Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

September 30, 2006

The single best historical/political private-eye novel I've read…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 10:11 pm

…is Phillip Kerr’s %%AMAZON=0142004022 A German Requiem%%. No ifs and buts, this is a novel whiich dares to set itself inthe same time and place as Graham Greene’s timeless novella/film The Third Man–post-War Vienna. One of his characters even mentions she has a minor part in the film Welles is making, and Kerr makes a pont of conjuring up the familair landmarks of Welles’ work, including that notorious Ferris wheel.

I had the good fortune to pick up this novel at the beginning of recent my book tour travels and there’s nothing like having a great, utterly absorbing read to make waiting around in airports one of life’s great unappreciated pelasures. Let the delays and the gate-changes come and go, I’m lost in the world of Detective Bernie Gunther as he tries to disentangle the utterly bewildering maze of overlapping jurisdictional, goeographical and moral complexities that are the legacies of the war, the war-guilt and the Occupation’s attempt at retrspetive justice.

A German Requiem is the third in Kerr’s Gunther trilogy, the previous ones being March Violets and The Pale Criminal, both of which I found top notch evocations of the oncoming dread as experienced by a non-poltical cop in pre World War II Nazi Germany.

But for some reason I never caught up with A German Requiem which was published back in 1991. Better late than never. It’s spectacular–



An Ode to the Dunkin Donuts Coffee Roll

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 10:03 pm

So I’ve been on book tour all this week for %%AMAZON=0375503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%, whose jacket cover you might notice inconspicously placed inthe left hand column, which explains sparse blogging, and there are many things I’d like to extol about the experience–which is all too often the subject of writers’ bitter laments (Oh how terrible it is that I’m being flown around to hear appreciative audiences listen to me talk about my book! I have to stay in hotel rooms like ordinary travelling salesmen! Some radio show hosts haven’t read every single precious word in the book! Sometimes I have to get up early! Really there should be an anthology of pampered authors’ cries of anguish about alleged book-tour torture).

Nonetheless there is one thing I realized I missed about New York City on the road. This occurred to me after I’d taken a crop duster night flight from Boston to Albany where I was to spend a day speaking at the great novelist William Kennedy’s New York State Writers Institute. They had put me up in a Courtyard Mariott right across from the campus. No complaints there, I love motels, and I especially love experiencing the little differentials between motel chains. But as one of my hosts, Langdon Brown, an extremely smart theater director swung into the Mariott’s parking lot, I was a bit tired from dusting all those crops, but I perked up when I noticed that next door to the motel was–be still my heart!–a Dunkin Donuts.

Now I have to say that this may not represent the same thrill to you that it did to me. But back in New York City I live right across the street from an all-night Double D and it is part of the joy I find in regularly getting up really early in the morning (often before 5 a.m. when I do my best writing) that I know I will only have to stumble across the street to get my hands on some fresh harsh coffee and the relatively new DD pastry/crack, the “coffee roll.”

I’m not sure how new a DD innovation the coffee roll is. I only discovered it a couple of years ago. Let’s get this straight: it’s NOT a donut. I’m not a super-big fan of donuts. It hath no holes. It’s more like a glazed flying saucer shaped circualr spiral of sugar and cake. Insanely non nutritive, but better than any donut for dunking in hot fresh coffee and achieving the perfect synergy of sugar and caffeine that I believe my brain is hard wired to begin the morning on. Oh sure I still will sometimes follow it up a little later in the day with another form of food-threat full breakfast of eggs, bacon and hashbrowns at the legendary Veselka’s the downtown all night mecca (Second Ave and 9th Streeet).Or, depending on the time of day, at Penelope’s the cheery nearby new agey, emo-iPod, breakfast nook on Lexington and 30th St. (Yes, I believe in front loading my food consumption and surprizingly my weight is within normal range–not despite, but because, of the front loading which leads to a later tapering off).

But really the day doesn’t start with the same excited rush if I don’t have my DD “coffee roll”. What is it about his pastry? Perhaps it’s the subtle swirls of cinnamon sugar syrup sneakily insinuated into the interior spirals of the flying saucer swirls of glazed cake. I do find that the addition of cinnamon to the combination of sugar and caffeine raises the brain cell synergy a quantum level.

But here’s the troubling part: the next morning as I stumbled out into the chilly Albany darkness hoping to jet-fuel myself with a DD coffee roll, for the three speaking engagements and one NPR appearance of the day, I discovered that this DD did NOT OFFER COFFEE ROLLS.

