The Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico

The  Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico
The Model for the Maitre d'Armes

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Return of "The Pallisers"

I see that Acorn Media has re-released (last year, in fact, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original airing) a new DVD edition of The Pallisers:

For all of its deviations from the novels, the series does a wonderful job at evoking Trollop's characters, especially the two lead couples--Plantagenet Palliser, later Duke of Omnium, and his wife Glencora, and Phineas Finn and Marie "Madame Max" Goesler.

The series does not shy away from the outsider status of Phineas and Marie--she is older, foreign, Jewish, he an Irish Roman Catholic. Even when Phineas's attention is directed elsewhere, the chemistry between them, as portrayed by Donal McCann and Barbara Murray is striking:

The adaptation was written by Simon Raven, an interesting, and under-appreciated novelist in his own right. The relationship between Trollope's texts and the adaptation has been elegantly illuminated in a series of blog posts at Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too.

Although I had read the novels long before I ever knew there was a television adaptation, I enjoyed the adaptation very much, and it was marathon re-watch my wife and I did of the series that awoke my slumbering interest in continuing Trollope's story.

So, with last year the 40th anniversary of The Pallisers, the forthcoming graphic novel version of Trollope's John Caldigate, and next year Trollope's own bicentennial year--it's a good time to celebrate Anthony Trollope, whose sympathy melted even the prejudices he had imbibed from his culture.

Edited to Add: Of course, as the book to which Phineas at Bay is most directly a sequel, Phineas Redux, was published in book form in 1874 (the serialization ran from 1873-1874), my timing could only have been better if I'd waited another decade.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

To Be or Not to Be?

The above scene is from a 1982 revival of Pippin. The theater group that has been leading the son of Charlemagne through all the occupations and pleasures of life, only to confront him with a final option to provide meaning in his life: set himself on fore as great final act in the circus they have been presenting to the audience, us.

Notice how the Leading Player (Ben Vereen) and Fastrada (the evil step-mother, saucily and comically portrayed to this point by Chita Rivera), suddenly interact for the first time in the show, how in their dancing around Pippin, each mirrors the other--he moves in, she moves out, she moves out, he moves in--and there they are, allied in persuading our protagonist to die a horrible death.

The friendly mentor and the comic villainess, and the whole gallery of characters in Pippin's life (father, step-mother, grandmother, half-brother, friends) we've seen (save one), are allies in this performance to convince Pippin that self-destruction is a glorious way to go.

They fail, in the play. For now. This time.

Pippin has a reputation as a light play. It's actually quite dark; a surreal exploration of the power of the human mind to reject the simple good things at hand, and persuade itself that it is far better to go out in a blaze of glory than to enjoy mundane happiness.


Why is this on my mind tonight, you might ask. The show occurred to me in speaking with an old friend tonight who starred in it in our youth. But also, I have been struck through reading the news by the question of what is it in our modern society that makes us half in love with death? Seriously. Between the Middle East, Russia and the Ukraine, and innumerable other conflicts at home and around the globe, an appreciable body of people seem to prefer the spurious charms of Ragnarök to the simple beauty of life.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My World With Bel Kaufman

I was saddened to see that Bel Kaufman died yesterday, aged 103.

Now, granted, 103 is a great age to attain, and somewhat mutes the mourning, but the fact is that there are some authors who touch you at just the right time and place, and no matter how long it's been since their last book, no matter how old they are when they die--it'll be a wrench. (I'm gonna be a wreck when--and may that day be far off!--the still active Herman Wouk is gathered to his fathers. And let me just note in passing that last year's The Lawgiver is a fine example of Wouk in "light" mode; not as good as City Boy, but with that novel's deftness, warmth and humor.)

But Bel Kaufman.

So, she wrote one masterpiece, Up the Down Staircase (1965), published the year before I was born, describing the first year on the job of an idealistic young school teacher, and made that tumultuous, frustrating, bureaucratically insane year into art. The book is funny as hell at points, wry, dark and occasionally verges into Joseph Heller territory.

I read it in the school library (brave choice, library staff!) at the lousy public junior high school at which I attended seventh grade, and, as a smart-mouthed nerd, I suffered for my art. Up the Down Staircase reassured me that my experience was not unique, at the same time it gave me enough distance to laugh at the sheer weirdness around me. So, when I saw an Eighth-grade girl's box of cigarettes fall out of her shirt pocket, in front of the Assistant Principal, a kindly avuncular, completely detached sort, and he stooped down, picked them up and returned them to her--well, "Kaufman!" I would think, and smile. When, on the bus home,a student fired a roman candle at the back of the driver's head (to be fair, one of the bullies had the decency to whisper to me, "Duck!"), again, I would ask myself how Kaufman would portray the incident, and how Miss Barrett would cope with the offenders. (I ducked, and said nothing.)

