Category Archives: Books

The ghost of Tom Wolfe in New Yorker editor’s early work

I just sort of ran across this by accident the other day, and enjoyed discovering it.

I was thinking about Daniel Patrick Mohnihan, someone I admired greatly. And for whatever reason, I was thinking about stories I used to hear about his drinking. So I Googled it.

And I ran across this profile from 1986. It mentions rumors of drinking, but only in passing. That’s not why I’m sharing it. I’m sharing it because I thought, wow, here was a journalist who was even more impressed with Tom Wolfe than I was. The piece begins:

Has teevee land ever seen a man so tickled as Daniel Patrick Moynihan?DanielPatrickMoynihan

As he describes the plight of the American family to Phil Donahue, the senator’s knees lock and his shoe tips wag. His bushy brows hump up like two millipedes on a twig, then ascend to his thatchy forelock. When the audience applauds him, Moynihan applauds back. And as the clapping flattens into a roar, his mouth goes pursy, forming a fleshy Irish rose.

His daughter Maura — late of Harvard and the rock group the Same — has seen the look before. “Dad’s mouth gets like that when he’s happy,” she says.

After the show, Moynihan lumbers toward the elevator. He is a towering sight — 6 feet 4 inches — and surprisingly trim. He is one of those men whose waggy midlife jowls make them seem far heavier than they are.

“Saddle up, children!” he yells tinnily, and the entourage shuffles over to meet him. There is something antique, something mythological about Moynihan. The theater he has become — the herky-jerky Anglo-speech, the bow tie slightly askew, the tweedy caps and professorial rambles — they all make him seem vaguely not there, a figure not of the present but of an unreal history, an American Edmund Burke taking dominion on the Hill….

So who was this writer who so ably impersonated the Cool-Write King himself?

Well, it was David Remnick, who has been editor of The New Yorker for the past 20 years, back during his Washington Post days.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading it and thought I would share…

Philip Roth, the last of the literary lions of the ’60s

At least, I don’t think there are any left… Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, John Updike… who’s missing?

Anyway, Philip Roth’s gone now, too.Philip_Roth_-_1973

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. I had read and largely loved most of what Tom Wolfe had ever published, so he meant more to me.

I think all I ever read by Roth was “Goodbye Columbus.” That was pretty good, but not exactly something that set my mind on fire the way, say, Catch-22 did. I think I liked some of the other stories in that collection better, such as “The Conversion of the Jews.” So I appreciate that one writer eulogized him as being “forever the little boy on the roof threatening to jump, forcing the Rabbi into an apology.” Nicely said, especially since it’s an allusion I actually get.

But I never heard anything about Portnoy’s Complaint that made me want to read it. (Of course, I never heard much about it that rose above the level of a dirty joke.) Maybe I should. You know, to have a better grasp on the serious literature of my time, the way I made myself read a couple of Updike’s “Rabbit” books, to be better in touch with the alienation and discontent of my generation and yadda-yadda.

Or maybe not. I had a pretty happy childhood, and have only ever had a limited appetite for disaffected moral aridity. Thoughts?

Or anything else you’d like to say about Roth? I’m outta ammo…

Goodbye, Columbus: I not only read the book, but saw the film. I'll say this for it: If forced to watch an Ali McGraw movie, I'd rather see this than "Love Story."

Goodbye, Columbus: I not only read the book, but saw the film. I’ll say this for it: If forced to watch an Ali MacGraw movie, I’d rather see this than “Love Story.” That’s about as far as I can go with it. I liked Benjamin better in “Catch-22.”

The life of a gentleman is (or was) the life for me…

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To live any other way would be… insupportable…

Kay Packett, who has been known to comment here in the past, confessed on Facebook that “I want to live in an English novel, where, when anything goes wrong, someone immediately makes tea. I don’t even like tea.”

I responded immediately:

I’ll drink anything you like, as long as I’m a country gentleman with a competent man of business to deal with the running of the estate. I’ll be happy to serve as an MP as long I don’t have to think too hard, just vote the High Tory line. Will I have a membership at White’s, for when I’m in Town? If so, I’m in… Yeah, I’ve thought this out…

And I have thought it out; that’s the pathetic part. All that stuff was right there at my fingertips when the question arose.

And just so you don’t think I want to be a leech on society, I would also be happy to serve as a post captain in the Royal Navy during the same period (Regency era), commanding a frigate, with plenty of independent cruises and therefore opportunities for prize money…

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THAT’S kind of a cool, idiosyncratic ad…

Fenimore

Google Adsense gives me a lot of odd ads that I’d rather not see on the blog.