Instead there was just the usual selection of various glazed and sprinkled holey confections that had little appeal for me. I settled for an “old fashioned” and it helped, but the sense of deprivation was palpable with each unsatisfying dunk.

This suggests to me the difficult-to-contemplate possiblity that the coffee roll is still in a testing phase and has yet to be unleashed on the rest of the nation as a permanent DD staple. Perhaps the DD exectives feel that it will wipe out the conventional donut trade.Or that it’s just too powerful for not-already-jazzed-up non-New Yorkers. I find this very worrying, because if it doesn’t fly in the flyover, it might mean they’ll take it off the shelf in the Big City.

Please don’t let this happen. If you have coffee rolls in your local DD’s and you haven’t tried one, buy two. If you don’t have them, ask for the maanger and say you read about them and you want them. Make sure to check back. Write or call the company. Don’t let one of life’s little pleasures disappear without a fight.

September 24, 2006

Sex, Money, Manicures: A New York Street Encounter Mystery

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 11:08 am

An attractive woman of my acquaintance who often finds herself the object of lame pick up lines from New York men told me this story recently, one whose true meaning even she could not be sure of. Was it on the level or a new depth of sleaze?

It seems she was walking up Third Avenue after having gotten a pedicure and she was hailed by a man who’d just had a manicure (as Nora Ephron says in her new book there seem to be more nail salons than nails in New York these days). The pedicure/manicure detail is not entirely irrelevant as will become apparent.

In any case she heard a male voice behind her call out “Miss!”. Now usually this is a signal she would merely ignore and walk faster. But the voice called out again with a strange request. “Miss, I’ve just had a manicure would you put these bills in my pocket?”

Perhaps sensitized by her recent not-yet-dried pedicure she turned around to see a chunky guy in his 30’s in casual attire. He was holding up his hand, which, she said, had clearly been recently manicured, and in that hand was a sheaf of dollar bills.

It was problem she recognized–not-yet-dried-manicures make handling ordinary items a special problem. The bills could have been change from the manicure transaction.

And yet, “Would you put these bills in my pocket,”? Come on! Pretty sketchy on the face of it.

She said, senibly enough,”Um, no”

“Sorry,” she added, feeling a little bad for not being helpful in what might have been a legitmate manicure-related situation. After all she had just had a pedicure so was sensitized to the problem involved. (Could he have known about, or intuited that?). Still she was wary enough not to entertain the thought of putting her hand in a strangers pocket.

And then he said, “I’m a cop.”

What did that mean?

Was it intended to reassure her. You’re in good hands. I’m not a sleazeball molester?

On the other hand (pun intended) I suggested, worst case scenario, maybe–if he was a cop, it would allow him to threaten to arrest her as a pickpocket if she had her hand in his pocket with his bills in it. And after threatening arrest he would have her in his power. What would she say to the magistrate, “I was putting some money in his pocket?

She was not reassured by “I’m a cop”, since he didn’t seem like the detective type– often. in New York City, detectives can be a bit dandyish, the aristocrats of cops, manly manicure types. But on the other hand the incident happened in the vicinitiy of the Police Academy in that neighborhood, so he could have been a cop. But either way, she just hurried away.

What does this whole incident mean? The lengths that New York men will go to devise disarming pick up lines? Was it an opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment, one-time manicure-related pick-up try.? Or had it been tried before and been successful, either as a conversational gambit or something worse?

I don’t see a “Law and Order” episode here, but a typically uneasy, hard-to-fathom New York street encounter that raises questions about the uneasy relations between men and women, strangers with naill polish.

What do you think?

September 23, 2006

Great! A Controversy Over Red Harvest!

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 3:46 pm

I don’t mind being called “mistaken”, even when in this case, to be kind, the person making the call evidently doesn’t understand what I was talking about. Indeed if between us we can strir up some controversy it may serve the purpose of my post. If it attracts more attention to the plea in the post below for Hollywood to do do a true adaptation of Red Harvest,and gives me an excuse to write more about it, then more power to the misinterpreter.

A website called “Never Yet Melted” (great blog name, great source for name) claimed, in response to the post below, that Red Harvest in fact has been adapted no less than three times.

The examples given: Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s A Fistfull of Dollars and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, a 1996 Bruce Willis film.

Now I’ve seen the first two and to say they are “adaptations” of Red Harvest is like saying any movie that features a lone gunman setting two warring factions in a town against each other is a remake of Red Harvest. Sorry.

And check out this IMDb description of Last Man Standing:

“A drifting gunslinger for hire finds himself inthe middle of an ongoing war between the Irish and Italian Mafia.” Not close. Red Harvest is set in the midst of a labor war in a booming mining town town modeled on Butte, Montana and given the allusive name in the novel of “Personville”.

Famous first line: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” Poisonville!. Can you beat it? It a novel about the subtle poison that infects, well, persons. To reduce it to a divide and conquer plot is to say every movie about a sea voyage is an adaptation of The Odysssey. Not really. Film buffs, who rarely are well-read, need to reconsider what they mean when they speak of “adaptations” if it leads them to believe things like this.

By this definition just about every samurai movie, half the Italian Westerns, pastiches like Miller’s Crossing are remakes of %%AMAZON=0679722610 Red Harvest%%. None of them of course dare say they were based on Red harvest or mention Hammett or Red Harvest in the credits, or make an effort to do right by his estate. Property is theft, right?

‘Fraid not. Perhaps it’s the difference in the comparatively indiscriminate definition of “adapation” adapted by film buffs and those of us who are more interested in the actuality and integrity of great writers and great literature, the fine grain of an individual author’s vision, Dashiell Hammett’s idiosyncratic genius, his actual characters, their individual voices and style. That kind of thing. All the things that make the difference between Red Harvest, it’s very particular political and literary vision and every other divide and conquer movie.

I supppose if you throw all these distinctions away and say they don’t matter, it’s just the divide and conquer plot that counts, then you can say every divide and conquer film is an adaptation of <Red Harvest .And maybe that’s good enough for film buffs. It ain’t good enough for those who admire the way some great films have been able to capture some great literature without throwing everything away that makes a work of art distinctively individual.

If you want to know what makes Red Harvest unique, well read it obviously, but then take a look at an amazing photo-esssay by Wim Wenders called “About Butte”. You can find it by googling it in Zoetrope’s All-Story magazine vol. 10 #2.

Then read all the stories that have been written before my post about the failed quest to adapt Red Harvest. Then ask yourself who’s “mistaken”. And then let’s find a way to remedy this sad failure. Maybe it’s impossible. Pajamas honcho and skilled screenwriter Roger Simon wrote me to say he thinks the plot is too complex and contradictory. But don’t we have enough simple minded movies already? And how will we know til somebody skillful tries. Roger, over to you.

Anyeay, than you “never Yet Melted” for giving me an excuse to write more on the subject and once again, please: somebody give us a film of Red Harvest worthty of the novel.

September 19, 2006

The Single Worst Failure of Hollywood is…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:30 pm’s failure to make a movie from what may be one of the THE great American novels Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 %%AMAZON=0375411259 Red Harvest%%. Those who may be fans of the book and film of The Maltese Falcon, his second best book, will be unprepared for the bewildering, anarchic, abolutely inimitable greatness of Red Harvest.

It anticpates the lonely existential vision of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy at their best, it foreshadows the great Samurai films, the bleakest Italian Westerns, and the Tarentino cover versions of them all. It’s about the parodoxes of wild justice and the fluidity of the meaning of “operative” (it features a “hero” inthe guise of a private eye, an “operative”) a word whose ambiguity has, of course become central to the questions at the heart of Plame case, and indeed much of secret intelligence history, if you want a contemproary peg.

I know Bernardo Berlolucci long tried and failed to make this book into a film probably because it can be seen as an allegory of the way fascism arises from the incapacities of unfettered captitalism to offer justice for any but the rich and powerful. Or is that it? It lends itself to a number of poltical interpretations the more the better for a great film.

But where is the great film maker who can bring it to the screen. I’m waiting. One of the Scott brothers, maybe? Somebody. People…

At Last, Somebody in Power takes on…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:48 am

…”Freedom Tower”, that ill-conceived stupidly hubristic, terrorist target practice structure that is supposed to replace the World Trade Center, but which will in fact be painting a target on the backs of hapless middle class office workers and lower middle class service personnel forced to offer themselves up every day as targets.

I’ve been writing columns denouncing the blind foolishness of building this incessantly re-designed security nightmare for more than a year now in The New York Observer, and I’ve been joined by a couple more city colunmists including Kurt Andersen in New York Magazine. But this idiot project, The Emporer’s New Monument, is kept alive by the unwillingness of people to speak out and say “stop the madness”.

Would you wnat your child or spouse to work in Terrorist Target Number One, to endure daily strip-search, iris-scan level security as a price for huddling in an office equipped with untested bio-hazard filtration devices, waiting for the next attack?

But won’t forgoing “Freedom Tower” “let the terrorists win”? No: Acting with needless,heedless, painful stupidity for some bogus “symbolic” triumph that will tie up reoursces that could be used to protect the rest of the citizenry in a smart way, lets the terrorists win.

In its cheap “patriotic” gesture (it’s supposed to be 1776 feet tall! Won’t that make Osama hang his head in shame!) it is, in fact a entirely misconceived notion of what is an appropriate response to the WTC attacks, a blustery bone-headed knee jerk way of playing into the terrorists’ hands that is being pushed by a combination of glory seeking poltiicians, vain architects and greedy real estate developers.

But at last a public official has had the courage to speak out.

He’s Anthohy Coscia, the head of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority (when I was growing up we always used to call it the” Port of Authority”). The glory seeking politicos and vain architects and greedy real estate developers were counting on him to move his employees in as tenants of Dimwit Tower. (Because not a lot of corporations are stupid enough to want to put themelves in what will be the most dangerous building in the world, nor would it be easy to get insurance if they did, so the main projected tenants so far will be civil servants of one level of governmen or other).

So of course the Port Authority was supposed to offer up its hapless employees as a willing sacrifice. Either move or lose your jobs. If you want to know one source of my passion about this, it’s that my father used to work in the Empire State Building. So I have a natural sympathy for office workers like him subject to the whims of foolish bosses).

But just yesterday (9/18) Mr. Coscia finally said it: he’s not going to let his employees be used by the greedy glory seekers. ‘Twice these people [Port Authority employees who were hq-ed in the WTC] were the subjeject of… attack, and I am not going to ask them to move into that building. I’ll resign, but I won’t ask them to move into that building,” he told The Record of Hackensack, N.J. according to The New York Post

Tell Diogenes to call off the search: at last we’ve found an honest man!

There was some backing and filling afterward about it not being about “security” but about “the emotinal weight” of living in a place where your predecessors and co-werkers were murdered.

But now the cat’s out of the bag. Someone with more authority than mere columnists is telling the truth about this tragic fiasco in the making.

Maybe once again, because of Mr. Coscia’s courage, we can start calling it “the Port of Authority”

September 14, 2006

Just When I Thought the Whole Plame Affair…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 4:39 pm

..was at last simplifying itself, with the recent Armitage-was-the-leaker revelation, the entire thing has complexified once again withNovak mysteriously turning on Armitage,his former protected source.

I’ve been trying to follow it throughout, after all I covered Watergate, I folowed Watergate in all its complexities. I know who ordered the burglary (do you? are you sure?), but I have to admit, I feel I’ve fallen behind with this new round of Plame mystification. The only person who both seems to have all the data in his head, and whose skepticism about the hysteria of the past year has been largely proven right has been this one fellow Tom Maguire. a one man demonstration of a blogger’s ability to out think, out analyze just about every mainstream reporter on the case.

Scroll down to his September 13 and 14 th posts on the fracas between Armitage and Novak and you’ll get a flavor of just how Joycean in its complexity the new developments have made the Plame morass. I have to confess, I’m once again at a loss and for the first time I couldn’t quite follow Maguire although I know he was on to something. Yes, I’ve praised blogs like firedoglake, and I think Empty Wheel is the real deal, but they both are highly partisan. Maguire has his politics too,and I’m more liberal than him on most issues, but on Plame he seems genuinely inquisitive a quality in short suppply in a blogosphere that likes tohave its facts conform to its convictions.

Spend just one minute reading Just One Minute on the Plame case and you can get lost, but in a good way.

September 12, 2006

I Woke Up on September 12 and…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:10 am

…watched the rest of the ABC’s controversial “Path to 9/11” I’d taped the night before. It was slick powerful and emotional–horribly emotional. All the more reason I tend to agree with those who call it irresponsible. The locus of irresponsiblity can be found in one sentence of the long and repeated disclaimer: “for dramatic and narrative purposes it contains fictionalized scenes.”

While to some this may sound innocent and understandable, on a matter as momentous, and history-changing as this, the problem is that the presence of any fictionalized scenes, puts every scene in doubt. Unless the fictionalized scenes are labelled as such we have no basis for knowing whether even what may be indisputably non-fictional scenes are fictionalized. Fictionlization undermines trust in fact. A disclaimer does not remedy the situation.

Perhaps this is excusable in less urgent matters. But when a tv drama presents itself as a true account and points the finger of blame for a national tragedy so freely and doesn’t tell us which scenes are fictionalized and how, I think “irresponsible” is not too strong a word.

I don’t see any solution to this. Put the documentably truthful scenes in black and white and–like The Wizard of Oz put the fictionalized ones in Technicolor? Not likely.

What’s needed is a genuine old fashioned, serious documentary (remember them) which could present and evaluate the conflicting versions of who failed to do what to protect us from 9/11. It wouldn’t perhaps be as “cinematic”, but it would add to our perspective rather than confuse it. Some tv network should actually make the effort to sort things out in a documentary that does real reporting rather than a docudrama that ficitonalizes and confuses. It’s not too late.

And speaking of real reporting I recommend you take a look at The Unaccountables a powerful example of scrupulous journalism about the role of private contractors in the Abu Ghraib scandal, by Tara McKelvey in the September issue of The American Prospect(

It advances a story that we all think we know all about by spotlighting the way such contractors operated in a gray area that makes it hard to hold their employees’ conduct up to judicial scrutiny. Just the way a “docudrama” operates in a gray area unacountable to verification.

What we need at this moment in history is more real reporting, more acountability from both politicians and the media, and less “fictionalization”.

September 9, 2006

On September 11…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:11 pm

PBS stations around the country are re broadcasting “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero”, a two hour “Frontline” documentary I co-wrote with producer director Helen Whitney and first broadcast in 2002. Helen shot hundreds of hours of footage of 9/11 victims’ families struggling to reconcile their faith in God with the horrible loss they’d suffered. The documentary is distilled from that, along with thoughtful, sometimes surprizing interviews with philosophers, theologians, artists, athiests and believers of all faiths.

The documentary touched a chord in a lot of people and I hope it will with you. Check your local listings, it’s on at different times on difffernt PBS stations the night of 9/11.

And by the way, a lovely woman I know does something beautiful with her children every 9/11. They spend the evening writing letters to the families of 9/11 victims letting them know that their loss has not been forgotten. Just a thought, but somehow just as important as memorials made of brick and mortar.

September 6, 2006

The Death of "the death of the author"?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:41 pm

I have to say this is an explosive development in the world of intellectual fashions.

It’s an essay by the scholar Richard Wolin originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 1, 2006) which I found on my favorite cultural studies website Arts & Letters Daily.(You can still find it if you scroll down the right hand column til you see Foucault).

An essay entitled “Foucault the Neohumanist”. I swear it almost made me spill my Starbucks on my iBook. Because it essentially pulls the rug out from under decades of academic theorizing which, Prof. Wolin suggests, depended on an incomplete if not inaccurate, understanding of the the most influential theorist in what has come to be known as “Theory’s Empire” (there’s a book by that title)

If you’ve been following the evolution of what is known as Theory (that’s right just “Theory”) in literary studies as I have, most recently in the course of writing %%AMAZON=0375503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%, you know that for years the reigning orthodoxy in academic circles was dominated by Michel Foucault’s critique of the Self or “the subject” or “subjectivity” or free will. autonomy agency, whatever you want to call it, as an illusory product of the power relations of society.

The “self” Foucalt argued is “constructed” by external forces, subtle mechanisms of control that disguise themselves as “knowledge ” and “insight”. In fact, according to this doctrine, the self has no internal will power. Determinism rules. And writers are at best a mouthpiece for the zeitgeist, their works merely reproduce, zombie-like the order of the power structure. Thus the famous “death of the author” which almost all postmodern theorists, apparently ignoring their own “death” have enthusiastically endorsed.

But now Wolin says, it turns out that the illusion of the self, the death of the author are concepts that Foucault himself rejected in the later stages of his career.

On the basis of a new book Foucault 2.0 by Eric Paras who has recovered and translated the later lectures and analyzed the shift in Foucault’s political positions, Wolin says the conception of Foucault’s views among American academics who have not read his untranslated later lectures “seems wrong, or at best, only partially true.. .that in fact the later Foucault became a human-rights activist, a political posture that stands in stark contrast with his North American canonization as the progenitor of ‘identity politics'”.

Indeed Wolin argues, Foucault later “embraced the ideas that he had labored to undermine: liberty, individualism, ‘human rights,’ and even the thinking subject.”

Even the thinking subject! You mean you have control over your own thoughts? A writer has control over his own sentences?


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