As to Kaufman herself:
For several years until she got her regular license, Ms. Kaufman was relegated to substitute teaching in a string of New York City high schools, any one of which could have been Calvin Coolidge.

“One morning a boy came to class three months late,” Ms. Kaufman wrote in 1991, in her introduction to a new edition of “Up the Down Staircase.” “I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’”

“Up the Down Staircase” came along, Ms. Kaufman said afterward, at a low point in her life. She was teaching, selling the occasional short story to magazines and “living alone in a tiny apartment with very little money or hope for the future,” as she wrote in 1991. (In the 1940s, in order to sell a story to Esquire, which took a dim view of submissions by women, she began signing her work with the more androgynous first name Bel.)


Over the years, Ms. Kaufman was often asked whether the memorandums in “Up the Down Staircase” were real. Though they were inane enough to look real, she explained, in fact, she had invented most of them. (Ms. Kaufman did include a few actual New York City Board of Education memos, but had to tone them down to make them credible.)

The best indication of Ms. Kaufman’s skill at dead-on bureaucratic mimicry came from one of her former schools. After “Up the Down Staircase” was published, she wrote, an assistant principal there began annotating his official directives with a stern red-penciled admonition.

Rest in peace--and thanks, Teach.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Phineas at Bay: The E-book

I know, I know--it's the week of book promotion on the blog. But, after all, I don't publish a book every week, and the fact is, when I let loose the original announcement, all I knew was that the paperback was available, and that the Kindle edition would be, by or about the end of July.

Yeah, it's available now.

Interesting fact about the kindle conversion process, by the way, and a tribute to my editor Karen Clark's proofreading skills (and, ok, my own--so lacking on this blog, alas--a little bit): When the Kindle conversion takes place, possible typos are flagged for review. There were, in the full 529 pages of the Kindle edition, sixteen (16). They were all Trollopian names based on real-world terms, and so noted as deviations from their root words, except for one deliberate archaism from the 19th Century which I kept in for period "feel."

So--a book that carefully, lovingly proofread--it's like an artisinal cheese, or a delicate hand-carving, right? (No, it is not like a portrait of Elvis on black velvet, Not at all Not remotely). That many words strung together with so few even arguable typos is worth a look, right?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

We Are Number….74,831. Oi!

As of today, that's Phineas at Bay's ranking. Up from number 155,000 and change two days ago, mind, but I see the Fifth Doctor's point:
(An alarm whoops.)
FIFTH DOCTOR: That's an alert, level five, indicating a temporal collision. It like two Tardises have merged, but there's definitely only one Tardis present. It's like two time zones or more at the heart of the Tardis. That's a paradox that could blow a hole in the space time continuum the size of…. Well, actually, the exact size of Belgium. That's a bit undramatic, isn't it? Belgium?
Lovely people of Belgium, do feel free to buy, and I will make amends, but, well, the hard part of self-publishing is trying to catch the eye of the potential readers.

So, let me point out two things:

1. Kindle edition should be available next week; and

2. The "Look Inside" feature is now available; you can try before you buy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Phineas at Large

Well, it's been a bit longer than expected, but Phineas at Bay is now available for your reading pleasure:
“Phineas at Bay is at once an entertaining romp and a serious inquiry into how Victorian problems are also our own. It is a pleasure to read.”—Nicholas Birns, author of Understanding Anthony Powell.

Set in 1890s England, Phineas at Bay picks up where Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series left off: now two decades after the unconventional marriage of Phineas Finn, an Irish Catholic, to the Viennese Jewish widow Marie "Madame Max" Goesler.

Phineas has become an almost entirely independent member of Parliament, nominally belonging to the Liberal Party. But his independence has come at a cost. Having made no political gains, his own party no longer takes him seriously. But an awakening of his political and social conscience leads him to revitalize his political activism and become involved in the newly forming Labour Party.

Meanwhile the rivalry between Socialist Jack Chiltern and the newest member of Parliament, Savrola Vavasor, the two suitors of Phineas’s orphaned niece, Clarissa Riley, draws Phineas into becoming the maître d’armes at a violent duel.

And alongside all the other action, the beautiful Lady Elizabeth Eustace adds to the drama with her shady past and her entanglements with Jack and her ex-husband, a clergyman with a dark reputation of his own.

