I, Fatty

I became intrigued by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on a walking tour of San Francisco that included a stop at the St. Francis, where the ghost of Virginia Rappe haunts. This book was a great fictionalized biography that Stahl drew from several sources.
Fatty, a rotund child abused by his father, heckled for breaking his mother’s “flower” when he was born, abandoned at the train station and resorting to theater work to support himself as a teenager. Eventually he deigns to get into pictures, joining the Keystone studios for Keystone cop movies, where a lot of the footage was stumbled upon (oh, there’s a fire? let’s go film our actors along with real firemen). He learns the craft of directing there, gives Chaplin his Little Tramp bit, befriends Buster Keaton. Eventually the first actor to pull in $1M a year (in 1918), has a custom Pierce-Arrow car built for him with flush toilet.
He married Minta, his first love, and found that he was unable to perform his husbandly duties. Which is ironic, considering the crime he was accused of and vilified for. He owns the Vernon Tigers, a Pacific Coast League baseball team. He started his own film company, Comique, had the idea for pie fights after he threw something at his wife. At the top of his game, September 1921, he goes to San Francisco during the height of Prohibition for a vacation.
In San Francisco, he books 3 rooms at the St. Francis for himself and his two friends, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach. Fred hooks up with a bootlegger and comes back to the hotel with Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Virginia is well known to Fatty as a woman who tears her own clothes off and goes crazy when drinking. She is found laying in Fatty’s bed as he presses a cold champagne bottle to her nether regions to bring her around. This is construed as rape and murder, as she later dies from a ruptured bladder. Supposedly, this all happened because of a botched abortion, so she arrived at the hotel already a dead woman.
Hearst newspapers fanned the flames of hate, the nation turned against Fatty. He endured 3 trials (the first 2 ending as mistrials after the jury couldn’t unite) before being acquitted. Most of Fatty’s films have not survived, being lost or deliberately destroyed.

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Logicomix

Graphic novel summary of Bertrand Russell’s quest to give mathematics a logical foundation. Russell’s story told from the podium of an American university in the midst of WWII, he starts from his childhood thirst for knowledge, through his studies at Cambridge, through a few wives with open marriages, taking Wittgenstein on as a student, being a peaceful protester during WWI. The story keeps coming back to the idea of logic and madness being intertwined– you cannot look too closely into the face of logic or you go mad.
The graphic novel includes self-referential images of its own creators talking about creating the novel, debating whether to end it on a sad note of Nazis taking over Europe, or to leave hope with the form of Alan Turing, who takes things to their logical conclusion, birth of computers, etc.

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The Tin Drum

I have unintentionally avoided Grass’ work for decades, until a lunchtime reading of the new translation of The Tin Drum raised interest for me. Oskar decides to stop growing at age 3 and focus on his tin drum, instead of growing up to manage his father’s grocery. He cranks through drums at a rapid rate after he stages a fall down the cellar stairs which gives a plausible excuse for non-growth.
Favorite scene: The Onion Cellar, a nightclub in Düsseldorf where Oskar and his jazz band play when the crowd gets too rowdy; the owner hands out onions that the audience cuts and weeps over. The only way they are able to cry now. One night they get out of control, Oskar leads them on a drum solo through their childhoods, which in turn nets him a concert deal.
* Sütterlin script is the name of the German Gothic script that all German books seem printed in
* Frequently switches between 1st and 3rd person narration, even in the same paragraph.
* His grandmother’s 4 layers of skirts providing refuge to his grandfather in the potato fields, then Oskar in his own time.
* Oskar teaches himself to read after stealing bits of Rasputin & Goethe from a kindly lady who reads to him.
* Oskar has a glass-shattering voice that he wields in Danzig towards the end of WWII along with a gang of youths called the Dusters.
* Bebra is a midget employed by the SS office for propaganda, he becomes Oskar’s mentor/master. They meet up several times through Oskar’s life.
* “What novel – or what else in the world – can have the epic scope of a photograph album?”
* “I’m just a man taking a walk with this dog I borrowed to take a walk with.”
* “Barbaric, mystical, and bored.” … “You have given our century its name.”
* When Oskar is part of the freak troupe entertaining the German army, they have an encounter with Lankes, an artist whose wartime duty is to make concrete bunkers. The troupe writes this poem, On the Atlantic Wall, with the line “the trend is toward the bourgeois-smug.”
* German title: Die Blechtrommel

