The guest contestant on this week's 'Not My Job' segment of the NPR quiz game show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is Kevin Kwan, author of the novel Crazy Rich Asians. His interview with host Peter Sagal is fascinating and delves into the reality behind his series of books which he notes are not only 99% true, but he often had to tone them down.
I've written in the past about how I don't prefer to read current events books when they're initially published, rather like to read them 10-20 years later. That way, many things that would otherwise mean nothing when you read them on the publication date often marinate over time and take on substantive meaning later on. (For instance, I once read a current events book on Washington, D.C. -- but 30 years after publication. There was a passage about a congressman speaking about the importance of transparency and good government, and why being open with the public is so critical to democracy. It was quite noble. And it would have meant nothing at the time that some then-little-known congressman made the statement. But 30 years after the fact, it leaped out that this "noble" statement was made by Dick Cheney.)
Anyway, I made a rare exception by buying Bob Woodward's book Fear upon publication. It just seemed like an important book to read now. However, I put it aside for five weeks because I thought it would make good reading material for my two-day train trip, and wanted to be sure I didn't finish it before taking off.
What a difference even just five weeks makes. Had I read the book when I first received it, the passage in question would have meant nothing. But with only a mere five weeks delay, it leaped out.
Beginning on page 110, Woodward talks about Derek Harvey, director for the Middle East on the National Security Council Staff, who has gone to see Jared Kushner. "'What do you think about the president going to Riyadh for our first presidential trip,' Kushner asked." Harvey was pleased to learn from Kushner that the first presidential trip would not be to Canada or Mexico, as was usual, but rather to Saudi Arabia.
Woodward continues on the next page --
"Kushner told Harvey he had important and reliable intelligence that the key to Saui Arabia was the deputy crown prince, the charismatic 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. The son of the Saudi king, MBS was also the defense minister, a key position and launching pad for influence in the Kingdom. MBS had vision, energy. He was charming and spoke of bold, modernizing reform."
On the other hand, then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had hesitancies and "clearly disliked the out-of-channel approach but there was not much he could do with it" since Kushner was pushing the matter and had Trump's ear. Among McMaster's significant concerns, there was a problem of causing friction in the royal family. But in a meeting, Kushner held his ground and pushed his case to support "MBS." Not only did he insist it was important to meet with Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince for the politics, but also for the business deal that could come of it.
"'I understand this is very ambitious,' the president's son-in-law said. He stood. 'I understand the concerns. But I think we have a real opportunity here. We have to recognize it. I understand we have to be careful. We need to work this diligently, as if it's going to happen. And if it looks like we cant get there, we'll have plenty of time to shift gears. But this is an opportunity that is there for the seizing.'"
Woodward continues. "No one said no. Harvey knew they really couldn't, and he continued to plan as if it was going to happen. He set some thresholds, decided that they would have to have over $100 billion in military contracts agree on beforehand."
And now the Trump administration is in this horrific and untenable situation of defending the ever-changing cockamamie stories from Saudi Arabia trying to explain away the Crown Prince's involvement with killing and dismemberment of an American permanent resident, with American children, and who was working as a journalist for an American newspaper. All because of a potential, national business deal and previous personal business connections.
Showing once again why nepotism is quite frowned upon when it comes to hiring advisers at the White House, especially high level ones. And most especially when the person has absolutely no experience in international diplomacy. Particularly when they have massive, personal money problems and are looking for friends to help bail them out. And the president has his own business dealings without financial disclosure. No, this $100 billion opportunity was not a good one to seize.
And had I read the passage only five weeks ago, it would have zipped past.
As long as we're talking about novels today, I figured that this fit in quite nicely.
My pal Bart Baker is a successful writer of about a dozen TV movies and several feature films. He's also recently started writing novels the past few years, which I've mentioned here, most notably Honeymoon with Harry, which I heartily recommend. Yes, I'm biased, since I edited the book, but I'm not wrong -- it has a 4-1/2 star rating out of five on Amazon, and its been optioned by the movie production company, New Line for Warner Bros. (You can get the book here. Did I say it's really good?)
Anyway, the novel has been out for a while, but for reasons unknown to me, it just got published in, of all places, Hungary. Bart sent me a copy of the Foreward, though he has no idea what it says because (aside from not speaking Hungarian) he thinks it got heavily edited. He remembers mentioning several family members -- like his father -- who he doesn't see anywhere among the words. But...I'm in there! (Which is why he sent me a copy.) What's most hilarious, however, is that I'm referred to as Robert J. Elisbergnek.
I have no idea why on earth they’d change the spelling of someone’s last name. They didn’t change “Robert.” Was Barack Obama known as "Barack Obamanek" when he visited Hungary? Perhaps so, for all I know.) But there it is -- Elisbergnek.
Making this all the more bizarre is that at the end of the first line, you can see someone mentioned, Joe Elvisnek. That ended "-nek" aside, his actual name is Joe Alway. How it became Elvis...oh, who knows?
Not understanding a word of Hungarian, Bart was not only curious how they'd edited and translated his Foreward -- but his whole book, for that matter.
And not understanding a work of Hungarian, I know no idea. But I did have a brainstorm – I used the Google Translate app on my phone and took a screenshot of the Foreward. And so I got a translation!! (I changed one thing from the results. The app didn’t have a translation for the word "Koszonom," but I found it online. So I added that in here. It means “Thank you.” And it also couldn’t find “Kulon,” but checking online that appears to mean “separately,” so I’ve fixed that line, as well. ) And to be fair, this isn’t even remotely an accurate translation, but a computer app version. So the syntax is going to be terrible. But it's pretty impressive that it does such a respectable job. While having a few chuckles in there, too.
Here’s a rough version of what Bart Baker is saying in his Hungarian Foreward --
Let me give you my family, Joe Elvis, Isaiah and Emmanuel, who are always with me and they love me, even if I do not deserve it. You are my life, safe shelter. In addition, I would love to say good-bye to my wonderful relatives and fantasy bartenders, who are not only inexhaustible inspirational sources – but I can not deny – but also the most enthusiastic supporters at the same time.
There have been a bunch of postings on social media today about it being the birthday of Fred Gwynne, who passed away in 1993 at the age of 67. And all of these postings have a photo of him from the TV series The Munsters, clearly his more recognizable role. But --
Back in my dark days when I was a unit publicist, I worked on the Stephen King film Pet Sematary that Fred was the co-star of. He gave a extremely good performance and was a nice man -- not overly outgoing, but personable and approachable. But when it came time for me to interview him...he would NOT talk about The Munsters. He almost shut down when I brought the topic up. And no, it's not that I just sort of got that impression, but he specifically said that he wouldn't talk about it. He fully recognized that the show made him famous, and clearly there were benefits from that, but he said bluntly it pretty much ruined his acting career. He was deeply typecast and couldn't get roles -- or at least decent roles -- for a long time. Happily, late in career he started getting hired in some solid roles and gave wonderful performances, most particularly in The Cotton Club memorably paired alongside Bob Hoskins, but also My Cousin Vinnie, as the judge, and the aforementioned, Pet Sematary. Unfortunately, he passed away in the midst of this long-overdue renaissance -- but at least he had the renaissance.
And lest one think that he was being presumptuous about his acting career -- know that he appeared on Broadway quite a bit, making his debut in Mrs. McThing (by Mary Chase, who wrote Harvey) opposite Helen Hayes. And his first movie, though uncredited, was On the Waterfront. And during the years he had difficulty getting solid roles in films and TV, he returned to the stage often, such as the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as 'Big Daddy,' and in two parts of the Broadway production of A Texas Trilogy, as well as the stage manager in the American Shakespeare Festival production of Our Town. He was also a good singer -- appearing on Broadway in the Meredith Willson musical, Here's Love, based on The Miracle on 34th Street, for which I included one of his songs here. And I also embedded a video of him here singing a song in his first sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You? And an accomplished painter and illustrated and wrote several well-regarded children's books.
I've tried to "correct the record" when I've seen some social media postings on Fred with those photos, since I'm certain it would have galled him. But that's an uphill battle with no expectation of success. But at least here I can not only give the proper record -- but have a proper photo, as well.
And what the heck, let's end it with a bonus: Here's Fred Gwynne singing Gilbert & Sullivan's "A Policeman's Lot" (from The Pirates of Penzance, though with altered lyrics) from an episode of Car 54, Where Are You?. at the precinct's holiday party.
I've mentioned my good pal Bart Baker on this pages several times -- often because of his Shakespearean rants when he writes out his complaints in an email or on social media, usually about politics though occasionally just something in society that gnaws at him. And yes, I have been known to intentionally noodge him, guessing what is to come and looking forward to the tsunami. But those great rants come because he's a great writer -- of screenplays, TV movies and novels, most notably the gem Honeymoon with Harry that I've written about. (It's been sold to the movies, and come close to being produced several times, but...we're still waiting.)
Bart has a new novel which was just published yesterday, so I would be utterly remiss if I didn't at least mention it. The Virgin Daiquiri. No, I haven't read it yet (six pages thus far doesn't count), so I can't give an authoritative view. But from the past I've read enough of Bart's volume of work to know that all his previous books have been a joy, wonderful story-telling and lively dialogue, mixed in with humor. This one tells the story of a cheerful, tropical island barmaid, cosmetic rep and (holding out for "memorable") still-virgin, named Daiquiri La Bouquet -- who is accused by her manipulative mother of attempted murder. The young woman runs off for Manhattan, where she has two goals -- to find her biological father who her mother has always suggested is “the richest man in New York City,” and also to search for the man who one day soon will be "her first."
If you're interested in finding out more about it -- there's a much more detailed synopsis -- you can check things out on Amazon here.
Since Bart is a father with two kids, I think that that counts as making this a Father's Day posting, as well...
Here's the main story from last night's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It's a smart and scathing 20-minute look at Vice President Mike Pence.
And being John Oliver, it almost goes without saying the the whole piece ends with another one of his pretty-darn brilliant stunts.
Without giving anything away, I'll say that after watching the video if you want to follow-up, you can click the link here for more.
I've been reading Joseph Anton which is written almost like a novel in the third person, but it's a memoir by Salman Rushdie about his early life and time during the 11 years being under the fatwa. It's quite good -- the title comes from the code name he used during that time, "Joseph" coming from Joseph Conrad, and "Anton" from Chekhov. And amid it all, there's one particularly interesting, fun passage that stands out for being one of those things we refer to as unintended consequences.
It comes during a section on negotiations to find a publisher for his upcoming novel, The Satanic Verses. There was no controversy at that point, so the issue was a case of advance money and what publisher would be best to handle the distribution.
He had been with a small publisher for a few years and had become close to the owner, and his agent (with whom he was also close) recommended it. However, other agents were involved, as were other, larger companies. (One -- which made the best offer -- was owned by Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, and Rushdie notes how thrilled he is that the offer was turned down, because he's certain they never would have supported the book after the difficulties began.)
In the end, for long reasons explained in the book, he went with one of the larger publishers. In the process, though, it hurt his friendship with the smaller publisher, and with his agent and friend, who he lost when he took the other offer.
Rushdie notes that, as it happened, over time, his strong friendship with the small publisher and agent managed to build itself up again, and they became very helpful supporters during his time being protected, which he explains in detail later in the book. But it was something else long in the future which he said likely never would have happened if he had stayed with his former publisher, and so it turned out to be the decision all for the best, even though it didn't seem like that at the time.
As Rushdie notes, because his former publisher was so small, it is not likely that they could have handled the pressures caused by the fatwa. Even his large, corporate publisher had huge difficulties with it -- having to build extra security measures in to their headquarters and pay a great deal for extra security personnel. Not to mention needing the cover of a large enterprise to be able to handle all the requirements of logistics that came crushing down on the company. He says that if the small publisher had handled The Satanic Verses, it's likely that they would have been overwhelmed by it all, taken huge financial its, and gone out of business.
And if that had happened, he writes, the small publisher, Bloomsbury, "would never have survived to discover an obscure, unpublished children's author called Jo Rowling."
I had something else planned for today, but waking up I heard on the radio that it was National Winnie the Pooh Day -- though really it's a day for A.A. Milne, in honor of his birth today in 1882. So, I figured we might as well have two Happy Birthday Days in a row. And so, Happy 136th Birthday it is.
Rather than video from some Disney cartoon of Winnie the Pooh, I thought I'd go a different direction. Instead, here are a couple of songs.
The first is the wonderful "House at Pooh Corner," written by Kenny Loggins, and performed by him and his partner Jim Messina.
And the second song is the utterly charming "Alexander Beetle," sung and co-written by Melanie, a very popular performer whose career began in the late-60s -- though she's still touring and performing. The reason I include this and why I say "co-written" is because the words to the song here are from a poem by A.A. Milne.
(Side Note: in 1989, Melanie won an Emmy for writing the lyrics to the theme song to the TV series, Beauty and the Beast, "The First Time I Loved Forever.")
I was going to include the album cut of the song, but found video of her singing it not only on The Ed Sullivan Show, but it was the very last Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. Surprisingly it begins with her singing a bit of her big hit, "Look What They've Done to My Song," but then we do get around to the wonderful, "Alexander Beetle."
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 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 played this every Christmas Eve for many decades. (And did up until last year, though I don't see it on the schedule this season.) 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.
(That's Sir Ralph Richardson on the left, who plays Scrooge. And Paul Scofield must be the other one, as the narrator.)
This is sort of remarkable. Back in 2005, Harper Lee, who famously wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, (and is from, of course, Alabama), wrote a letter criticizing Roy Moore. Not about people who are “like” Roy Moore...but, no, about Roy Moore specifically.
In the letter to a historian friend, she wrote --
"It looks like to hell if we don't get some things changed. . . . I dread the advent of Roy Moore's administration but its coming sure as doomsday. What is wrong with us? Are you old enough to remember when people were less ignorant? I am."
You can read an article on the story behind it, written by that historian, here.
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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