Scholar and lawyer John F. Wirenius sets the Victorian-era author’s pointed satire loose on today’s political and social excesses, creating a novel that can be read alone or in conjunction with Trollope’s novels.
Having Nicholas Birns's encouragement, after hearing his first-rate lecture on the "Phineas Diptych" as he called the two original novels--Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux--was a great spur toward completion; my editor Karen Clark was enthusiastic in the best way--forcing me to not settle for easy paths out, but to keep working to make it the best book it could be; Susan Wright's feedback and brio for the project, and that of my own father, all kept me writing.

Mostly, of course, though, I did it for la Caterina, who had urged me back in 2006 to tackle the project.

It's out now, and I'll be pushing it, of course. But I can tell you this: I wrote it for the love of some of the most rich and three-dimensional characters in English literature, and their brilliant, bluff (but really tender as thistledown) creator. And I did my best by them, and him.

I hope you'll stop by and have a peep at the book, and maybe even buy it. And if you haven't read the originals--well, you've a treat in store.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Woman Who Kept Going

When, after many years of its being a "lost episode," the BBC recovered "The Web of Fear" and "The Enemy of the World", of course I bought them on iTunes. Well, yes, of course I did--and immediately watched "Enemy," the famous James Bond pastiche. It was a corker--inspired, silly, funny, and genuinely tense--it had something of the the flavor of a Doctor Who-Avengers crossover. (The fact that Troughton played the titular villain, Salamander, as a Mexican would be quite problematic if any effort to do so was discernible--Salamander is definitely not-English, but that's really all you can get from Troughton's hilarious, Clouseau-esque accent, and he plays the part as charming, intelligent, and the mirror image of his Doctor. Troughton playing the Doctor pretending to be Salamander is funny; Troughton playing Salamander pretending to be the Doctor is hilarious; Troughton playing Salamander pretending to be the Doctor pretending to be Salamander is uproarious. The man was a brilliant actor.)

But I held off on Web. The yeti seemed abject 20 years later in The Five Doctors, and then of course there's Downtime:

So, even though Web is the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as The Brigadier, I was…reluctant to actually watch the thing. Actually, I needn't have been. Yes, the yeti are a bit crap. But the performances, the direction, the plot--I watched all six episodes in one go, and enjoyed it immensely.

One of the guest stars, Tina Packer, struck me as being really quite good, and I wondered why I had never heard of her anywhere else. A quick google search turned up a great explanation from 2009:
Packer is also exploring the director/actor relationship, from a different perspective. “When I was rehearsing it,” she says, “I kept thinking, well, when do I take over the action, you know? And I realized I never take over the action.”

Packer is used to being in charge, as artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. She founded it in the Berkshires three decades ago. But now Packer is stepping down to go back to acting. It was actually her first career, in her twenties, in England.

“I wouldn’t say I was famous famous but, you know I did one of the those Mobile Masterpiece Theatre pieces. And I did “Doctor Who,” which is what everybody remembers me for in this country now,” she laughs.

“You know at the time I did it I was trying to pretend I wasn’t doing it, you know, because I was a classical actress.”

A frustrated classical actress, she admits, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I couldn’t have the effect on theatre I wanted to have as an actor,” she says. “Because actors don’t have any power.”

At the time she was obsessed with Shakespeare, but she wanted to approach his texts her own way. This ran against the genteel delivery style most teachers and directors embraced.

“Annunciating, pushing the vowels to the front of the mouth — especially for the women,” Packer says. “It’s all nonsense; Shakespeare’s dirty as hell and full of life and full of vivacity.”

So Packer abandoned her career as an actor in England, raised some money in the U.S., and founded her own company in the Berkshires. She was one of the first women to direct Shakespeare professionally. Packer says it’s a natural fit.

“Because we are good at multi-tasking, you’re following 10 themes and there’s a lot of people on stage and you’ve got to arrange them,” she says. “It’s like having a giant family.”

Running this company is also like nurturing a family — a family of 150 core members — and Packer is the mom. From fundraising to cleaning toilets to cooling family feuds, she does it all. And has from the beginning, according to Tony Simotes.

“As people grew and changed and went to different places, it was really Tina’s heart and soul that kept maintaining, in a sense, the mothership,” Simotes said.

Simotes came to the Berkshires as an actor with Tina 30 years ago. He says it changed his life. They gathered a band of professional players and practically squatted in buildings just down the road from here, at Edith Wharton’s estate, also known as The Mount. It was a creative commune, Simotes says. But like a real family, it wasn’t all love and roses.
What an extraordinary person, and what a life well lived--and still going strong.