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The Stranger

Everyone knows the first lines to this one: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Meursault is the anti-hero of the book, who travels to his mother’s funeral but lacks the requisite tears a son should have for his mother’s dead body. A day after the funeral, he hooks up with Marie, who he has a fling with and who he insists he doesn’t love, “not that it matters.” He also writes a letter for Raymond to lure his girlfriend back so that he can insult her one last time. This letter spins off into the cops warning Raymond after he beats her up, her brothers getting upset with him and ends with Meursault shooting an Arab “accidentally”, then following up with 4 more shots to the dead body.
Then we know him as a prisoner, whiling away the days and seasons, waiting for his trial, making time pass by remembering his old life. The trial begins, and he is scrutinized by a packed house of interested parties, including a woman who sat at his table at Celeste’s dining establishment, whom he describes as a robot, ordering her meal then immediately calculating the cost and laying it on the table before the meal arrives, ticking off radio programs she wants to hear. I cannot figure out her significance, why does she appear at the trial?
A great re-read. Hat tip to PClan for the reminder about this one.

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The Magicians

Whose face should I be bashing in right now for recommending this wretched book to me? It got off to a good start, a loner teen who dabbles in magic in Brooklyn and who stumbles into an entrance exam for Brakebills College, the prestigious magic school in upstate New York protected by a bubble of charms and hence unnoticeable by outsiders. Enter a whirlwind of cramming spells, wands, tests, along with the usual teen drama of hooking up, drinking. Quentin, Alice, and Penny singled out to advance before their time, Penny doesn’t pass. Q&A move on, become “sorted” with the “Physical Kids”, including Eliot who has a thing for boys.
I can’t decide if the overt Harry Potter vibe is a big wink-nudge-aren’t-I-clever attempt by Grossman, or just delusional parody. Quiddich is mentioned, as are hippogriffs.
Graduation day, everyone gets a demon tattooed into their back to help them in a big fight if needed. Quentin & Alice head off to Manhattan where the magical trust fund keeps them in booze and drugs for as long as they need. Penny turns up one day, clutching some magic buttons that take them to Fillory, the land Quentin has been obsessed with since reading the books as a child. They get into some scrapes, magic battles ensue.
This book runs off the rails about 100 pages from the end. I could swear there’s some section that says, “We need to get some unicorns up in here.” It tries to be modern, hip, ironic, and magical at the same time, and falls flat with a pretty weak ending.
Vomitous. Do not waste your time.

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The Grapes of Wrath

Someone put the idea in my head to re-read Grapes of Wrath, and so I did. It is an apt book for the times, when so many jobless, hopeless people are washing up on the shores of the US. Only we’re not banding together to get improved wages, we’re sitting on our duffs and pretending to enact change with the click of a mouse.
Steinbeck intersperses chapters on the Joad family with overarching looks at the time; roadside grills not happy about the Oakies that pull up, hungry, begging for water, the waitresses giddy for the truckers that swing by on a regular basis. Ma Joad is the glue of the family, keeping them going during the migration to California, and keeping them together as best she can during the time post-crossing when they are hated and harassed by deputies. Along they way, they lose Grampa and Gramma to death, Connie (Rose of Sharon’s hubby) to walkabout, and elder brother Noah to wandering. Rosasharon is heavily pregnant, and gives birth to a dead baby at the end, but the milk in her breasts keeps a starving sick man alive whom they stumble upon in a barn when trying to find shelter in the rain. Damn, Steinbeck, you go for the gut.
Tom Joad just released from prison, takes up with ex-preacher Cary, both of them turning into “reds” who try to agitate for worker rights. Al Joad the mechanic-wannabe, who just bemoans his lack of opportunity to go work for a garage, live in a room in the city, and see movies.
There are lots of well-quoted passages from this book, used in union-boosting literature today. This piece struck me, related to the title:

And the smell of rot fills the country.
Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

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