Our Daily Dead

Doing some research on RSS readers — applications that let you compile feeds from blogs and news sites and any other online source that cares to one up — I came across a site I had long ago noted and then forgotten about: Our Daily Dead. Wow. It’s a sort of super-blog that traffics in notable obituaries and sometimes the miscellaneous arcana of death.

In looking at the site just now, I came across the following literary obit, published last week in the Los Angeles Times:

Sanora Babb, 98; Writer Whose Masterpiece Rivaled Steinbeck’s

If there were lessons to be learned from Sanora Babb’s hardscrabble years as a child on the Colorado frontier, one of them must have been perseverance.

Babb waited 65 years in the shadow of a literary giant for her first completed novel to be published. Upstaged in 1939 by John Steinbeck’s bestselling “The Grapes of Wrath,” Babb’s tale about the travails of a Depression-era farm family was shelved by the venerable Random House, which feared that the market would not support two novels on the same theme. Bitterly disappointed, Babb stuck her manuscript in a drawer, and there it remained until 2004, when it was rescued by the University of Oklahoma Press.

At 97, Babb earned long-overdue praise for the novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown,” an acutely observed chronicle of one family’s flight from the drought and dust storms of the high plains to the migrant camps of California during the 1930s.

Reviewers called it a “long-forgotten masterpiece” and “an American classic both literary and historical,” as compelling as Steinbeck’s epic work and in some ways more authentic.

The widow of Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, whom she dated in the 1940s in defiance of California’s anti-miscegenation laws, Babb died of natural causes Dec. 31 at her Hollywood Hills home, said Joanne Dearcopp, her longtime agent and literary executor. She was 98.

The obit goes on to note that Babb’s editor at Random House, the legendary Bennett Cerf, both praised “Whose Names Are Unknown” to the heavens and declared it couldn’t be published. “What rotten luck,” the obit quotes him as writing to Babb in reference to “The Grapes of Wrath.” “Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!”

The obit is a wonderful read. I want the book in my hands right now.

Whatever It Is

Just because I was thinking about this song in reference to how I feel about our Austrian governor. More on that crucial topic … later.

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

By Harry Ruby (music) and Bert Kalmar (lyrics)

Performed by Groucho Marx in “Horse Feathers” (1932)

(Sound file here.)

I don’t know what they have to say,

It makes no difference anyway —

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

No matter what it is or who commenced it,

I’m against it.

Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood —

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,

I’m against it.

I’m opposed to it —

On general principles I’m opposed to it!

Chorus: He’s opposed to it!

In fact, in word, in deed,

He’s opposed to it!

For months before my son was born,

I used to yell from night till morn,

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

And I’ve kept yelling since I commenced it,

I’m against it!

Memorial Day …

… Is almost over. I whiled away part of the patriotic three-day weekend watching some of the Turner Classic Movies “all war flicks, all the time” marathon. Saw almost all of “A Bridge Too Far,” which is extraordinary for its overuse of big-name actors and big-time pyrotechnics in the service of perhaps the last romantic World War II feature. Saw parts of “M*A*S*H,” which has aged amazingly well. Saw parts of “Patton,” which seems ludicrous to me now. Beyond my personal political leanings, I think the war-themed movies just look different in the post-“Saving Private Ryan”/”Band of Brothers” era, when there’s been an effort to bring something like combat verity into the movies and television.

For a film about such a famously hard-nosed character, “Patton” comes off as little more than a romantic caricature in which one great man spends a couple hours strutting around in front of a bunch of cardboard cutouts. That’s the way it looks now. Then — it came out the same year as “M*A*S*H,” 1970 — it was enormously popular and a big winner at the 1971 Oscars. It’s hard to say why looking at it now, though of course the period is suggestive: Vietnam was unpopular but not yet recorded in the “not-won” column, and the movie features a hero who built a reputation for driving tanks through any opposition, damn subtlety or consequences. “M*A*S*H” spoke a lot more directly to the anti-war audience then, and because of its grim humor, frankness about the business at a combat hospital, and Robert Altman’s handling of a great ensemble of actors, it still seems fresh.

That leaves “A Bridge Too Far,” which is almost embarrassing to watch. The stock upbeat theme music. The star-studded cast. The stiff upper lip in the face of insuperable odds. The impassive, smugly superior Nazis (this time with a reason to be smug and superior). The nobility of defeat and massive casualties. It’s good that Hollywood has almost quit making this movie, or this kind of movie (from the trailers, Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers Once,” looks like an attempt to give Vietnam the same heroic treatment).

But it makes you wonder, a little, how Iraq will be turned into a big-screen treat. (The best clue: Go rent “Three Kings.” More pleasingly flashy entertainment, less reality — but we’re OK with that.)


Today is all about Charlemagne, Casanova, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Webb, Marvin Gaye, Leon Russell, Linda Hunt, Emmylou Harris. And the University of Illinois making it to the national championship game. And me, of course.


Well, the last thing the world needs is more Academy Awards blather. As usual, I’m ready to fill the need. But just to say this:

I confess I don’t know much about the Life of Clint Eastwood. Maybe a little bit about the arc of his career — TV cowboy (“Rawhide”) to spaghetti western idol (“A Fistful of Dollars,” etc.) to lone-wolf cop (“Dirty Harry,” etc.) to more westerns (“High Plains Drifter”) to odd self-directed semi-comedic turns (“Every Which Way But Loose”) to seriously violent and introspective western (“Unforgiven”), concluding with a couple of modern tragedies: “Mystic River” and the one he one an award for tonight, “Million Dollar Baby.” Then there are a couple harder-to-classify roles in there, too — “The Beguiled” and “Play Misty for Me.”

All of which is to say: Who would’ve thought that the same guy who rode his Dirty Harry one-liners for so long (one per movie: “Feel lucky, punk?”; “A man’s got to know his own limitations”; “Go ahead, make my day”) would turn into what he has — some kind of sensitive Hollywood-type master of cinema (yeah, I know about contradictions in terms)?

Now I need to confess: I haven’t seen “Million Dollar Baby.” Or “Mystic River.” From the reviews I’ve read, they both sound extremely wrenching emotionally, and I actually haven’t been able to bring myself to watch them. Yet. (It’s happened with other movies, too; such as “Saving Private Ryan.” It took me about a year to see that.)


Kate and I finally got around to seeing “Sideways,” a movie of which several friends (including Pete) have spoken very highly. I loved it and would readily see it again. It’s got a consistently skewed and funny take on people — well, men and women — and how they do and don’t fit together. And exploring a larger vein, it focuses on the struggle to realize some small part of your deepest dream, whatever it is.

The highlight of the script is a rather short scene in which Miles, a disappointed novelist and emotionally damaged middle-school English teacher, and Maya, a waitress he’s met on his winery expeditions up to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, talk about what it is that they love about wine. He loves pinot noir because of the very challenges it presents to even grow, let alone turn into fine wine. She sees wine — good wine — as a living thing, following a life cycle that’s strikingly similar to that of a human being. It’s poetic wine talk — people really talking about the beauty they see in the vintner’s art — but the characters are really talking about themselves.

The one really unsatisfying note in the picture is the character of Miles, whom the story turns around. The guy is in real trouble with alcohol and with life. By the end you almost forget a heart-rending scene in which he steals several hundred dollars from his mother, who’s quite the drinker herself. The script hints at some extraordinary darkness and pain in his past, but it really never takes on why he’s headed over the edge or the role drinking plays in his plight.

Don’t Talk About the Weather

earthtemperature.jpgThe New York Times reports that NASA headquarters ordered its scientists to keep their mouths shut about questions arising from the upcoming climate-change blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" (with someone named Claude Laforce playing "UN Norwegian diplomat").

"No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with" the film, said the April 1 message, which was sent by Goddard’s top press officer. "Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA."

The Times also reports that the space agency has called off the dogs and will now let its experts talk about climate stuff. Maybe that has something to do with some research results published last week on NASA’s own site, "Satellite Thermometers Show Earth Has a Fever." Keep it cute like that, so no one will get the idea that increased temperatures have anything to do with well, anything.

‘You See This Sign?’

Wonderful Los Angeles Times obit, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, on Carole Eastman, who cowrote “Five Easy Pieces.” Director Bob Rafelson:

” ‘Here she was, this rather thin and kind of fragile-looking woman,’ he said, ‘and she could easily write about the most obscure things like waitresses, Tammy Wynette, bowling alleys, oil fields. There was nothing common about what Carole chose to write about.’ “

I’d love to read more about her.

Molly Kelly

RabbitproofThe lead paragraph from the AP obit in Friday’s New York Times:

SYDNEY, Australia, Jan. 15 — Molly Kelly, whose childhood trek across 1,000 miles of the Australian desert to return to her Aboriginal mother inspired the 2002 movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” died on Tuesday at her home in Jigalong in Western Australia, her family said. She was thought to be 87.

The movie is great.