But I thought this one was pretty cool, and kinda weird — a James Fenimore Cooper ad?

I just flashed on my fave line in that movie with Daniel Day Lewis, when the British officer asks Nathaniel how he can possibly go to Kentucky when there’s a war on where he is, and the reply is, “Well, we kinda face to the north and real sudden-like turn left…”

Although, now that I think about it… Since this was set in Upstate New York, shouldn’t he head south and then turn right? Or head west and then turn left? Maybe the actor got confused because they filmed it in North Carolina, which would have made those directions perfect…

Wes Studi: One scary villain

Wes Studi: One scary villain

I don’t know, but I liked the film for two reasons: One was the incredible menace of Wes Studi, who played Magua. That was one scary villain.

The second was how well Day-Lewis inhabited a character who is probably THE prototypical American character. There’s no one in literature more American, unless it’s Huck Finn.  (That quote, displaying his utter lack of regard as to what a representative of the Crown thought of his doings, perfectly illustrated that.) How do the Brits do that, time after time? This may well be the ultimate example of the phenomenon.

Of course, not all the Google ads today are awesome. At the same time the Cooper one was showing, there was this across the top of the page….

No, not the great picture I took in Thailand. I mean the thing under it...

No, not the great picture I took in Thailand. I mean the thing under it…

 

The Kid Who Batted 1.000 (almost)

My MLB At Bat app brought the above video to my attention today.

The brief description:

Jaime Barria and Brandon Belt face off in a 21-pitch duel to set the record for the most pitches in an MLB at-bat in the modern era

Here’s the NYT’s report on what happened: “21 Pitches, 16 Fouls, 12 Minutes: Brandon Belt’s Marathon At-Bat.”

Now that’s what I call some baseball — not these towering home runs the app usually tells me about.s-l225

It reminds me of one of my favorite books from my youth, The Kid Who Batted 1.000, by Bob Allison and Frank Ernest Hill.

I read it over and over when I was a kid, checking it out from the school library multiple times to do so. Then I went years without seeing a copy, and had thought it was something I’d never see again, until my wife found a dog-eared copy that had belonged to one of her brothers. So I got to read it as an adult, and enjoyed it just as much.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the story of Dave King, a farmboy who is discovered to have a weird talent: He can foul off any pitch thrown by any pitcher. He gets signed to a Major League team and leads it out of the cellar because he always draws walks — usually after wearing down and shattering the nerves of the opposing pitcher.

Finally, in the last game of the World Series, he hits a home run, thereby earning a batting average of 1.000 — albeit only in postseason play.

It’s great. If you can find a copy, I do recommend picking one up…

By the way, the real-life batter, Brandon Belt, didn’t quite equal Dave King’s achievement. After those 21 pitches, the Giants first-basemen flies out to right field…

Zuckerberg: Looking like a Stranger in a Strange Land

This was the picture that inspired the Tweet, although almost any picture of him would do...

This was the picture that inspired the Tweet, although almost any picture of him would do…

Sorry I haven’t had much time to post.

Here’s a Tweet I sent couple of days ago that I meant to share. Heinlein fans among you might appreciate it:

Do you see what I mean?

Does becoming a billionaire before you’re an adult make you look like that? Maybe it keeps you from developing the usual lines and furrows that show human character.

Again, it’s not his youth. It’s… something else. He’s an unusual-looking guy, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. But it reminds me of descriptions of the Man from Mars in Stranger in a Strange Land, such as when Jill Boardman is trying to figure out her own impressions of Michael’s countenance:

Jill

The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

This is just a by-the-way thing, for people who haven’t picked up on it…

The Washington Post yesterday had this story headlined, “Archaeologists discover 81 ancient settlements in the Amazon.” It said in part:

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests; they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”…

Though conservationists often speak of this region as having been a “pristine” landscape, studies by de Souza and others suggest that indigenous people influenced and enriched the rain forest for hundreds of years….

Surprising? Only if you indeed think of the pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who barely touched the land they lived on.

But in fact, researchers have been debunking that view for years.

If you haven’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, you should. That 2005 book, followed six years later by the equally fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, endeavored to bring us laymen up to date on what modern researchers were learning about this hemisphere before Europeans came to stay.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember two main points, new things, that I learned from it:

  • The American population before 1492 was many times as large as previously estimated. But Europeans, the people who wrote the history, never met these people. That’s because, thanks to inter-tribe trade, European diseases wiped out millions — entire villages, entire cultures — before the newcomers even encountered them. (Europeans would land on a coast, coastal Indians would be infected by their diseases and pass them on to inland tribes they traded with. Thus, European diseases raced well ahead of actual Europeans.) That’s one reason the conquistadores were able to conquer. The Incas, for instance, had been ravaged by disease to the point that their empire was on the verge of collapse before Pizarro arrived.
  • The Indians had a dramatic effect on the land before the arrival of whites. They were big users of slash-and-burn land management, including in the hallowed Amazon rain forest. In fact, much of the jungle found by white settlers was only a generation or two old, having grown up after the local land managers died off.

I may be misremembering a detail or two, since it’s been 1491-coverawhile since I read it. But I think I have the broad outline right. One of the most dramatic assertions I remember from the book was that the Little Ice Age the planet experienced from the 16th to the 19th centuries was at least in part caused by this sudden drop in human population in the Amazon basin, which allowed the rainforest to surge, taking in more carbon dioxide and lowering global temperatures.

Of course, this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest, which the nature-loving folk who went before would never have done. (Or, if it doesn’t debunk it, at least adds layers of complication. Apparently, the Indian methods were more sustainable.) At the same time, it reinforces the idea that what humans do and don’t do affect global climate.

All of which reinforces my long-held belief that life is more complicated than most people give it credit for being.

I know I’ve recommended this book before, but the Post story reminded me of it, so I’m recommending it again. It’s fascinating to learn that things you thought you knew were so, are not…

Statement: ‘Appy-polly-loggies, oh my brothers (and to all devotchkas and ptitsas)!’

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Apparently The Onion had this back in November, but they just tweeted it again:

Alex DeLarge Forced To Step Down As Leader Of Droogs Amidst Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct

LONDON—Pushed out of power as the damning charges mounted, Alex DeLarge was forced to step down Wednesday as leader of the Droogs amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. “In an unfortunate development, we have been forced to remove Mr. DeLarge from his post due to the startling accusations of sexual impropriety that have come to light,” said Droog member Georgie, explaining that although the group had systems in place to swiftly address such allegations, it clearly did not adequately follow those procedures. “Even though these acts took place decades ago, it does not excuse Alex’s heinous and unforgivable actions. This is not at all what the Droogs stand for.” At press time, DeLarge had offered to undergo two weeks of rigorous aversion therapy to rehabilitate himself.

We have high hopes for this Ludovico Technique, which is the heighth of fashion in reconditioning, and we expect our droogie to be back at the Korova Milkbar in his platties of the night at fortnight’s end, slooshying to lovely Ludwig van.

For now, he has a bit of a pain in the gulliver, so bedways is rightways…

original

A man does not need a game to drink, if he is a man

A man does not need company to drink. Nor does he need games...

A man does not need company to drink. Nor does he need games…

I noticed the other day that the MSM (the Charleston paper) had reported on the Nancy Mace video (yeah, that one). This part of the story, relating the reaction of Mace opponent Cindy Boatwright, jumped out at me:

Boatwright, a mental health counselor making her first bid for office, confirmed she has played beverage games in the past.

“Yup, I have,” she told Palmetto Politics. “However, not last year. I went to college. There was beer pongs.”…

First, I think it’s beer pong, not “pongs,” but I could be wrong, having never played. (Weirder was the paper’s description of the Mace video: “In the clip, Mace, who won the House District 99 GOP runoff Tuesday, is seen drinking a beverage and then pouring the liquid from her mouth into the mouth of another person at a table.” Don’t know about you, but “pouring” seems the wrong verb. Whatever.)

But here’s my question: Who needs a game in order to drink? I mean, I went to college, and I drank my share of beer and wine (and maybe someone else’s when he wasn’t looking). I don’t remember having to play games as an excuse to imbibe.

Is it a woman thing? I ask because another thing I did in college was read a lot of Hemingway, which is why I know that a man does not need a game to drink like a man. A man need only get up in the morning. First, he will do some work, which he will do cleanly and well. He might do some journalism to pay the bills, and then work on the next chapter of the book, the one about the war. Then he will stop while the work is still good, and when he knows what comes next.

Then he will go to the cafe and he will drink. He will do so deliberately and with purpose, as a man does. He will read the Herald-Tribune while he drinks. He may start with one of those Dutch beers that are so cool and so clean in the green bottles. Then the man will proceed to another cafe, where he will read the letters from his publisher while having an aperitif. He will then eat his lunch with a bottle of rioja alta, which is an honest wine and red, like the red that spills from the bull at the end of the corrida . He will take satisfaction in this because the work he has done this day was right and true, so that he knows he has deserved the wine.

He will not speak during any of this. If Brett starts to speak, he will say, “Don’t talk about it. If we talk about it, we will lose it…”

OK, I forget now where I was going with this…

This made me smile today: Pumpkin-Spice Dostoevsky

I loved this tweet from Tim Ervolina:

Truth be told, if you follow the link, the joke becomes extremely silly to the point of being unfunny almost right away. I mean, it’s not a deep joke to start with. That, after all, is the point — something as profound as Dostoevsky being paired with something as superficial as…

Well, never mind. I just enjoyed the tweet…

John Ashbery: He was a poet, and I didn’t know it

Ashbery

The other day, I showed a screenshot from my NYT app in which everything visible on the page was about Hurricane Harvey. Well, that’s not the only thing the paper covers thoroughly.

A couple of days back, poet John Ashbery died, and the Times went pretty big with it — as you see, four separate headlines.

And this made me feel dumb, and out of it.

It got me to thinking: Aside from that anthology of Yeats (which I’ve had since college) that sits on a shelf in our upstairs bathroom, which I may glance at once or twice a year, when do I ever read poetry any more at all? (And let’s be really honest here: When I do pick up the Yeats book, I don’t read anything new — I turn either to “The Second Coming” or “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”)

Can I even name a living poet? I mean, I sort of think of Elvis Costello as a poet, and some people might cite rappers, but here I’m using a more restrictive definition: Can I name any living people who just write verse without being known for anything else, full-time poets like Yeats and Keats and Coleridge and e.e. cummings, or, I don’t know, Edwin Arlington Robinson (who I had to look up to add to the list, even though I do remember one of his poems)?

No, I cannot. As much as I was immersed in such in school, it’s like poetry was a thing that ceased to exist after graduation, as much a thing of the past as knights in armor. And I’m a guy who’s always made his living with words! If there’s a latter-day belle dame sans merci, or a goat-footed balloon man still out there whistling far and wee, I am unaware of it.

Apparently, this John Ashbery was a major deal. He won every poetry prize there was, and lived to be 90 without my being aware of him.

Were any of y’all as ignorant as I?

Here’s one of his poems:

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

So now you can say you read some poetry today. How often can you say that?

Advertise on my blog, or I WILL BLOT OUT THE SUN!

Hank Morgan tied to the stake: Illustration of the eclipse scene in Connecticut Yankee.

Hank Morgan tied to the stake: Illustration of the eclipse scene in Connecticut Yankee.

I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the Sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the Earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the Earth shall famish and die, to the last man!

— Hank’s threat to Arthur’s realm, in Connecticut Yankee

I loved it that Cindi Scoppe cited one of my all-time favorite books in her column today.

Even though we worked together all those years, I don’t recall her ever mentioning Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. In fact, I don’t recall her speaking with interest about any works of fiction. Cindi’s too busy for fiction. She spends her evenings reading bills and legal filings, so she can knowledgeably dissect them in the paper.

I, too, have been thinking a lot about Hank Morgan, what with all this talk about the eclipse.

Ah, to have a gullible 6th century population so that I, too, might be able to control them with my knowledge of the coming moments of midday darkness! Morgan not only saved himself from the stake, but seized control of Arthur’s Britain by claiming credit for the eclipse.

What would I do with such superior knowledge? I suppose I could greatly increase my revenues by saying, “Advertise on my blog, or I will blot out the sun!” (Might as well. Nothing else seems to work. That is, my personal strategy of sitting back and waiting for ads hasn’t worked too well. I suppose there are other avenues.)

Of course, they didn’t have blogs in Arthur’s day. But that wouldn’t have stopped Hank Morgan — in no time at all, he had all the knights of the Round Table talking on telephones and playing baseball (in their armor). If Twain had written it a century later, he’d have made Clarence a webmaster.

I’ve got to go back and read that again. Fortunately, I have it on my iPad…

How far have we come in 70 years? Maybe not so far…

cadet

When I saw the above story, and especially the picture with it, I had to smile.

Look at that young woman! She has worked hard, and achieved a milestone toward a lifelong goal. She deserves the joy I see in her face. God bless her. I’d like to meet her and shake her hand, and thank her for her service, and her drive to excel in that service. For the rest of the day, I’d probably feel much better about Life, the Universe and Everything — and especially the human race, which as we know can be disappointing at times.

