Category Archives: Film

As Beautiful as a Day Can Be

…when the calendar page flips over and suddenly you’re older by a year.

But let’s take stock. Here on West Street there is a tumbling breeze and the sky is robin’s egg blue–what a cliché, let’s just call it cliché blue –with streaky white clouds and sunlight that bakes us all but perfectly.

The men frame up curbs by laying boards vertically in a trench, a long pink string stretched taut. Everyone is already dirty, first thing in the morning. The backhoe hauls up chunks of the old pavement.

A movie shoot has come to Greenpoint today, The Deuce, for HBO, and the little old factory streets are crammed with orange cones and film trucks. Kids go by carrying styrofoam shells of gourmet commissary food. They wear skinny T’s and skinny jeans on their skinny little bodies and clipped to their clothes are the tools of the trade, buckskin gloves, walkie-talkies.

Our commissary is a quilted metal truck  with spigots built-in for hot water and coffee. It’s 8:30, time for “coffee” which really means a sandwich. When you work this hard you need two lunches. These guys wear rawhide toolbelts hung with hammers and wrap their heads with bandannas like pirates.

Standing to the side I am ignored by the youngsters for whom my age and vest make me invisible, and by the laborers, for whom my sex makes me a cipher. What am I doing here anyway? On this birthday I float in the middle of everything. The millennials,  the laborers, the sunshine, the breeze.

A young man leaning against the same wall asks me what is going on with the construction. He is perfectly adorable, adorably perfect, dark blue eyes and wavy hair. Smoking a cigarette, badly. His name is Adam. Adam tells me about the rentable green space in the building, the CrossFit club and the mega storm that hit the city at 5 o’clock yesterday. With a small trace of pride he mentions that he left his motorcycle parked up the street.

In his company I forget all the skinny minis and instead admire the  thudding, wide-eyed, all-inhaling heart of youth. I’ll never be there again, sure. But I can see it better than ever.

3 Comments

Filed under Arborist, Culture, Fashion, Film, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, New York City, Trees, Writers, Writing

Wolf Boys and Girls

Feral children, wild children, human beings raised by wolves… or bears… or goats… or rats… How credible are the stories of their existence?

They’ve inflamed the popular imagination for centuries. Surely it is impossible to believe that a mama wolf will take in a human baby and suckle it with her own. Surely it is outlandish for a little boy or girl to come in from the wild, hale and fed if not very well groomed, with the claim of having been nurtured from infancy by animals. Yet their demeanor would seem to lend credence to the claim – no human language of any kind, an alien affect, absolutely zero table manners.

Stories of feral children surface up to the present day. The archetype might originate with Romulus and Remus.

rom-rem

Roman legend has it that the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, a priestess, and the god Mars were raised by wolves. When it was found that she had been pregnant and had children, King Amulius, who had usurped her father’s throne, ordered her to be buried alive and for the twins to be killed. Instead, they were set in a basket on the Tiber, where a she-wolf found them and raised them until the boys were discovered as toddlers.

Probably the best known wild child today is fictional. Mowgli, invented by the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, became a contemporary star with Disney’s 1967 massive hit animated film of the same name. According to Kipling’s hugely successful telling, Mowgli lost his parents in a tiger attack in Central India and is adopted by Mother and Father Wolf.

junglebookblog2

A tiger wants to adopt him, a panther befriends him, and Mowgli wins the respect of all through his unique ability to extricate thorns from the paws of his wolf brothers.

Lockwood-kipling-red-dog-illustration

He is ultimately adoped by human parents and brought into civilized society.

In the Disney version, Mowgli, “man-cub,” wants nothing more than to remain in the carefree forest among his baboon, elephant, sloth and panther friends, even after he has been told by many that he must return to the Man-Village. He only goes when he becomes smitten by young girl and follows her back to civilization.

disney-mowgli-and-baloo

A similar feral child novel from slightly later than Kipling is Shasta of the Wolves. In Shasta, a boy raised by a pack in the Pacific Northwest goes back and forth between a human tribe and his wolf clan… ultimately deciding to stay with the pack.

shasta illustration

Mowgli has always been seen as a major influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs in developing his own feral child story Tarzan.

tarzan:jane

Appearing first in 1914 and followed by fully 25 sequels, Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes captured the American imagination. The movies expanded the franchise — Between 1918 and 2008, 89 movies starred Tarzan, with the most famous portrayal being that of Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Tarzan is the quintessential noble savage, a man who manages to navigate two worlds with ease.

