for poems. But Puzo’s realistic perspective can be both sobering and encouraging. I cannot say whether it would have changed anything, but for someone who has written a lot but only really ever got any pay for a couple of computer programs, I wish I had read this essay thirty-odd years ago myself.

  • Note: “The Making of the Godfather” originally appeared in a collection of essays by Puzo entitled The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions. Besides as an appendix to the Falco novel, it is available as a standalone e-book at a minimum price from Amazon.

The Family Corleone – Review

Ed Falco. The Family Corleone. New York: Hachette, 2013. Print.

Here is my excuse. I had a long layover in an airport on my way to vacation. Between the flight ahead and the downtime on vacation, I figured I should get something enjoyable to read at the airport bookstore. And I am a fan of Mario Puzo. He was a skilled writer. Both his Godfather novel and screenplays are done well and good stories to boot.

The Family Corleone is an authorized “prequel” to The Godfather. I have read some other works authorized by estates of famous authors. Some of the post-Fleming James Bond books are OK. But I knew I could be taking a chance. There are two estate-authorized novels to go along with Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is so ridiculously unbelievable—Scarlett O’Hara after the war goes to Ireland to buy horses and become head of the O’Hara clan, really?—that I am sure Margaret Mitchell would have sued. However, Rhett Butler’s People is a lot of fun and takes few liberties with Mitchell’s prototype. So which would The Family Corleone be? A Scarlett? or a Rhett Butler’s People?

The Family Corleone is a well told story. It is mostly set in 1933 and early 1934 in New York. It tells how Don Vito Corleone became the capo di tutti capi, the chief of all chiefs, of the New York crime syndicate. Some readers may recall the flashbacks in The Godfather II film. Puzo had a hand in those, but the flashbacks are mostly about how Vito Corleone got his start in crime and began his own gang. By 1933 his gang and several others are well established. But Corleone sees the handwriting on the wall. He knows his gang has to branch out because Prohibition is coming to an end.

Even though the overall story is about Corleone’s rise to prominence, the story focuses on two other characters: Luca Brasi, Vito Corleone’s ruthless enforcer, and Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the Don’s oldest son and presumptive heir to the family business. At the beginning of the story, Sonny is turning eighteen and already an aspiring hoodlum. His siblings Michael, Fredo, and Connie are thirteen, nine, and six, and while they figure in the story a little, they are too young to be involved in the father’s business yet.

The first half of the novel tells us about how Luca Brasi became the way he was. There are many hints about him dropped in the original Godfather novel, that The Family Corleone explains or embellishes. We learn that Brasi’s father was an abusive alcoholic. He killed his father in self-defense and then killed his mother’s boyfriend to make it look like an accident. He was only twelve at the time. After that he just did not care. As we witness how Vito Corleone treats him with respect instead of contempt, Brasi becomes undyingly loyal to him. It is quite a tale that I believe Puzo would be happy with since it is largely based on Brasi’s backstory as alluded to in The Godfather.

Most people in The Family Corleone hate Luca Brasi. About half a dozen gang leaders and hit men want him dead. Even by gangland standards, he is repulsive and immoral. It appears as though his death is inevitable, as when Davy Crockett and the others cross the line in the sand at the Alamo. Yet many readers know that Luca Brasi is an important figure in The Godfather. (An oft-quoted line from the film is “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”) We know he survives. We want to see how he does it. We half believe him when he smiles “crookedly” and says, “I made—a deal with the devil.” Of course, perhaps Don Vito is that devil.

The story of Sonny in The Family Corleone is also effective. There is a reason Puzo nicknamed him Sonny: Even as a man and as the heir presumptive to the Corleone dynasty, he is immature. He is immature in his looks, his womanizing, his temper, and his lack of common sense. He does say one clever thing—clearly anticipating one of his father’s most famous lines in The Godfather. When he is explaining his job in olive oil sales to his fiancée Sandra, she asks him how he can get so many grocers to sell only his Genco brand of olive oil. He tells her, “I make them offers any reasonable man would accept.” (374)

We quickly learn that since Sonny was a boy he has known what kind of business his father is in. This knowledge brings him pride rather than shame. He wants to be like his Pop. We also find out the curious circumstances surrounding Vito Corleone’s “adoption” of Tom Hagen who is orphaned at an early age, attends the NYU Law School, and eventually becomes the Corleone consigliere in The Godfather. Yes, Tom and Sonny were friends, but there is a lot more.