But when I read stories like this, this tiny, cynical voice tries to ruin it by saying something like “Another ‘first’ story. It’s 2017, and ‘first’ stories still get big play in The New York Times.”

Don’t blame me. On this point, I was warped early on. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And a lot of things about that book have stuck with me. Here’s one of them…

X tells this colorful sort of comic-opera story about himself that is much like the one Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant,” about how he got his draft notice, and upon arrival at the intake station went into an elaborate, over-the-top act to get a psychiatrist to rule him unfit for service.

This was 1943. X acts as crazy as he can while standing in line with the other draftees during the physical, and marvels at how long it takes them to pull him out of the queue. But eventually they do, and when he gets to the shrink’s office, he describes this scene:

firsts

Ignore the “not bad to look at” part. This was 1943, and even 20 years later when the book was written, we guys got to say stuff like that without being condemned for it.

Malcolm X in 1964

Malcolm X in 1964

No, my point is what X is saying about “first” stories. Reading this at 17, and rereading it today, I get the strong impression he held such stories in contempt. Part of this arises from the attitudes he would embrace through the Nation of Islam (views he would just be in the process of turning away from as the book was being written). He apparently held all involved in contempt — the white man for so grudgingly allowing black people such small achievements, and black folks for being so thrilled at such crumbs from the white man’s table.

I have never been a bitter cynic in the league of Malcolm X, and hope to God I never will be. I’m pleased for people who accomplish anything that improves their lives and inspires other people. But that anecdote has stuck with me over the years. And every time I see a story like this one today, that memory looms up.

About the time X was working with Alex Haley on that book, the white press joined the “Negro press” in celebrating such firsts. Which in and of itself was a fine thing, a form of progress, of the nation forming a consensus around its highest ideals.

But here it is 2017, and we’re still reading these stories? Almost a decade after the election of our “first black president,” this is still news?

To go back to where I started: I liked reading this story. I like reading about the achievement of a fellow human being named Simone Askew. This world needs more like her! But that part of me that was influenced by that book when I was younger (and far less accomplished) than she is makes me wonder whether it doesn’t take something away from her personal achievement to couch it in terms that Malcolm X scoffed at in 1943…

Jeff Flake’s critique of the GOP under Trump

Approved CFF

 

Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona that you don’t hear so much about, is getting a lot of buzz now for his new book calling out fellow Republicans for failing to stand up to Donald Trump.

Flake likens this action to that of his hero Barry Goldwater acting to keep the John Birch Society out of his conservative movement.

The Washington Post reported on the book this morning at some length. That piece is worth reading. An excerpt:

Just how bad have things gotten in his view? The Republican fears that the term Orwellian “seems quaint now” and “inadequate to our moment.” He muses about the need to devise a new word for the new age “to describe the previously indescribable.”

“Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign,” writes Flake, who has never been known for hyperbole. “And when you suddenly decide that you don’t believe what had recently been your most deeply held beliefs, then you open yourself to believing anything — or maybe nothing at all. Following the lead of a candidate who had a special skill for identifying problems, if not for solving them, we lurched like a tranquilized elephant from a broad consensus on economic philosophy and free trade that had held for generations to an incoherent and often untrue mash of back-of-the-envelope populist slogans.”

As Flake sees it, “We were party to a very big lie.” “Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history,” he writes. “We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” he adds. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”…

‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

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The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

Anton Lesser would (almost) be perfect as Stephen Maturin

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OK, so he’s showing a little too much age. But the face, and its expressions, are perfect.

WARNING: Only about two of my regular readers will find this interesting, but it really interests me and it’s my blog, so…

Awhile back, Bryan brought my attention to something in The Atlantic saying what I’ve said many times myself: One could not find better fodder for a high-quality television series than Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars:

The Next Great TV Show (If Someone Will Make It)

The case for Aubrey & Maturin

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen….

Absolutely. Each of the novels could fill a full season with riveting television, and we wouldn’t face running out of material for two decades, since there are 20 novels. This would be bliss.

These books qualify, collectively, as the greatest work of historical fiction ever. Not just the action, or the amazingly detailed description of everyday life at sea and on land in the early 19th century. O’Brian truly makes you feel like you are there. You know how, when you’re wondering whether you’re dreaming, you might reach out and touch something to persuade yourself of the reality of the experience? O’Brian’s novels pass the test, as you touch aspects of a life alien to the 21st century, but completely familiar to you after the first few pages.