Orphaned as a child, Tarzan finds himself adoped by the leader of the ape tribe that killed his father – while Tarzan is his ape name, his English name is John, Clayton, Viscount Greystoke. As a young adult, Tarzan falls in with Jane, an American whose father and the rest of their party have been marooned in the jungle. They fall in love and he follows her back to the United States, marries her and the couple return to Africa, where they have a son. Intelligent, handsome, athletic, Tarzan lives up to his noble background though in the guise of a forest creature. His loin cloth is all he needs for clothes, a tree branch his preferred bed, raw meat the nutrient he favors. His upbringing represents the opposite of deprivation – this child of nature gained agility, speed, endurance and strength from his ape family – and yet, when he returns to civilization, he is able to adapt, learn languages, speak grammatically and make his way in civilized society.

Before the mythic creations of Mowgli and Tarzan, other, real, historical feral children fueled the public imagination. One related phenomenon is that of people afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis, which causes an individual to resemble an animal in the growth of fur all over the body. Many children with the condition were exhibited in American side shows in an earlier period.

jojo-713518

But non-hairy wild children fueled public fascination the world over. The best known, Victor of Aveyron, lived at the turn of the nineteenth century in rural France.

Victor

He was prepubescent when he emerged from the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in 1798, having been spotted by a trio of hunters. How he had lived during his childhood was unknown, but that he only grunted, that he showed no modesty about his nakedness, that he periodically returned to the forest, that he had numerous scars on his body, that he seized potatoes hot from the hire, told his captors that his was a feral childhood. Shortly after he came in from the woods he was seen frolicking nude in the snow – a sign that he could tolerate exposure.That and the central feature of his existance, his lack of speech. It was clear that he could hear. A young physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard adopted the boy and worked with him for five years to teach the boy and the case became a cause celebre.

victor_itard

Whether the boy could learn language inflamed the debate over what distinguished man from animal. Did the Wild Boy of Aveyron exist in a pure state of nature? Could he be civilized? Ultimately, Victor learned only two phrases : lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). Itard published his A Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man in 1802. Today we know of Victor and kindly Dr. Itard through L’Enfant sauvage, The Wild Child, Francois Truffaut’s masterful 1970 film.

Peter of Hanover wandered out of the woods near the town of Hamelin, near Hanover in Germany, in 1726 — or was hunted down; accounts differ — and soon became the talk of Europe. He was around fourteen, naked, mute, and resistant, when he arrived in London and came under the protection of King George I and his court. The child had a predilection for acorns, and was fascinated upon hearing a watch strike the hour for the first time. George I did not speak English himself, and hailed from the same part of Germany as this mysterious wild child, explaining some of his attraction.

NPG D3895; Peter the Wild Boy by John Simon, after  William Kent

Plus, anthropology had come in vogue, with people bringing back accounts from foreign lands about savages, Hottentots, children reared by animals. Was Peter truly human or was he more along the lines of an orangutang? The media went wild over Peter, commenting on his primitive demeanor, wondering at his forest upbringing, marveling that the King adopted him as a kind of court pet. Writers hailed him as a wonder of nature and his likeness thrilled visitors to a celebrated was museum. Daniel Defoe proclaimed him the only truly sensible person alive. Peter never learned to utter a word, and eventually spent a long life being cared for on a farm in the country.

Another feral child was even more mysterious. Kaspar Hauser simply appeared one day in 1828 at the city gate of German’s Nuremberg, strangely dressed and, once again, mute.

kaspar hauser

He was around 17, and he carried a letter asking that he be given a place in the calvary. He could write his name, but he would eat only bread and butter and preferred to spend his days seated on the floor playing with toy horses. Philosophers visited him to try to understand what could have caused his strange, dull behavior (no swinging on vines for this one). The fascination has continued up to our time, with a 1974 movie done on his life, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser by Werner Herzog.

review_BrunoS_KasparHauser

The foundling did manage some speech, developed a love for music, and became a skilled horseman, and eventually the memory returned of his childhood, having been imprisoned in a dark room, fed by a man he never saw. Not a child raised by wolves, but by a predatory human. He was eventually murdered in a public park by a stranger at the age of 22.

Feral children are not all boys. One famous wild child of the eighteenth century was Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, who was born in 1712 and became known as The Wild Child of Songy. Born into a Native American community and brought from Canada to Marseilla during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1720, the girl survived for ten years walking through the forests of France.

feral girl

She survived not by living with wolves but by battling them with a club. Captured, she went for ten years without speaking but eventually did take up words. Accounts of her life were widespread – popular pamphlets, books by historians and naturalists all fed the maw of interest in her feral upbrininging.

