Category Archives: Arts

Mystery & Crime Novels for $800, Alex

Snow and ice are a perfect setting for a noir story

I was prompted to read Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, when Jeopardy! featured a question about it (“When a boy falls to his death, ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’ in this Scandinavian country helps prove it was murder”). I had no idea that the book has been the subject of one of the show’s clues—as Ed Rooney saidnine times, each in a different category:

  • 20th CENTURY AUTHORS
  • WEATHER TERMS
  • LITERARY TRANSLATIONS
  • I PREDICT “SNOW”
  • NOVEL ALLITERATION
  • WHOSE BOOK TITLE?
  • LITERARY LINKS
  • 1990s FICTION
  • MYSTERY & CRIME NOVELS

The book is considered part of the “noir” crime genre and, since it’s set in Denmark and Greenland, one of the best examples of a subgenre known as Nordic noir (or Scandinavian noir).

Noir literature is typically characterized by:

  • Simple language, i.e., without metaphor
  • Bleak settings
  • Tension between a calm social surface and the violence beneath
  • Dark and morally complex moods
  • Social criticism

The plot of these stories often contrasts with the classic British “whodunit” where the reader and the detective try to identify the criminal as the plot progresses (à la Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes). Instead, they tend to follow an inverted detective story form—sometimes called a “howcatchem”—where the reader knows the villain’s identity in advance (à la Columbo) and watches the detective bring him to justice.

More fundamentally, “noir”—Nordic or not—conveys a different worldview and features a different type of protagonist:

“The classic crime story…takes place in an essentially orderly universe, with a common understanding of good and evil. Crime here is a dangerous anomaly, but order can be restored by a hero-detective who investigates and, eventually, unmasks the criminal.”

The world of noir, on the other hand, is “chaotic, baroque and hypocritical. Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories give the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good. A detective may pursue such a criminal, but noir reveals the line between them to be a product of chance and circumstance—if, indeed, such a line exists at all.”

“In noir, the problem is not an individual: the problem is the world. Institutions are corrupt, public moralities hypocritical, the watchmen un-watched. One person may pull a trigger, but that act is part of a sprawling web of mendacity and exploitation. No one gets away clean.”

Noir depicts “a universe more like the one we live in than the one we imagine for ourselves…[It is] powerful because it [is] a tiny bit true.”

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Oh, But They Are

Owen's coin collection

I’m getting old enough to think sometimes about how my kids will remember me when I’m gone.

In the 1987 movie Throw Momma From The Train, Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal play Owen, an annoying aspiring writer, and Larry, his writing instructor. For no particular reason, while the two are at Owen’s house, Owen offers to show Larry his coin collection:

OWEN: You want to see my coin collection?
LARRY: No.
OWEN: I collect coins. I got a dandy collection.
LARRY: I don’t want to see it, Owen.
OWEN: But it’s my collection.
LARRY: I don’t care. Look, Owen, I’m just not in the mood, okay?
[Owen lays down on the floor and begins taking folded envelopes from a hinge-topped box.]
OWEN: Never showed it to anyone before.
[Larry lays down on the floor next to Owen.]
LARRY: All right, I’ll look at it.
OWEN: No, it’s okay.
[Owen turns away and shields the envelopes from Larry’s view.]
LARRY: Show me the collection.
OWEN: No, you don’t mean it.
LARRY: Show me the damn coins!
OWEN: All right.
[Owen lays the coins on the floor and shows each one to Larry.]
OWEN: This one is a nickel. This one also is a nickel. And here’s a quarter. And another quarter. And a penny. See? Nickel, nickel, quarter, quarter, penny.
LARRY [aggravated]: Are any of these coins worth anything?
OWEN: No. And here is another nickel.
LARRY: Why do you have them?
OWEN: What do you mean?
LARRY [exasperated]: Well, the purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something, Owen.
OWEN: Oh, but they are. This one here I got in change when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary. And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change; he always let me keep the change.
[Owen picks up one of the quarters.]
OWEN: Ah, this one is my favorite. This is Martin and Lewis at the Hollywood Palladium.
[Larry smiles sheepishly.]
OWEN: Look at that. See the way it shines on the little eagle. I loved my dad a lot.
LARRY: So this whole collection is…
OWEN: Change my daddy let me keep.
LARRY: What was his name?
OWEN: Ned. He used to call me his little Ned. That’s why momma named me Owen. I really miss him.
LARRY: It’s a real nice collection, Owen.
OWEN: Thank you, Larry.

The coins’ worth was determined by their meaning, not their marketability; they were “worth something” because they reminded Owen of his father’s love for him. Larry’s realization of this made him feel sheepish about his initial reaction to Owen.

While photographing my kids being themselves and having fun has been one of my favorite things in life, my pictures of them are “worth something” only as a reminder of my love for them. I won’t get to choose at the end of my life how I’ll be remembered, but I hope my kids will value my pictures for the same reason Owen valued his coins.

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Books, Jerry

img_0596

Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, I like to read books:

ELAINE: Kevin and his friends are nice people! They do good things. They read.
JERRY: I read.
ELAINE: Books, Jerry.
JERRY: [pause] Oh. Big deal.

My public library’s Twitter account—not surprisingly—promotes the value of reading for reading’s sake. (“No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.”; “You always hit a homerun when you read!”)

That’s great in itself, of course. But I think the books I read should benefit me and the people around me. I want someone to believe that I read a lot because things like these are true about me:

  • Broad knowledge
  • High level of curiosity
  • Active imagination
  • Open mind
  • High tolerance for uncertainty
  • Low stress
  • Good memory
  • Strong analytical thinking
  • Great concentration
  • Deep trust
  • Large vocabulary

If so, then the time I spend reading books is a good investment in myself and others.

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They’ve Taken Care of Everything

A few years ago, I asked my college-age son how his friends organized and stored their digital photos. He said, “They put them on Facebook.” According to George Dyson in his 2012 book Turing’s Cathedral, one of Facebook’s founders described the goal of the company as, “How much human life can we absorb?”

In 1976, the Rush song “2112” portrayed the rulers of a dystopian future society who claimed to have achieved the end of that goal:

We’ve taken care of everything
The words you hear, the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

Melodramatic? Perhaps, but also poignant, prescient and a strong warning against blindly handing over my personal information without being mindful of how it’s being used. Brands don’t ask me to “like” them because they “like” me, but because my information is their capital and currency.

Algorithmic analysis of my personal data—captured and stored in corporate and government networks—can spawn spurious comparisons, equate correlation with causation, and project self-fulfilling prophecies.

Networks and devices can be intoxicating and insistent (the web never sleeps!), and it’s easy for real-life relationships to be crowded out by virtual connections which provide no emotional depth. Social media do offer some benefits, but only as my slave, not my master.

When is it rational and beneficial for me to cede control of my personal identity to faceless entities in exchange for convenience and indirect interaction? Only when I retain control and am aware of “how and why” they “take care of everything” for me.

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Could I Have $17.50?

Just when it seemed that the last worthy “life lesson” had been squeezed from the 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, here’s one that doesn’t involve any talking stars, stodgy angels or warping of the space-time continuum.

As the newly-wed George and Mary Bailey are about to depart on their honeymoon, they’re told that Bailey Building and Loan customers are panicking and trying to withdraw all their money before losing it to a crash. George averts disaster by jumping behind the counter and convincing most of them to settle for $20 to sustain them until the crisis passes. When her turn comes, one customer—Miss Davis—instead of taking the $20, says, “Could I have $17.50?” George replies, “Bless your heart,” and gives her a big kiss on the head.*

Now, what lesson can be taken from this scene? When closing time came that day, how much cash did the Building and Loan have left? Two dollars. And that only because Miss Davis refused to take more than what she needed. Would it allow someone else to get what they need if—more often—we chose not to take all we can get?

  1. What if—more often—businesses sought the profit they need rather than all they can get? Would it allow them to provide a better living for more of their employees?
  2. What if—more often—people took what they need from government programs and insurance claims rather than all they can get? Would it allow more people to receive benefits?
  3. What if—more often—neighbors sought the possessions they need rather than all they can get? Would it reduce feelings of inequality and break down barriers between them?

Idealistic? Of course…and? What’s wrong with attempting to live according to our ideals? And leaving some for the next guy when we can.


*Before shooting the scene, director Frank Capra fed Ellen Corby (Davis) the unscripted line without telling James Stewart (George), so he would be genuinely surprised. He was, and the grateful kiss was an in-character ad lib by Stewart.

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What Else Is On TV?

FCC Chairman Newton Minow

Television had become public opinion’s most powerful influence when Newton Minow spoke about it in his first speech as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in May 1961. Minow’s intent was to highlight the responsibility broadcasters had to “serve the public interest” by demonstrating “a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell.” But what is remembered most from the speech was his description of television programming as a “vast wasteland.”

Viewers, Minow said, were being presented with “a procession of game shows, formula comedies…blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder…private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

Wait, he was describing what was available in 1961, right?

“Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America,” he told the broadcasters. And he insisted, “History [will] decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”

Minow’s words for the television industry are as relevant now as then, but the personal challenge is to be selective about the “broadcasts” we receive and embrace.

Like any other form of communication—radio, magazines, Internet—the television shows we choose to watch say more about us than they do about the medium. Sometimes, we put television down for having a lot of junk even as we consume more and more of it. Other times, we simply wallow in the junk like a pig in mud. Either way, it’s not fair to condemn an entire medium for our poor choices in the way we use it.

Television can allow us to be places we will never visit (outer space, a feeding ground for sharks, ancient Rome), to view events we couldn’t attend (the State of the Union address, a Beatles concert, a NASA press conference), and to understand things we wouldn’t without it (movie special effects, the differences between men and women, the neutral zone trap). Trouble is, very few of these topics ever come up in sitcoms or reality shows.

No one is holding a gun to our heads, forcing us to watch Dancing with the Stars, and there is no lack of outstanding alternatives. It’s a matter of what turns us on, and what we turn on. Let’s make sure the “vast wasteland” isn’t in our heads.

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Finding Connections

In 1986, the cover of Time magazine called David Byrne a “singer, composer, lyricist, guitarist, film director, writer, actor, video artist, designer, photographer.” It’s now been almost forty years since he began his artistic career as the front man for the band Talking Heads and his dissemination of challenging, insightful ideas has not waned.

A friend recently gave me a signed copy of Byrne’s 2006 book, Arboretum. For almost anyone else, it might be pretentious to publish a book that consists of nothing more than some pencil sketches and the musings that inspired them, but when your mind is as fertile as Byrne’s, you’ve earned the attention and the book is worth it.

According to Byrne, Arboretum is “faux science, automatic writing, self-analysis, satire and maybe even a serious attempt at finding connections where none were thought to exist.” He admits that creating the drawings might have been “self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.”

At the risk of being trite, Byrne sees things in a different way:

The 18th century Scottish theologian and philosopher [Francis Hutcheson] believed that there was an intimate connection between the perception of beauty and increased morality. The more we see beautiful things, the better people we become…Imagine then what divine moral creatures museum guards must be!

His way of seeing has had a profound effect on me more than once. I immediately stopped reading his book, Bicycle Diaries when I couldn’t handle his comparison of East Germany’s delusions of its people to our two biggest self-deceptions: “that life has a ‘meaning’ and that each of us is unique.” On the other hand, I often resist an impulse toward cynicism by remembering his contention in the Time article that he’d “discovered that it’s more fun to like things” than to be overly critical. When I finally was able to see him perform live in 2013, it affirmed for me that he is at once—as he describes his drawings—“scary, fascinating and lovable.”

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