But the greatest thing is the way the books hold up as literature, period — never mind the history or the adventure. The relationship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin, has been compared to Holmes and Watson, but it goes far deeper than that, and is much more perceptively nuanced. The relationships among all the characters offer insights into the richness of human experience seldom rivaled in anything I’ve ever read.

The trick, of course, is casting.

The film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” was well done and enjoyable. It got a few things wrong. For instance, it showed officers and midshipmen dressed in full uniform, as though for an admiral’s inspection, on ordinary days at sea. Which anyone who’s read the books knows is unrealistic.

Here and there, the casting and performances were inspired. David Threlfall was wonderful — he was Preserved Killick (although the bit where he was whining about saving grog for Saluting Day was off — wine would have been more believable). James D’Arcy made a creditable Tom Pullings, with just the right mix of diffidence and command competence. And as small as the part was, I could believe the hulking John DeSantis as Padeen, the loblolly boy.

Others were wildly off. Billy Boyd (you know, Pippin from “Lord of the Rings”) didn’t work at all as Barrett Bonden. Bonden was a big, strapping man, a fleet boxing champion and the very model of the perfect fighting sailor — not a hobbit. He tried, but he just didn’t have the right presence.

But what really mattered, of course, was the two leads — Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Everything depends on them.

I thought Russell Crowe did a good, workmanlike job as Lucky Jack. But Jack Aubrey is a complex character, with two very different poles to his personality. There’s the kind, openly friendly, jovial, seemingly none too bright, corpulent English gentleman who so thoroughly enjoys bad puns that his face turns red and his blue eyes turn to slits as he laughs, and who is completely helpless on land, an easy mark for con men looking to relieve him of his prize money.

Then there is Captain Aubrey at sea, an imposing, confident, godlike creature who causes subordinates and adversaries to quail when they behold his countenance. As Maturin observes of his friend as he prepares to go into action:

‘Dear me,’ thought Stephen as Captain Aubrey came on deck, buckling this same sword, ‘he has added a cubit to his stature.’ It was quite true: The prospect of decisive action seemed to make Jack grow in height and breadth; and it certainly gave him a different expression, more detached, remote, and self-contained. He was a big man in any case… and with this increase in moral size he became a more imposing figure by far, even to those who knew him intimately well as a mild, amiable, not always very wise companion….

You’d think the latter persona would be harder to play, but it’s easy for Crowe — that’s his type. He has more trouble with the friendly, seemingly harmless, side of Jack. There are a couple of scenes when he bravely attempts it — when he springs a pun on Stephen, and when he plays the fool after a good bit of wine at dinner with his officers. But he never seems quite as harmless, as endearing, as my good friend, the character in the books. Crowe’s just way better at being intimidating.

But Crowe is perfect casting compared to Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. The doctor is Jack’s opposite — a perfect lubber at sea, but a genius at every other aspect of life. And Mr. Bettany, of whom I am normally a fan, does well at portraying him as a bookish man of science who is indignant that he is part of a purely martial expedition that won’t stop to let him study the zoological wonders of the Galapagos.

SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven’t read the books: But Maturin is something other than a brilliant physician, naturalist, gifted linguist (the foremast hands, and Jack himself for that matter, marvel at his ability to rattle away, “talking foreign twenty to the dozen”) and lover of music. He’s also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, unpaid in that capacity because he does it entirely out of indignant hatred of Napoleon. He is often described as having a cold, “reptilian” look in his eye that puts people who see it on their guard, which he generally hides by wearing colored spectacles. And when violence is called for, he acts with a calm efficiency that is as different as night from day from the joie de combat that seizes Jack when he’s on an enemy’s deck with sword in hand.

But except for a brief moment at the end of the film, when Bettany picks up a sword and joins in the fighting against the French enemy — something for which the filmmakers have in no way prepared you — you’d think he was a pacifist, one who conscientiously objects to doing battle with the French or anyone else.

So, ever since I’ve first thought of how wonderful the Aubrey/Maturin books would be as a TV series, I’ve wondered who could play Stephen. And I think I’ve settled on someone, if the makeup people can make him look a decade or two younger.

He’s Anton Lesser, a British actor whom you see everywhere, but may not know by name, since he so effectively buries himself in his characters. He’s Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Chief Superintendent Bright on “Endeavour,” Thomas More in “Wolf Hall,” and most recently, Exeter in “The Hollow Crown,” that collection of Shakespeare’s history plays that I enjoyed so much on PBS.

Like Stephen, Lesser's characters often can't be bothered to shave.

Like Stephen, Lesser’s characters often can’t be bothered to shave.

Every time I see his face, I think, “There’s Stephen!” His face, his expressions, his physicality, just embody the character. He could don Maturin like a well-worn suit.

If only he’d been born about 20 years later. Maturin, fortunately, is sort of an ageless, crotchety, wizened character, who from the beginning, I gather from the books, looked older than he was, and acted older still. In fact, in some ways Lesser’s maturity adds to his resemblance to the character. But I admit, that loose skin in Lesser’s neck would look out of place on the young, penniless physician who meets Jack Aubrey in Port Mahon in the first book. (Yet, if he filled out to tighten his skin, he wouldn’t look like the nine-stone Maturin.)

Maybe he has a son who looks just like him and is also a gifted actor. Or maybe, as I said before, the makeup people can do wonders. But I have seldom ever found such a perfect match of type between an actor and a beloved character in fiction.

See, I told you you wouldn’t be interested. But I was sufficiently pleased at my discovery that I thought I’d share it with the one or two who might appreciate it…

As Thomas More in "Wolf Hall." There's the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

As Thomas More in “Wolf Hall.” There’s the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

On Al Capone and you-know-who: What’s the appeal?

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Yesterday, Bryan Burrough reviewed a new book about Al Capone in The Wall Street Journal.

The writer, himself an author of a popular book on criminals of that era, confessed he was somewhat at a loss to explain why Capone remains such a favorite subject of readers: “I’ve read my share of books devoted to his life and legend, and I must admit, his appeal eludes me.”

The best bit of the review was this paragraph:

The portrait that invariably emerges is of a rank outsider, a Brooklynite making his way as a “businessman” in Chicago, a grandiose bloviator handed much of his empire in his 20s by his mentor, the retiring Johnny Torrio. When Capone encounters difficulties, he whines about his persecution by the press and a legal system “rigged” against him. Half the country thinks him a monster; others view him as the common man’s champion. Wait: This is beginning to sound familiar. I guess this isn’t the first time I’ve underestimated the appeal of such a man….

Yeah, I know the feeling.

No doubt there are a lot of voters out there — a lot more than most people had supposed — who would be interested in reading about such a man…

Capone's FBI rap sheet -- which seems oddly blank.

Capone’s FBI rap sheet — which seems oddly blank.

TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!

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Y’all may recall that several years back, this item topped my list of Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — … Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.

And today, just days after the death of Leon, I get this news:

Robert Heinlein’s Scifi Classic Stranger in a Strange Land Is Coming to TV

True to its name, the Syfy channel has made a habit of adapting science fiction and fantasy literature both established (Childhood’s End, Hyperion) and contemporary (The Expanse, The Magicians). Now it seems there’s another much-beloved property on the network’s list: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land.

According to a press release, this is the first TV adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land—very broadly, the tale of a Mars-born man who travels to Earth and experiences human culture for the first time; it influenced the counterculture and won a Hugo en route to becoming a classic. No further details on the proposed TV series were announced, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one….

OK, first, this had better be good. I’ve been waiting for it for 46 years. Not a long time at all from an Old One’s perspective (they’d be content to wait another century or two), but quite a stretch for those of us who have no immediate plans to discorporate.

And in that time — especially most recently — we have become accustomed to a level of quality in TV series that we couldn’t have dreamed of back when I first read the book.

So when I say this needs to be be good, I mean like “Sopranos” good, or “Band of Brothers” good. I want it to be better than “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Merely making it better than “Dune,” The Worst Movie Of All Time, won’t even get you into the right universe of how good this needs to be.

So yeah, we’re ALL gonna keep an eye on this one. If they don’t grok the fullness, if we sense a wrongness in the result, the Old Ones will know, because they’re monitoring.

You grok what we’re saying, TV people?

Oh, also, I’d still like a part in the series. Ben Caxton would be best, but as I say, I’m too old. And I’m much, MUCH too young to play Jubal — he’s supposed to be so old, people are amazed to find him still walking around, much less as spry as he is. He’s like at least in his 90s.

I’d settle for something minor. How about James Oliver Cavendish, the famous Fair Witness whose services Ben engages to go interview the fake Man from Mars? I think that’s in my range.

Now, let’s discuss who will play the other parts….

It better be THIS good. We'll be watching. Capisce?

It had better be THIS good. We’ll be watching. Capisce? (That’s Italian-American for “grok”…)

Finally taking the time to get into Hamilton

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Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at The State, talking on the phone with Fritz Hollings. This was shortly after he had left office, and we frequently had occasion to talk. I don’t know what we were talking about, or who had called whom. It might have been about one of several op-ed pieces he wrote for us in that period — he was still having trouble letting go of policymaking. Maybe it was the conversation in which I called him to ask a favor — his good friend Joe Biden was going to be in town, and I wanted him to drop by the office if he had time so we could get acquainted, before he ran again for national office (Fritz came through on that).

Anyway, we got off the subject, whatever it was. Fritz had just read Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, and he started singing its praises, saying I must read it. I took his advice — almost. I put the book on my list for family members looking for gift ideas for my birthday or Christmas, and someone promptly gave it to me. And… it has sat on my shelf ever since, until this weekend.alexander-hamilton

I really, truly, meant to read it. I’d always been interested in the Founders. On my way to sort of inadvertently getting a second major in history, I concentrated to a certain extent on that period. And I came away convinced that had I been alive and in politics at the time, I’d have been a Federalist. That was the party Hamilton had founded, and I knew he was brilliant, and that he provided most of the arguments that sold the Constitution to the country among other startling achievements, but… I was less attracted to him than to the others, and I knew that as a result I had neglected him. Which is why I had dutifully put the book on my list. But still, I kept my distance. Maybe I had absorbed some of the propaganda put out about him by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but it seemed to me that there was a reason why Hamilton wasn’t ever president, and I thought that if I was a Federalist, I was more of an Adams Federalist than a Hamiltonian. I mean, the guy was so into money and all…

So there the book sat. And during the years that I failed to read it, a young man named Lin-Manuel Miranda picked it up, and it set his mind on fire. He was inspired to write a musical based on the book, and it became the biggest hit on Broadway in a generation.

So, I missed a big opportunity there.

I kept hearing about the play, and seeing video clips from it, and I thought it was really exciting that someone had made a hit out of one of the Founders (and, to my mind, the Founder least likely to inspire a hit musical), but I had some Clueless White Guy questions: What did hip-hop have to do with the guy who had founded banks and our whole financial system? And why were most of the actors on the stage black — or at least, seemingly nonAnglo-Saxon? I didn’t object to them being black — I just wondered why. It seemed that there was a point being made, but I didn’t understand what the point was. I wondered whether it had to do with Hamilton’s obscure origins. All I knew (thanks to Jefferson’s folks) was that Hamilton was a bastard out of the West Indies. Was Miranda saying that, coming out of the ethnic richness of the Caribbean, he was of mixed race, so it was fitting to have actors of color fill the stage?

Well, on Friday night, I saw “Hamilton’s America,” the fascinating documentary about the creation of this play, and suddenly I got it. I saw what people were so enchanted with. I understood why, when Manuel was reading Chernow’s book on vacation, he thought, “This is a rap!” And I was deeply impressed by how everyone involved in the production was thoroughly immersed in Hamilton and the other Founders and what they were all about, and why they are important today — and not just to pasty-faced people of English extraction.

I was really impressed by that part. Decades ago, when I did some community theater back in Tennessee, I met a lot of talented people. And I was shocked to find that people who were brilliant musicians — something I could never be — and really gifted amateur actors were nevertheless… how shall I put this… not well read. They might do a play based on history — say, “The Lion In Winter,” which I acted in — and they’d get their lines and the intonations perfectly, but they wouldn’t really know the history or the cultural context of what they were pretending to be.

In this documentary, not only Miranda was able to speak fluently and inspiringly about Hamilton and his world, but the other actors as well. They went on and on about it, and you could learn a lot by listening to them.

And as I listened, I — who was last attracted to musical theater when Andrew Lloyd Webber came out with “Evita” (another sort of history I sorta kinda concentrated on in college was Latin American) — started really, really getting into the music. And that’s really, really saying something, since the only rap numbers I’m familiar with and like are the ones from “Office Space.”

So here’s the irony: Hip-hop helped get those young actors into history. And now history is getting me into hip-hop. As I type this, I’m nodding my head to “I am not throwing away my… shot!

OK, OK, Lin-Manuel! You got me! I finally picked up the book yesterday, and started reading. Slow reader that I am (the book’s 800-plus pages of small type pushed me away as much as anything), I’m on the third chapter now, and wow! He was right: This is a rap. I’m still in young Alexander’s shockingly difficult childhood in the Indies, and there’s nobody who ever came from meaner streets than he did. What a story.

So I’m really into it now. Fritz was right. So was Lin, who gave me the swift kick I needed…