Of the many more instances of children who managed to survive in the wild, some have been discounted outright. Still, it is fascinating to see the interest that embraces those nurtured by all different sorts of animals. Nineteenth-century men and women devoured tales about the Lobo Girl of the Devil’s River, captured after her wolf sojourn, who managed an escape in 1846 and was last spotted at age 17 in 1852. Earlier, people hungered for tales of an Irish boy brought up by sheep, recorded by Nicaolaes Tulp in 1672. There was the Bear-Girl of Krupina, Slovakia, dating to 1767. The Ostrich Boy, named Hadara, lost in the Sahara by his parents at the age of two and reclaimed ten years later. The Chilean boy raised by pumas. Robert, who lived with vervet monkeys for three years when orphaned during the Ugandan Civil War. A Peruvian boy nurtured by goats. I have even heard of a girl raised by rats.

So nothing in Savage Girl should inspire disbelief, no matter how farfetched it sounds. No, nothing at all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Wonderful Characters

It’s the time of year when literary critics tote up the outstanding reads of the previous year, as well as some of the failures. I’m never into ranking books, though I might at some point on this site share a few of those that really knocked me out in recent months. For now, I thought I’d recommend — strongly recommend — something you won’t find on any of the 2013 best books lists. Yet there’s nothing else remotely as charming as a title issued in 1869 in London under the byline of one J.C. Hotten.

title

The Book of Wonderful Characters, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Remarkable and Eccentric Persons in All Ages and Countries, now digitized, was the fruit of many years of enterprise for Hotten, who had begun publishing illustrated books about remarkable persons in 1788 and continued through the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Clark-The-English-Posture-Master-And-Uncle-Boris

More than 40 years after his death this volume was republished. Engravings illustrate some truly amazing characters, like a woman who lived upon the smell of flowers and a man who died at the age of 152.

pig face

Hotten begins “With a few Words upon Pig-faced Ladies,” then goes on to an “extraordinary Stone Eater” with a detour for fire eaters and knife swallowers. I think you might be glad to make the acquaintance of the Vain Dwarf or the Man Who Crucified Himself. Or a particularly creepy ghost.

ghostWe all still like to creep out, I think, we just do it via TV and movies rather than encyclopedic illustrated weirdfests. Maybe some genius will rise to the occasion and we’ll see a book like this in 2014.

3 Comments

Filed under Art, Culture, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

The Roaring Twenties

Put yourself on a New York City streetcorner on a summer afternoon in 1929. You can imagine it, sure, but can you really hear it? No?

Betty-button256Now you can.

Emma Thompson, a MacArthur-winning professor of history at Princeton University, has constructed a digital time machine that allows you to experience the jack hammers, fog horns and splashing fire hydrants of New York’s yesteryear in a web site called The Roaring Twenties.

roaringtwenties

The way the sound specialist did this is ingenious. She paired actual noise complaints from the files of New York City’s Health Department with  a detailed block-by-block Google Map. It’s a digital interface that covers all five boroughs of the city in the years 1926 to 1933. You can click on one of 600 pins and call up an image of the original complaint – plenty of complaints about noise, then as now – and the official response, if any.

N. Schmuck of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for example, was being driven nuts by factory noise from the nearby Colonial Pickle Works. Another complainant, attorney H. Bartow Farr, said his sleep had been disrupted by a racket on the East River — nighttime dredging close by his Gracie Square home. One function on the site allows you to search by type of complaint, so you can find out exactly how many foghorn complaints registered in a certain time frame. You might not have thought you wanted to know about foghorn complaints with this degree of specificity, but I think you’ll be surprised.

“My first impression of New York was its noise,” said a Japanese governor visiting the city in 1920, cited in The New York Times.

As an aural historian, Thompson believes that it’s important to understand the context of sound, its meaning as well as the sound itself. And that is why this fascinating project incorporates not only paper evidence, the complaints, the maps, but the actual noises of New York themselves, unmediated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in  My Lost City in 1932:

“What news from New York?”

“Stocks go up. A baby murdered a gangster.”

“Nothing more?”

“Nothing. Radios blare in the street.”

listening

How to capture those radios blaring in the street? Well, sound cinema was just then taking off. Thompson and web designer Scott Mahoy assembled images sourced from Fox MovieTone newsreel footage, pictures that once filmed were often left on the cutting room floor. The technology was still crude, but watching a snippet is amazing. Select one newsreel icon on the Roaring Twenties map and you find yourself in the hubbub of Times Square, cruising among the grand marquees.

times square

Another takes you to Central Park and the cheeky frolic of a crowd of kids shooting marbles. Or go visit with a ukelele strummer on the beach at Coney Island one hot day in 1930. The newsreels are not matched precisely to the noise complaints, but close enough. It’s sound-around. For a taste, listen to the NPR segment about the project.