Sonny wants to do things to make his father proud. So he starts his own little gang of Italian and Irish guys, plus one Greek, from his neighborhood. They make their illegal gains by robbing an Italian rumrunner’s liquor and selling it to another Italian gangster. Sonny is proud of what he is doing because no one knows who is doing it. His buyer is not talking because he thinks Don Vito is behind it.

Sonny’s actions do get his father’s attention, but not in the way he had hoped. His father wants all the gangs at peace, respecting each other, and not getting in each other’s way. Vito Corleone has to move in and straighten everything out, but the strongest mob boss at the time, Don Mariposa, does not trust him. That is partly Sonny’s fault because Sonny was robbing Don Mariposa’s booze shipments.

There is a lot of detail that makes for a fascinating story, but we begin to see that in spite of his enthusiasm for the rackets, Sonny is not going to get it. Even his father tells him that in the mob he is just a bambino, a baby, and that he has to learn the business from him and from men like Pete Clemenza (probably the most sympathetic mobster in the book and film: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”) But Sonny keeps shooting his mouth off, and there is a sense that he is doomed.

We see Sonny “earn his bones,” that is, kill his first person, a requirement for any mobster to get respect. (I believe it was The Valachi Papers where Joe Valachi recalls that everyone, male and female, treated him with much more courtesy and even admiration after he made his first hit.) Yet even this is low. Sonny does not botch it, but he never should have done it. There was no justice, even in the gangland sense of righteous vendetta. I can say little more without giving too much away, but Sonny again lives up to his nickname.

Sonny’s first hit is such a contrast to the well-known first hit of his war hero brother Michael when Michael makes the fateful decision to join the family business because he believes he has to. Michael’s hit was not only clever (the pistol hidden in the bathroom), but there was a sense that justice was being served.

Even in The Family Corleone there is a sense that Michael is the future of the family. He is a good student, though still naïve about the family business, and he is really interested in government. Vito gets a city councilman, a friend of his, to give Michael a tour of the city hall for a school report he is doing. Later his father gets him an autograph from the mayor. Michael is thinking that he might like to be a city councilman or maybe even a congressman when he grows up. He is the smart one. He is the one who will get it. He is the one who is going to get respect. He will learn—whether from the teachers at school or from his father.

As I was reading about young Michael’s political ambitions, I also thought of the novel The Godfather’s Revenge (or perhaps even The Last Don). Those novels are set in the fifties and sixties mostly in Las Vegas and Hollywood. As Vito Corleone in the thirties wants his children to go into legitimate businesses, those two books suggest that a lot of the traditional businesses themselves, especially gambling casinos and entertainment, have gone legitimate, and the authorities largely wink at the high end drug trade. That is why in the one book the protagonist is called the last don.

Both “sequel” novels have a few things to note about the Kennedy family. There is a brief scene in one of The Godfather II flashbacks where Vito Corleone runs into to Irish bootleggers who work from Joe Kennedy. Since they have different sources and clientele, they do not compete and there is no conflict. The sequels build on that.

Part of the thesis of both books (one by Puzo, one by someone else) is that Joe Kennedy got what Vito Corleone wanted. Both men had many connections to government and legitimate businessmen. In The Family Corleone, Clemenza is reluctant to give a state senator the bribe he demands, but Vito tells him the price is worth it. After Prohibition, Kennedy’s business largely was legitimate. And Kennedy’s sons became what Corleone hoped his sons would become.

There are some parallels between Michael Corleone and John Kennedy. They are smart. Kennedy did become a congressman, the job Michael thought he would like. JFK did pretty much go legitimate—hints of underworld connections, while undeniable, are still vague. He went to the best schools (Harvard compared to Michael’s Dartmouth). He had been a World War II hero, as had Michael. He married a stylish high society woman not unlike Kay Adams Corleone.

There is a recurring theme or image, more concrete in the sequel novels, that there is often a very blurry line between criminal behavior and government behavior, even in a democratic republic. Similarly, the epilogue of The Family Corleone which describes Sonny’s wedding reception makes this clear. We meet all the various wedding guests, mobsters, small businessmen, policemen, and politicians who are friends of capo Corleone.

It is perhaps notable, too, that two of the three sons of Vito Corleone are killed just as were three of the four sons of Joseph Kennedy. While one was killed in war, two others were assassinated. Yes, they were political assassinations rather than gangland assassinations, but this reminds us that politics is a brutal business as well.

While this has nothing to do with The Godfather stories or any of the spin-offs, thinking about these things made me realize that on a symbolic level, the deaths of the three Kennedy brothers represent the three existential enemies of the United States—the nation all three brothers represented—since the end or World War I. Joseph, Jr., was killed in war while fighting German fascists. President John Kennedy was assassinated by a Communist (whether Russia or Cuba was involved we may never know, but Oswald was a Communist sympathetic to both countries). Senator Robert Kennedy was killed by a radicalized Muslim (again we may never know for sure if he had direct connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood would use him as an example of how to successfully operate in an infidel nation).

Anyway, such speculations aside, The Family Corleone is an entertaining story. Perhaps it is not as elegantly written as The Godfather, at least the way I remember it, but it is a terrific yarn. There are numerous other subplots that I have not even mentioned in this review. There is a lot to it.

On three separate occasions in The Family Corleone, Don Mariposa tries to eliminate Vito Corleone. Once he uses a local Irish gang, a group that has a detailed backstory for us and is the most destructive to Corleone’s cause. The two other times, Don Mariposa hires hit men—the first pair from Cleveland, the second pair from Chicago. The Chicago men are enforcers of Capone’s who have been working with Frank Nitti. Their story is alluded to in The Godfather, but Falco provides the whole tale. Clearly, they do not succeed since Vito Corleone is still alive after World War II. One big reason that all three attempts fail is that Vito Corleone had Luca Brasi as his bodyguard. Enough said.

  • N.B.: The Family Corleone also contains a great essay by Mario Puzo on the writing of The Godfather. That essay is reviewed separately.

Brazilian Tales – Review

Brazilian Tales. Trans. Isaac Goldberg. Boston: Four Seas, 1921. Gutenberg.org. 12 Aug. 2007. E-book.

Some years ago I asked a man from Brazil what writers from Brazil he would recommend. The first person he named was Assis, that is, Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis. He was a nineteenth century writer whose Dom Casmurro is usually considered the greatest novel of Brazil.

I went to my usual online library, namely Project Gutenberg, to see if they had anything by him in English. This collection Brazilian Tales includes three short stories by Assis plus three stories by three other writers. The stories of Assis were excellent. They reminded me of stories by Chekhov, with maybe a bit of Poe thrown in. His three tales were well worth recommending, and most of the others were worth reading.

“The Attendant’s Confession” could have been written by Poe if Poe lived in Brazil. The confession is told by a life-long servant of an aristocrat named Procopio (even the name sounds like the name of rich person, “for abundance”). Procopio, to put it mildly, is unpleasant. As he gets older and more infirm, he becomes downright cruel. His servant finds him harder and harder to endure. Think of how the narrator of the “Tell-Tale Heart” was driven crazy by the old man. Only Procopio’s servant has a just complaint. Think also of the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado” who is trying to find a clever way to get revenge. The story, though, has a unforeseen but believable twist at the end, more reminiscent of something by De Maupassant or Saki.

As with many of Poe’s stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Attendant’s Confession” does suggest the decline of the aristocracy. Perhaps there is something better that can come from that kind of decadent rule. As Poe was writing in a fledgling republic of whose government most nations were skeptical, so Assis is writing during a time of transition from empire to republic in Brazil.

“The Fortune Teller” is great. This stands on its own. Poe and Chekhov both would have loved it. This story reveals the superstitious side of Latin cultures, and at the same time it is recording the development of a serious love triangle. Camillo and Rita are lovers. Camillo’s best friend is Rita’s husband. Such a relationship seems doomed, but a fortune teller interprets things differently. The woman is the first to go to the fortune teller, and Camillo teases her about it. But eventually Camillo becomes interested as well. If “the story were extant” in the sixteenth century, it is easy to imagine Shakespeare writing a great play based on it. Maybe someone will…

“Life,” the third Assis story is a closet drama, a story written in the form of a play. It could be acted out, but it is meant to be read. This story truly foreshadows the kind of writing that Latin America would be known for in the twentieth century with the works of Borges or Marquez. It would probably be a hit right now because it is post-apocalyptic. We have here an intersection of Christian, Jewish, and Greek folklore in a profound tale that is truly about life. Assis combines legends of the Wandering Jew, of the life of Cain, and of Prometheus into a fascinating philosophical and apocalyptic tale. What is life? What makes life worth living? Is there such a thing as a life fully lived?

This collection also contains “The Vengeance of Felix” by Jose Medeiros e Albuquerque. Poe or Kate Chopin might have written something like this great and terrible story. (As an aside, Chopin is known today for her novel The Awakening, but I believe many of her short stories are superior.) The story of Felix reminds us that the first African slaves in the Americas were taken to Brazil by the Portuguese. While Brazilians of African ancestry are full citizens of the country, they often have a sense of being marginalized. Felix is such a character—African ancestry but reputed to be mentally retarded. Felix appears to have found his place on the fringes of society until…Well, you have read the story. Perhaps Felix is not so mentally deficient after all.

“The Pigeons” by Coelho Netto was probably least to my taste. This reflects another side to Brazil, the Native American population. The story focuses on a Native American superstition of Brazil that is somewhat spooky or creepy. Fans of Stephen King may appreciate it more than I. The story does have a clever, ironic twist. Superstition is based on interpreting signs. What if you blame the sign for bad luck? What if you are the one deliberately creating the sign, even the sign you blame?

“Aunt Zeze’s Tears” by Carmen Dolores, the one female author in this collection, is a social, drawing room story. Although it has a Brazilian setting, this story could have been set nearly anywhere. It reminded me of Pushkin or Chekhov. Aunt Zeze has strong feelings for a man that is a good family friend. She learns that he has great respect, even some affection, for her. But is that the same as love? Aunt Zeze is no teenager, but even most teens know that “just being friends” is not usually a satisfactory outcome if one of the parties has other ideas. Told with flair, do “Aunt Zeze’s Tears” flow from irony or pathos?

Brazilian Tales is a well chosen collection of short stories from Brazil. Dr. Goldberg was one of the first to translate Brazilian stories into English, and he has done a service here—not only in translating the stories but in sharing some excellent tales. Indeed, the three stories by Assis have gotten me curious about his novels. Maybe I will tackle one or two of them some day.

Wild Bill’s Last Trail – Review

Ned Buntline. Wild Bill’s Last Trail. 1896. Amazon.com. 12 May 2012. E-book.

I was looking through a list of books available at my favorite online library, Gutenberg.org, thinking of downloading a couple of books to my Kindle for an upcoming vacation. I came across this title that ignited a series of excited childhood memories: James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, the famous and feted gunfighter of the American West; not to mention his notorious murder in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, holding a two pair “dead man’s hand” at the poker table; and written by Ned Buntline, namesake of the modified Colt .45 that Wyatt Earp used to keep the peace. Wow! A western bonanza!

All I can say, and I say this about very few books that I read, do not waste your time unless you are a big fan of Western fiction of all kinds.

First, this is a novel. It bears little resemblance to the historical Wild Bill Hickock. The tale is pretty much made out of whole cloth. The kindest thing that can be said is that Hickock became a legend partly because of embellished stories about him. This is one.

Second, thanks to Wikipedia, I learned more about Ned Buntline. Buntline actually spent most of his life in New York as a journalist and writer. He did spend some years in the West as a young man. He claimed to have designed and given the custom pistols that bear his name to Wyatt Earp. But Colt Manufacturing has no record of the Buntline Special or of him ordering pistols for anyone. Colt did occasionally make special order pistols with long barrels, but there is no indication that Earp ever used them. It is one thing to write legends about heroes—that goes back at least to Homer—but to shamelessly promote yourself by claiming a connection with the hero that is false…

Third, the book has an almost unreadable style. The plot is potentially intriguing, but the author’s expression is awkward. The sentences are short and focused as befit a journalist, but no one would confuse Buntline with Hemingway. And the dialogue is awful. I do not believe anyone every spoke the way his characters do. They have a certain journalistic style in their directness, but their vocabulary and sentence structure seem to channel Shakespeare or the King James Bible without doing justice to any.

Imagine one of the people in the American West who attempt to kill Wild Bill saying, “Have I done aught that requires my detention here?” While it is succinct, such Elizabethan diction would be totally bogus in post-Civil War America. A screenwriter who wrote such dialogue for a Western would be laughed out of the studio.

The actual plot itself, if the writer had picked another name besides Hickock, could have been effective with another writer’s skill. A fairly notorious gunslinger has gotten tired of living in the East and wants to get back to the Wild West. His ultimate destination is the gold mines of the Dakota Territory. He joins a band of cowboys going there.

Three different people are tracking our protagonist in order to do him in. There is the brother of a man he killed in a gunfight. There is the relative of a woman he jilted when he was back East. There is the leader of a renegade faction of Sioux who is known as a killer of white men and who has a particular hostility towards the cavalry. And to stir the pot, there is a girlfriend of this Sioux chief whose house is burned by a drunken mob.

These things have the potential for making a great story. It could have been made into a decent film, especially by a director like John Ford filming from the 1930s to the 1950s who treated Westerns with respect. And drop the Hickock pretense for sure. And Deadwood is in the Dakotas, not Montana.

This is actually a so-called dime novel (the original was only a nickel), a short piece of fiction cranked out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for school-aged children. Probably the best known dime novels today are the rags-to-riches stories by Horatio Alger. But Wild Bill’s Last Trail is not worth even the half the dime it cost.

Rothstein – Review

David Pietrusza. Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius who Fixed the 1919 World Series. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003. Print.

Baseball as a Way to God mentioned in passing a man who was a fixture of the New York sports betting scene in the first three decades of the twentieth century: Arnold Rothstein. That book said that Rothstein was an associate of Damon Runyon and the man on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald based the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. I had to find out more about this guy, if for no other reason than to be able to teach Gatsby better. Rothstein is also the model for Nathan Detroit in Runyon’s Guys and Dolls and Armand Rosenthal in some of his short stories.

Arnold Rothstein does deserve the title of criminal mastermind. One of his handles was the Great Brain. He understood that the businessman wants to satisfy his customer. That is true today with cellphones and automobiles. But it is just as true with gambling, prostitution, illegal drugs, illegal alcohol, or fencing stolen goods. Rothstein knew how to keep the customers satisfied and the authorities at bay. Often the person in authority was his customer.

Pietrusza tells us that when New York Mayor “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker heard about Rothstein’s mortal wounding on November 4, 1928, he said, “That means trouble from here on in.” (14) Pietrusza demonstrates that that was no exaggeration. Rothstein was the man who kept the peace among criminal gangs. Rothstein was the man who directly or indirectly paid off most politicians, policemen, and judges. He kept newspaper reporters like Runyon apprised of what he thought they should know—and made sure they did not find out what he did not want them to know.

This book is a detailed biography of Rothstein, focusing on what we can learn about his criminal life and connections. It tells how he started out working in and setting up illegal casinos for wealthy New Yorkers. When the authorities started shuttering the casinos, he began floating casinos. Although he was known to rig betting—he was implicated in the 1919 World Series fix, after all—he emphasized honesty and a good product. If a gambler thought games were rigged or police might be tipped off, he’d go somewhere else. If a drinker thought his whiskey was diluted or dangerous, he’s buy from someone else. Everyone trusted Rothstein.

Since he had many high rolling patrons, he was able to amass a fortune which he was happy to invest in both legal and illegal operations. He would be happy to lend money at twenty percent interest or lend for a share in the business. His other nickname was Big Bankroll.

Since many of his patrons were prominent businessmen and politicians, he was able to get favors done. He was arrested several times but never convicted. As in the World Series scandal, people might have been convicted or sanctioned, but there was never enough evidence to implicate Rothstein. And Rothstein was connected to most of the top organized criminals in New York that few people thought of crossing him. Though he was shot to death, it may have been an accident; it certainly was not a “hit.”

People often owed Rothstein money, but he was also careful to owe others money. If you had any hope of getting the money he owed you, you would not want anything to happen to him.

For a criminal, Rothstein was a man of vision. Two men in particular stand out as being protégés of his—Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Luciano credited Rothstein with showing him how to dress and behave so that he did not look or sound like a gangster. Rothstein gave Lansky the vision for organizing criminal enterprises.

When Prohibition was about to be enacted, Rothstein shared what a great opportunity that would be. He cautioned Lansky about doing what the lower class “Mustache Pete” criminals did—distilling their own product which at best would be diluted and at worst would be poisonous. No, he told him. Import alcohol from countries where it was legal and sell it at a premium unopened. This will attract wealthy customers who will become repeat customers. This is exactly what happened. Even today we think of the Roaring Twenties as an upper class phenomenon.

Rothstein seemed always ready to try something new. Smuggling liquor, though profitable, was a lot of trouble. Smuggling illegal drugs was safer. You could still obtain pure heroin, cocaine, and other opiates legally in Germany or France. Two steamer trunks full of drugs could net someone the same profit as a freighter full of booze—and you had much less overhead and fewer people to bribe. Rothstein can probably be credited with organizing or at least outlining the first modern model drug smuggling operation in North America. At the very least, he was present at the creation.

Rothstein himself never drank or used drugs. His one vice was gambling. But even then he usually did not bet unless he knew he odds were good. Sometimes he lost deliberately to keep himself from looking guilty in a fix; sometimes it was to keep a repeat customer from becoming disgruntled. So what was Arnold Rothstein—a.k.a. Meyer Wolfsheim, a.k.a. Nathan Detroit, a.k.a. Big Bankroll—doing in the 1919 World Series fix?

