On this week’s Al Franken podcast, the guest is Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side, and Liar’s Poker). In his most-recent book, The Fifth Risk, Franken notes that that “Lewis portrayed Donald Trump as a man totally ignorant of and disinterested in the actually functioning of the federal government. The book’s title refers to the potential catastrophe that an administration fails to plan for and prevent. Today, he talks about how Trump’s handling of COVID-19 “has proven his book tragically prophetic. This is a follow-up, of sorts to his earlier interview with Franken when the book was released, and the two had a fascinating conversation.
Every year around this time, there are articles about which recorded version of A Christmas Carol is "the best." Usually it comes down to the films that starred either Alistair Sim or Reginald Owen.
But for me, it's this one. It's not a movie, though, or a TV production. It's, of all things, an audio version that was done in 1960 for, I believe, the BBC. It's quite wonderful and as good an adaptation of the story as I've come across. It stars Sir Ralph Richardson as Scrooge, and Oscar-winner Paul Scofield as Dickens, the narrator. Casts don't get much better than that.
I first heard this on radio station WFMT in Chicago which has been playing this every Christmas Eve for many decades. (And still does.) Eventually, I found it on audio tape. I've listened to it annually since I was a kidling. Some years I think I won't listen to it this year, but put it on for a few minutes for tradition's sake -- but after the first sentence it sucks me in.
There are four reasons why, for me, this is far and away the best version. But one reason leaps out.
First, the acting is as good as it gets. Scofield is crisp and emphatic as the narrator,and almost every creak of his voice draws you in to the world, and Richardson as Scrooge is a Christmas pudding joy. Second, being radio, you aren't limited by budgets to create the Dickensian world. Your imagination fills in every lush and poverty-stricken, nook and cranny -- and ghostly spirit, aided by moody sound effects and violins. Third, the adaptation sticks closely to the Dickens tale, and Scrooge comes across more a realistic, rounded-person than as a Mythic Icon.
And fourth, and most of all by far, unlike any of the other version, this includes...Dickens. While the story of A Christmas Carol is beloved, it's Dickens' writing that makes it even more vibrant than the story alone is. And that's all lost in the movie versions, even down even to the legendary opening line, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Or any of the other classic narrative lines. Or the richness of Dickens setting the mood and tone and description of the gritty and ephemeral and emotional world. All that's gone in movies, good as the productions may be. But all of that is here in this radio adaptation, and Scofield's reading of it is joyously wonderful and memorable. For many, this will be A Christmas Carol unlike any other you're aware of, giving it a meaning and richness you didn't realize was there. The ending of the tale is so much more moving and joyful here, as we listen to Dickens' own words, that begin with "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more," and it soars from there, to perhaps my favorite passage about the new Scrooge and how good he is in the "good old world. Or any other good old world."
If you have the time or inclination, do give it a listen. If only for five minutes to at least get the flavor. You might find yourself sticking around. Let it play in the background, if you have other things to do. It runs about 55 minutes.
(Side note: speaking of Dickens, if you know the original cast album of Oliver!, the actor here who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, Willoughby Goddard, was Mr. Bumble on Broadway and in the original London production.)
This might not play immediately, since it's a large file and may have to buffer first. But be patient, it's worth it.
At the moment, I'm reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent book Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times. Published last September, it's a look at the presidencies of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ from their beginnings to overcoming personal trials and how they become leaders in the White House during difficult periods in the nation's history. (If you're interested, you can find it here.)
I read a passage yesterday, and it was near-impossible not to overlap with it current events. It's a part of the section leading up to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and deals with how Lincoln was able to keep his cabinet together despite them being divided on what he was doing.
This is the Father of the Republican Party. Times change. I don't think any following comment after the passage is necessary.
"Time and again, Welles marveled, Lincoln 'declared that he, and not his Cabinet, was in fault for errors imputed to them.' His refusal to let a subordinate take the blame for his decisions was never better illustrated than by his public defense after McClellan attributed the Peninsula disaster to the War Department's failure to send sufficient troops. A vicious public assault upon Stanton ensued, with subsequent calls for his resignation. To create a dramatic backdrop that would garner extensive newspaper coverage, Lincoln issued an order to close down all the government departments at one o'clock so everyone might attend a massive Union rally on the Capitol steps. There, after the firing of cannon and patriotic music from the Marine Band, Lincoln directly countered McClellan's charge. He insisted that every possible soldier available had been sent to reinforce the general. 'The Secretary of War is not to blame for giving what he had none to give.' Then, as the applause mounted, Lincoln continued: 'I believe [Stanton] is a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.' Lincoln's spirited defense of his beleaguered secretary skillfully extinguished the campaign against Stanton.
"In the end, it was Lincoln's character -- his consistent sensitivity, patience, prudence, and empathy -- that inspired and transformed every member of his official family. In this paradigm of team leadership, greatness was grounded in goodness."
Now that "Captain Kangaroo" is trending, thanks yesterday to the always-egregious Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), it gives me a chance to bring up a fond memory that I actually met the Captain himself (Bob Keeshan) at a book expo several years back that I was reporting on, and even got to do him a favor with the WGA. He was a very nice guy. And I still have the book he signed for me.
The favor was small, but still a treat.
When I was wandering the hall, I happened to spot his booth where he was promoting his new book, and made my way right over. We got to chatting and he noted that my press badge was from the Writers Guild of America. He mentioned that he was a Guild member in the WGA East, though because of that he wasn't able to get the Guild's Written By magazine which was quite good, and he'd always wanted to. I said that I knew the editor and would follow-up on it.
When I returned to Los Angeles, I gave a call to the editor Richard Stayton and explained the situation. Without a moment's hesitation (not schocking, I know, but still, hey, you never know...) he immediate said with enthusiasm that, of course, he'd be absolutely to add Captain Kangaroo to the mailing list.
It's always nice to be able to do someone a favor. It's hard to explain how joyous it is to do a favor for Captain Kangaroo.
This week's Ron Burgundy podcast is a big treat -- at least for me. But I also think it should be for most people, especially is they like history. She's always a wonderful, lively interview, but far more than that Is one of my handful of favorite historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin -- who Ron describes as his ex-girlfriend...which they actually discuss at length. She wrote the wonderful book Team of Rivals, which served as the foundation for the Spielberg film, Lincoln. Won the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. And the paperback edition of her latest history, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, has recently been released. The interview is full of wonderful stories, a great deal of charm, and much humor.
The guest contestant on the 'Not My Job' segment of this week's NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is author Piper Kerman .Some of you may know who Ms. Kerman is, but for those who don't she wrote a memoir, Orange is the New Black, on which the Netflix TV series is based -- with (as she notes) takes a lot of liberties with the true story. Her interview with host Peter Sagal is pretty straightforward, going over the story of her past -- and current efforts, which includes teaching writing in state prison -- but Sagal and she are able to make it quite entertaining, including her recipe on how to make a cheesecake when in prison.
The guest contestant on this week's 'Not My Job' segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is novelist Jennifer Weiner. The particularly-fun part of the interview with host Peter Sagal is when she discusses telling her mother that her first novel (which was semi-autobiographical) was being published and that its title was Good in Bed. The quiz is also one of the funniest they've had for a very specific, odd reason.
Rachel Maddow reported on a border story last night that was (not shockingly) utterly horrible, though happily (and shockingly) has a positive ending. But as pronounced and despicable as the story is entirely on its own, there's one side note to it that adds such a profound and -- to me -- obvious level of perspective that sends it to even another level. Yet neither she, nor the NPR report she played, nor any of the articles I read touched on it. To be clear, the story doesn't even remotely need this "other level," it stands low all by itself. But still -- this other level is otherworldly. And when I told the story and connection to a friend, I only had to mention one thing, and he instantly got it, and his immediate reaction was first silence, and then, "Oh, my God..."
The very short version of the news story is that a Honduran family tried to enter the United States at El Paso, Texas, in large part because the youngest of their three children -- a little 3-year-old girl -- has a heart condition that needed treatment. The border official in charge told the family that the mother could stay in the U.S., but that the father had to be sent back across the border into Mexico. But no, that's not the horrible part. The sick part of the story is that (prepare yourself) the U.S. border official told the little 3-year old girl that she had to decide which of her parents she wanted to stay with!!!
Because the little child had a strong attachment with her mother, that's who she chose to remain with. But of course, being only 3-years-old, she didn't understand the full significance of what that meant. And when she learned that it meant she had to leave her father, she (of course) began crying, breaking into huge tears, as did all the other two children.
The good part of the story is that, thanks to a local bishop, the family was able to meet the next day with a different border official, and he approved all of them staying in the country.
But still...the fortunate ending is a lucky circumstance, most especially considering all the hellish news that envelopes this dismal situation. More to the point is -- how on earth do you force a 3-year old girl to choose which of her parents she wants to stay with???!!
And here then is the "side note" part of the news story that Maddow, NPR and all of the articles I came across didn't draw any connection to. It turns out that the little 3-year-old girl who had to choose which of her parents she would stay with was named --
When I was watching the story, I thought it likely that I didn't hear that right and rolled the program back to watch that point again, sure that I heard the name wrong. Figuring it was a name that was close, but not exact. But no, it was exact. Sofi. The 3-year-old girl forced by a guard to choose which of her parents to stay with was named "Sofi."
While I know there are many who have neither read the novel Sophie's Choice by William Styron, nor seen the movie, I suspect most have at least heard of it. The novel won the National Book Award in 1980, and the 1982 movie got five Oscar nominations and won Meryl Streep the Academy Award for Best Actress. But for those here who don't know the story, it centers on a woman in Nazi Germany being sent off to a prison camp who is forced by a Nazi official to choose which of her two little children will live, and which other they will kill.
Obviously, this connection has absolutely nothing to directly do with this recent news story at the Texas border, which stands on its own as the entire point . But it strikes me as surprising that it wouldn't get mentioned for its thoroughly-obvious, ethereal connection and overlap with the renowned novel and award-winning movie about an almost-identical subject and name. In fact, Maddow's show even had a graphic on screen quoting from the NPR radio report that read, "The agent then turned to 3-year-old Sofi and told her to make a choice."
While one explanation for leaving out any mention of the connection is that it's so obvious that people would know it and therefore wasn't necessary -- no. The novel and movie are both almost 40 years old. I feel quite certain that there is a significant segment of the TV audience weren't born for a decade or even two later that remotely doesn't know either. And besides, Rachel Maddow is a host who often spends up to 15 minutes at the beginning of her show going into a long, detailed history of events (and sometimes very well-known history at that) to put a particular story in full perspective. And I'm certain that she and her staff know the book and movie. As do the other reporters. So, I think this is more something that seems to have just fallen through the cracks. To be clear, no, mentioning the connection wasn't even remotely necessary -- but boy, do I think the added literary perspective would have been utterly fascinating to most people and, in fact, even meaningful. All the more so with the current controversy about calling the cages that separated families "concentration camps."
But that aside, what a ghastly, sick tale without any added perspective. Thank goodness that at least one family was able with help to stumble into some decency when dealing with a Trump program filled with racist hate.
You can read a detailed report about the story in Texas here from the Dallas Morning News.
Here is the 5-minute scene from the movie with the choice. If you haven't seen the film and want to avoid watching it yet, skip by. Just know that the story is about more than this moment, but how it impacted her life and those of several other people much later. This comes as a flashback near the end when we finally learn what dark moment from her past has so deeply affected all that came after for her.
Back in Los Angeles, after a bunch of delays on my flight back from Chicago.
While I was away, apparently there's been some major controversy about Disney casting a black actress to star as Ariel in the upcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid. It's a big deal on the white supremacists sites, needless-to-say, but also some Disney "purists" are beside themselves, very upset that this is not the Arilel they grew up with.
While I sort of, kind of, slightly understand the thoughts of a Disney "purist" -- that understanding only goes so far and most I couldn't care less. Not only because it's a fictional character, but also because it really doesn't seem to change much about the story.
But there's another big reason, too.
The Little Mermaid was written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. That's long, long, long, LOOOOONG before Disney adapted their version, and today's "Disney purists" first saw the story. -- which substantially changed from the original. Which is okay...though if one is going to be a "purist" it's certainly worth noting.
But even more than that, back in 1913 -- 106 years ago -- a statue of The Little Mermaid was erected in Copenhagen to honor their Hans Christian Andersen and his story. And while it's not likely that the artist was making an ethno-analysis of the character, and it's just color of the material he chose to use, he could have chosen to use any stone, and in the end, it's all we have to go on.
Yes, just in case "purists" aren't clear -- she's black.
This week, Al Franken's conversation is with author Michael Lewis, whose books include Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, Liar's Poker and many others. They discuss Lewis's latest bestseller, The Fifth Risk, which the site says, "Al calls the best book about the Trump Administration, in no small part because there’s very little focus on Trump himself. Instead, Lewis takes us inside of three Cabinet agencies – Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy – and the incompetent, venal, and/or corrupt appointees who find their way into crucial positions within the federal government."
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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