I swear, The Roaring Twenties is as close as you’ll get to Fitzgerald-era New York. (I only wish such a vehicle existed for the 1870s when I was getting into the head of Savage Girl.) The only thing that’s missing is the ripe smell of horse manure and hot dog stands. Those  will have to wait for a new generation of smell engineers, but this web treasure will help in the meantime.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Writers, Writing

Tra La La La La (La La La La)

I breezed through the local shopping mall yesterday on my knee scooter, only mildly terrifying the people directly in my path. I felt good. I had completed all my shopping days before. There would be nothing to buy in the future. And the Christmas tunes swelled loud and corny and hypnotic all around.

Peter Zimmerman keeps forking over bales of posts my way, generously, during this rather sedentary time for me. So here is another:

My sister and I have debated (Peter writes) which one of us fixated the most on The Little Drummer Boy when we were children. The most famous version of the Rumpadumdum was recorded by the Harry Simeon Chorale in 1958.

drummer

The story depicted in the song is somewhat similar to a 12th-century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (Our Lady’s Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to the version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both). The song was originally titled Carol of the Drum and based upon a traditional Czech carol.

As for the most depressing – and, Jean says, most wonderful – Christmas song, she votes for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, introduced by Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis.

meet-me-in-st-louis-44-mo-jg-1

Next year all our troubles will be miles away, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Magic lyric, says Jean. While I would choose Perry Como’s Home for the Holidays (you can’t beat home, sweet home) with its manic bridge.

I met a man who lives in Tennessee

He was headin’ for, Pennsylvania, and some home made pumpkin pie

From Pennsylvania folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore

From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific…

Oy, the traffic!

Andre Kostelanetz’s famous Sleigh Ride pulls on my heart strings. You can hear Santa repeatedly whipping the poor reindeer.

santasleighdeer

Leopold Mozart’s Sleighride is more to my liking. Lots of jingle bells, no whips. THE Mozart was Leopold’s father.

Some of my other favorites include Doris Day’s Toyland, Fats Waller’s Swinging Them Jingle Bells, Liberace’s Jesu Bambino, and Tammy Wynett’s Away in a Manger.

liberace

The most beautiful song is Harry Belafonte’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas medley.

My brother Andy’s favorite Christmas song is We Three Kings. Not to be depressing but here’s one of the verses.

Myrrh is mine

Its bitter perfume breathes

A life of gathering gloom

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

If anyone can update the tune, it’s the psychobilly musician Reverend Horton Heat.

three-kings

A very merry Christmas to all!

8 Comments

Filed under Culture, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music

A Grimm Tale

Recently I checked out my reader reviews for The Orphanmaster – not always a good thing for a writer to do, but Amazon makes it so easy – and after the wonderful, wonderful, wonderfuls I was stopped short by this extremely erudite criticism: Yick. One of my readers actually had to put the book down and erase it from her e-reader, she was so offended by the novel’s instances of violence and depravity.

Alright, you got me. Loving, brave Blandine and valiant, dashing Drummond and adorable little Sabine aren’t the only beings in the story. There are bogeymen lurking in the New Amsterdam shadows, crouching in the forest, maybe even hiding somewhere in your house, perhaps inside the groot kamer itself.

O-Master P-Back Cover

No one in The Orphanmaster is entirely safe. It’s our job (through the actions of the characters we adopt as our totems) to crush those towering monsters and let the light shine in for another day. There’s a crack in everything, wrote Leonard Cohen, That’s how the light gets in.

Why do some writers, like me, want to show the monsters, expose them, and crush them? Why are some people drawn to a TV gorefest like The Walking Dead? I know I am. Monsters are with us at the core of our psyches. A lot of viewers are eating up the NBC prime time show Grimm, which puts a procedural spin on nailing fairy-tale creatures.

grimm

It’s actually amazing that we manage to find anything remotely more interesting to tell stories about.

Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. This literary landmark, originally titled Children’s and Household Tales, first appeared in Germany on December 20th, 1812 – just in time for Christmas shoppers, right?