First, we have to understand that Pietrusza has a challenge because as a rule criminals did not leave a paper trail. Many times documents that were collected by the authorities as evidence got misplaced or lost by policemen, attorneys, or judges who were being paid off. (Pietrusza presents evidence on how prevalent this was). Even today, nearly 100 years later, rumors persist of a signed confession by Shoeless Joe Jackson that disappeared before he went on trial. Still, there is enough testimony and dot-connecting that Rothstein comes up with a pretty credible scenario. One which, the author believes, disproves the scenario of the most famous telling of the story, the 1963 book Eight Men Out. He calls it “such a well written book, that it’s easy to gloss over the inconsistencies.” (150)

It was not unusual that baseball games were occasionally fixed. There were even some rumors, for example, that the 1918 World Series had a few players who were bribed. Rothstein was friendly with the owners of the New York Giants and their Hall of Fame manager John McGraw. He also had connections with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. But in 1919 it appears as though the idea of fixing the World Series began with a gambling syndicate in St. Louis. It is one way to make a sure bet.

Getting other gambling operations in Iowa and Illinois involved, they had the connections to the teams and authorities to do it, but they needed money. When the underworld needed money, they turned to “Big Bankroll” Rothstein. Working through middlemen in the various cities, Rothstein was able to transmit money for bribes to baseball and government officials and for payoffs to the eight players on the White Sox. Rothstein made somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 as his people placed bets on the Cincinnati Reds. To keep himself looking clean, he also bet $60,000 on the White Sox. People could say that he could not have had anything to do with the fix after losing that much. Keep in mind that a dollar back then was worth close to twenty times what it is worth today.

There are so many characters and so many little plots in Rothstein that it is honestly hard to keep track of them all. A prologue introduces the reader to over a hundred names. You check back if you lose track. It is the same method that some editions of long Russian novels use. An epilogue lists 105 people—many are from the prologue, but not all—and tells the reader what happened to them after Rothstein died.

From all these accumulated stories, we get a great insight into the New York criminal underworld in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Pietrusza uses many specific instances to make his point. His book is well documented. It is remarkable just how well connected Arnold Rothstein was. Here is one little example. Col. Levi Nutt, the man in charge of the Federal Narcotics Bureau in the 1920s had a son and a son-in-law who both had worked for Rothstein. So had the bureau’s chief narcotics agent in New York. (274)

These few little details just scratch the surface of the book. If nothing else, Rothstein does make us appreciate the milieu of The Great Gatsby and the character of Meyer Wolfsheim. First, one difference. In Gatsby, Wolfsheim is described as having an unusual accent. However, a newspaper article on Rothstein said that he had “the manners of an aristocrat and a rare and beautiful vocal inflection.” (291) Still, there is little doubt that Rothstein, like Wolfsheim in the novel, was known as “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” As Gatsby told Nick Carraway, they could not pin any crimes on him because “he is a smart man.” If Carraway’s landlord was the Great Gatsby, Rothstein was the Great Brain.

Gatsby tells us that Wolfsheim wore cufflinks made from human molars. That is strictly symbolic. Rothstein tried to be low-key in outward signs of wealth. Normally the only jewelry that he wore was a tie pin with a gem, no body parts.

(As an aside, the cuff link image becomes a subtle but pointed one in the Gatsby novel. The last time Nick Carraway sees Tom Buchanan, Tom goes into a jewelry store. Nick speculates that Tom is either buying a string of pearls or cuff links. Tom gave Daisy a lavish string of pearls as a wedding present, so here Nick is implying that Tom might have a new girlfriend now that Myrtle has been killed. The cuff links make us think of Wolfsheim’s creepy cuff links, suggesting that Buchanan is as much of a killer and no less evil with his “old” money than Wolfsheim is with his “nouveau” riches.)

According to Lucky Luciano, though Rothstein’s dress was understated, it was high quality. He bought bolts of silk cloth from French designer Amos Sulka and had his shirts made from them. (202) Jay Gatsby tells Daisy he gets his shirts from a buyer in Europe, and Daisy starts weeping because she “never saw such beautiful shirts.”

When Gatsby is stopped by a policeman for speeding, Gatsby shows him something, and the policeman salutes him respectfully and sends him on his way. Gatsby tells his passenger that the once did a favor for the commissioner. That is straight from the life of Rothstein. Pietrusza shows there were a number of police commissioners who Rothstein could get to look the other way. That was actually one of Mayor Walker’s real concerns when heard Rothstein was dying because the mayor appointed the commissioner and he knew what kind of man he had appointed.

Right after Gatsby is killed, Nick goes to Gatsby’s house and picks up the phone when it rings. The man on the other end begins talking about bonds and some problems with the serial numbers being identified. Without any context, these bonds could be either stolen or counterfeit. But Pietrusza tells us that after the Great War some thieves stole five million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds. Arnold Rothstein was suspected of being behind what some called the Big Bond Robbery. It is a good possibility that at the very least he fenced them. Not too many people besides Big Bankroll would have either the money or the nerve to buy such loot. He then likely had “his people” in various places sell or redeem the bonds.

That sounds like how Gatsby made at least some of his money—along with the drugs and alcohol he may have sold from his pharmacies. Pietrusza reminds us that addicting drugs had only been made illegal in 1914 so there were many people in the country who had become addicted, not just for a “high” but through using patent medicines that contained narcotics. And like Arnold Rothstein himself, the Big Bond Robbery would have been known to most readers in 1924 when Gatsby was published.

Rothstein used some of his money to invest in legitimate businesses and real estate. He owned some stables for race horses. By 1920 most of the hotels or apartment buildings where Rothstein had his floating casinos, poker games, and craps shoots were owned at least partly by him. When he lent money, he usually charged twenty percent interest, but many times he would forgo the interest for a piece of the investment or action that the loan was for. As anyone in a similar position, he owned a lot of property and businesses mostly fronted by various holding companies. One such company was Rothmere Mortgage. He called his stables Redstone, what the name Rothstein means in English.

In The Great Gatsby, we are told Wolfsheim’s outfit was called the Swastika Holding Company. This was published, of course, before the German National Socialist Party would be specifically identified with either anti-Semitism or the swastika symbol. It was actually another racketeer, a sometime associate of Rothstein’s named Larry Fay, who saw the swastika as a good luck symbol. He owned a fleet of taxis whose logo was the swastika. He also ran a few speakeasies; the first one he decorated with swastikas carved in the wood paneling. It is very likely that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald occasionally patronized this club. Many New York readers in 1924 would have associated that symbol with the speakeasy.

For anyone interested in a nonfiction account of some of the origins of organized crime, or certainly anyone interested in The Great Gatsby or the Roaring Twenties, Rothstein will be great reading.

The book’s epilogue reminds us that even in the rackets there is the possibility of redemption. In 1941 at the age of sixty, former mayor Jimmy Walker repented of “many acts of my life” and devoted the last five years of his life to Christ. He said that “The glamour of other days I have found to be worthless tinsel, and all the allure of the world just so much seduction and deception.” (384)

Sounds like a theme to the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Color Blind – Review

Tom Dunkel. Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line. New York: Atlantic, 2013. Print.

In Wichita a mixed-race team was vying for the honor of being crowned “champion”: admittedly, not of the entire sports world, but definitely a hotly contested semiprofessional piece of it. They’d be performing in front of paying customers with prize money at stake and sports writers looking on. This was new and different. (232)

I do read books about subjects other than baseball! This happens to be the third new book on baseball this year that sounded really interesting. I reviewed Swinging ’73 and Baseball as Road to God. Now let me introduce you to baseball history—Color Blind is the kind of book that Ken Burns would love!

Nowadays semiprofessional baseball teams have pretty much left the American landscape. Some may bill themselves as independent minor league, but with American Legion and college baseball, few towns and cities have organized teams that play others for at least a small amount of money.

That was not the case in the 1920s and 1930s when towns, cities, and businesses all over the country fielded teams. In 1935 an enterprising Wichita, Kansas, businessman by the name of Hap Dumont organized a national baseball tournament for such teams under what he called the National Baseball Congress (NBC).

This was during the Depression. The best of the semipro teams were often able to get minor leaguers or former major league players to fill a few roster slots. The team from Bismarck, North Dakota, could offer players sums that were equal to or better than what they were being paid. Often minor league and Negro League teams were unable to pay what they promised their players.

The Bismarck’s team biggest rival, Jamestown ND, did the same. In 1933 both teams hired players from the Negro League. For the last six weeks of the season, Bismarck was able to hire Satchel Paige, whose Negro League team had not paid him in months.

In 1935 the Bismarck team continued to be integrated. (Jamestown had gone back to all white players.) The team included two future Hall of Famers—and I mean Cooperstown, not a local or minor league Hall of Fame. They won the first NBC tournament with a fully integrated team. There were fewer than 500 blacks in the whole state of North Dakota at the time, so prejudice against blacks was limited. And when Paige rejoined the team in 1935, he drew crowds everywhere the team went.

Many scouts and other people in baseball took note of this. We are told that Branch Rickey, not yet a team executive, met with Hap Dumont specifically about integrating teams and having black or integrated teams play white teams in a formal setting. There is a sense of inevitability: Integration was good for the sport.

Color Blind focuses on the 1935 season, but it goes back and forward as well. The book discusses in detail the two men who contributed the most to this season and the Bismarck team, Satchel Paige and Neil Churchill.

Paige, a skilled pitcher and flamboyant character second only Babe Ruth in reputation, brings a lot of life to the story. His quotations and exaggerations and his remarkable pitching are legendary. In passing, the book notes that both Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio said that Paige was the toughest pitcher they ever faced. Indeed, the New York Yankees became interested in DiMaggio because one of their scouts saw him get a hit off Paige in a winter California barnstorming game. Never mind that the hit was a squibber that never left the infield, it was hit off Paige.

Neil Churchill was the co-owner of a Bismarck car dealership and a sports fan who had played for the Bismarck team in the 1920s. His money bankrolled the team—occasionally he would throw in a new car to sweeten the offer. He is credited with attracting talent and, more or less, keeping his team of characters engaged in playing baseball. Churchill would also sponsor a semipro basketball team out of Bismarck. Both his baseball and basketball teams would play barnstorming teams operated by Abe Saperstein. Saperstein’s basketball team was called the Harlem Globetrotters…

The book clearly sets both North Dakota and baseball in context. So many people appear that had some connection with the Bismarck team or the NBC championship: Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Eric Halliburton, Babe Didrikson, George Armstrong Custer, and many others. There was the skilled House of David team from a Michigan religious commune whose men did not cut their hair or beards. At one time there were two other imposter teams that called themselves House of David. When non-commune members played for the team, they would wear false whiskers. There were two teams that each were made up of nine brothers. And in the background of all of this are the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

The legacy of that Bismarck team lived on even though the team itself would later fold thanks to the Depression. After returning from the 1935 NBC tournament, New York Giants owner believed that professional baseball would integrate in ten years. He got the timing correct, even though the rival Dodgers beat him to it.

At the funeral of the last surviving white member of the Bismarck team, Joe Desiderato, the last surviving black member of the team, Double Duty Radcliffe, told how Desiderato stood up for him and the other black players. In their later years, the two men would call each other on the phone weekly. Desiderato’s daughter would marry a man named Joe DiMaggio—but not that Joe DiMaggio.

In 1946 former Bismarck player Quincy Troupe was managing the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro League. He hired the first white player ever in the league. His experiment did not work out well because the Buckeyes played in too many Southern cities where such integration was not allowed.

This is a fascinating baseball book. It looks into a type and level of baseball that has pretty much disappeared. But more than that, it is a book about people. It is full of fascinating people: players, politicians, promoters, wives, girlfriends. This is a marvelous world we live in, especially because of all the great people in it. Yes, such people may be flawed, but they make the world a wonderful place. Color Blind shows us why.

Grammar Gaffes in the Office

The following note was sent in response to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal about what it called Grammar Gaffes in the Office. This article was brought to my attention more than once.

Dear Ms. Shellenbarger:

Thank you for your article on Grammar Gaffes in the Office. While you did attribute some of the problem to informal usage with e-mails, text messages, and the like, that is not the root of the problem. There has always been some kind of informal English, dialectical or otherwise. But people used to understand that in order to communicate effectively, it was necessary to learn standard English, even if they only used it in formal reading or writing. Your example of the Oxford comma is a good illustration of the confusion less precise grammar can cause.

The main problem nowadays is that many schools no longer teach grammar. I teach high school at a private school, and we get a lot students transferring in either middle school or high school who have never had any grammar at all. Each year we have some ninth graders who have never been taught how to use a dictionary or what a part of speech is.

I have had conversations with businessmen and college professors who complain that in the last twenty years they get applicants even with advanced degrees who cannot write a clear sentence. Such conversations usually include something like, “I hope you’re teaching your students grammar!”

A science teacher at my school asked me about this, since she knew of elementary schools that teach writing without grammar. It reminded me of when I was in fifth grade and we were being introduced to basketball in gym class. At first, some of the kids took the ball and ran with it down the court as if it were a football. The gym teacher then took the time to explain the rules to us. You cannot play a sport properly until you known the rules, I told this teacher. It is no different with a language.

Liter/Litre, Meter/Metre, etc.

Dear Mr. R:

You wrote:

Please, oh please! When are you going to get metric nomenclature correct and stop making up your own spellings?

It’s litres not liters and metres not meters.

We are located in North America, so we do use the North American spellings on our web site. We explain this on our page noting the slight differences between British and North American English. Many of the differences go back to before the Revolution. While I personally admire Samuel Johnson both as a writer and a lexicographer, he was a Tory so his dictionary never received very much attention on this side of the pond.

By the way, our Spell Checker that ships with our Grammar Slammer program has both British and North American options.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language