Grimm's_Kinder-_und_Hausmärchen,_Erster_Theil_(1812).cover

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were not the first to publish fairy tales, but their versions enshrined the “folk” aspect of the material – the down and dirty part, the cruelty, the yick factor. The brothers went out to the countryside and collected folk tales from peasants, unsanitized, terrifying and utterly compelling.

Arthur-Rackham-Grimm-Fairy-Tales

Many of the details in the original versions of the stories were more ghastly than those we recognize from Disney – for one minor example, in the Grimms’ Cinderella, two heavenly doves help the heroine get dressed for the big ball in a gold dress and slippers – then fly down to peck out the eyeballs of the evil stepsisters.

Cinderella-(Cinderella_III)

Yick. But brilliant. The tales have found their way into 160 languages in the last 200 years. A recent translation of 50 of them by children’s writer Philip Pullman manages to be as elegant as it is gory. As far as I know, there is no witika in Grimm, no towering, green-skinned, long-fanged, cannabilistic spirit of the woods such as the being that torments 1663 Manhattan in The Orphanmaster.

wendigo_char_c1

Yick. Yum.

3 Comments

Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Making Book

Frank Stella’s splashy, enormous constructions line the walls of the lobby where my book publisher has its offices. Three collages, to be precise, of mixed media on a base of etched magnesium. Standing in front of one, you have to crane your neck to see the top of the piece. Standing there, I try to imagine creating something so large as the exploding Stella’s, so imposing. My mind wanders – outside is a dumpling truck with the snazzy legend: “Who’s Your Edamame?” It’s a New York morning, and art and food and commerce jostle for attention.

stella

Books, books, time to think about books. Or one book: my book. Stella’s work depicts the inside of my head as I take the elevator to the fourth floor. We’re going to talk about how to introduce Savage Girl to the world. How can I describe the feeling? Heart-pounding excitement. Trepidation. All shades in between.

Savage Girl comes out March 6th. And all the people at our meeting, editor, publicist, social media pro, literary agent – all of them are invested in making sure that my novel reaches a wide reading public.

So we talk about strategies. Bound gallleys, called ARCs in the business (for Advance Reading Copies) – who has received them so far, who gets them next? Print is no long king when it comes to reviewers – we want people to blab online about the book, on Goodreads, “where bookworms congregate,” as someone at the meeting says, on blogs, everywhere. We want the twitter-sphere to sing its praises. We want the people who read this blog – yes, you! – to get ahold of a copy and make their friend read it too. We want it to be consumed and consumed some more. Come up for air! Someone will say. It’s time to do the dishes. To go to the dentist!  But I can’t possibly, you say, I am too immersed in the adventures of Hugo and Bronwyn.

Savage Girl cover-final

Booksellers who received their early copy are liking Savage Girl, it seems. (Some Hollywood producers are too – shush, don’t jinx it by talking about it.) Authors have weighed in with comments that will appear on the back of the dust jacket. I like this one from Da Chen, the lyrical novelist:

The best historical fiction brings the reader back to a bygone era and  the depth of humanity then.  Jean Zimmerman does all that and more in her elegantly written new novel.  I simply could not put down this this tale of sweet and painful love, of a savage girl and her encounter with modernity.

All I have to do between now and March is a hundred things. Suffice it to say I’ll be writing more here and elsewhere about the Gilded Age, sharing what I learned in the process of researching Savage Girl. Debutante rituals, fashion, feasting, feral children, nineteenth century medical practices, mansions that are architectural marvels… I hope that people who don’t know much about the period will find out something new, and that I’ll satisfy Gilded Age aficionados’  yearning for more on the subject.

Photograph1880

Say you enter your favorite independent bookstore, where the management has carefully curated its collection. You inspect the table when you come in the door and find scads of titles that tantalize you, that beg to be picked up and perused. It may seem that they found their way there by some kind of magic. Not so. Behind every glossy jacket is a team of geniuses who have pondered and sleuthed and brainstormed a way to bring that wonderful volume to you. Like an explosion, like the mixed-media Stella on the wall, the planning all comes together to unveil a bound book.

Riding the subway uptown, I notice a man standing next to me with headphones. Dancing, and not so demurely, either. He is rocking and rolling. He is happy. So am I. I remember a couplet by one of my favorite poets, another Frank, Frank O’Hara, who made New York City the star of many of his poems in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

How funny you are today New York

like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime

Sometimes, when you’re in Manhattan, everything can seem so right. I get off the train at my stop and look from one side to the other, not sure which direction to head on the platform. A woman in black-framed glasses and long black hair touches me on the arm. I don’t even have to ask. She points with her finger and softly, kindly says, This way. This way.

6 Comments

Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing