Not the Man I Used to Be

The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Patricia Highsmith

Among my less pleasant quirks is an inability to get unstuck. Sometimes I seize on something about a book or movie that is inconsequential, yet I can’t get past it. All forward motion ceases and the sane among you, which  means everyone else, look at me as though I’d sprouted a particularly unsightly carbuncle  in the center of my left cheek.

This is one of those times, although I managed to plow through the novel at hand. It’s the remaining ones in the volume that find themselves in a state of suspended animation, awaiting my return.

Typically I know what the problem is. In this case, I can’t quite settle on it. Whatever it is, though, transcends medium, because I found the 1999 Anthony Minghella film as tiresome as the book, despite its cast. How can that be? Ripley isn’t just one of the most infamous fictional criminals, he spawned a quartet of follow-on novels. Clearly the reading public wanted more. All I wanted was surcease.

If you know anything about Patricia Highsmith, especially her sexuality, you might be tempted to slap a label on me. And while anything is possible, I don’t consider myself a homophobe. Nor have I had a similar reaction to the work of other gay writers or filmmakers–closeted or not. Tom Ripley just bugs me.

Patricia Highsmith

When we first meet Tom, he’s living a life I can only describe as J. Press on the bum. He’s ensconced in an apartment on Manhattan‘s Upper East Side, though not one he has a claim to. Having worn out his welcome through carelessness, he’s been asked to pack himself up and move along by the true occupant, an older man we never meet.

Ripley is also running some sort of scam.  If the time were closer to the present I’d say he was a temp but, in fact,  he seems to hold a clerical position in a government office–one that allows him access to personal information. His little game is to send official looking letters to social security recipients having them send him their signed check on some official sounding pretext.

Which, of course, he cashes. How else do you satisfy a taste for the finer things in life when circumstances conspire to keep the brass ring from you.? We see Ripley pick up his checks, I mean mail, as he hustles off to an appointment.

That fateful meeting is with Herbert Greenleaf, the father of a former schoolmate. Herb is an inviting target for a scam artist. He runs a family owned shipping business and is terribly distressed that his son, Dickie, rather than taking his rightful place apprenticing to take over the business, has decamped to a small town in Italy to develop as a painter.

Of course I’ll help says Tom, putting the touch on Greenleaf pere to help with some additional costs on a trip to Europe he assures the shipping magnate was already planned. And so it’s off to Italy to find Dickie and talk his way into his life.

Only a Type-A workaholic could prefer a life in commerce to this.

Dickie, to be truthful, isn’t much of a painter, though he makes up in volume what he lacks for talent. And Ripley, with his fine grifter’s eye,  recognizes that. Dickie isn’t exactly alone, either. Marge Sherwood, another ex-pat, lives nearby in the same small fishing village.

There’s a hint that Dickie and Marge are more than just expatriated neighbors. Actually, the book contains a lot of hints, this being written in the 1950s by a discrete gay woman, and I am notorious for missing hints as subtle as a 2-by-4 to my left temple. Dickie and Marge are living in each other’s pockets and Marge thinks there’s something not quite right about our friend Tom.

By now we know there isn’t because we see Tom running the grift with Greenleaf’s parents through the mail. Marge, though, suspects Tom may be gay and in one of the book’s more astonishing scenes, Dickie finds Tom, who thought he was alone in the house, dressed in his clothes, in his room, pretending to be him. There’s a writer’s workshop lesson in this chapter alone.

Ripley got the emerging stars treatment in 1999.

That scene sours Dickie on Tom, who is soon urged to move on. Tom, though, pleads and Dickie agrees to a last trip up the coast to the Riviera, before Tom leaves. By this point, even a lout like me couldn’t miss all the homoeroticism which, introduced early in the form of the absentee landlord, is by now all but dominating the tone of the narrative.

In San Remo things go wrong and only one of our two travelers returns. Without giving too much away, what happens is both opportunistic and considered. Now unencumbered, Tom travels to Rome, wraps up Dickie’s affair and sets out upon his masterstroke–the con that will leave him sitting pretty in the Mediterranean forever.

Oh, if it were only that easy. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse complicated by twists I hadn’t seen coming. Jim Thompson, seen here recently, taught me the grift is a fragile thing, made more so the longer it goes on and the more people it touches. The tight fixes Ripley slips out of time and again are simultaneously improbable and utterly believable.

In deference to the form, I’m not going to say any more about the plot. This being a collected work in a volume defined by period, though, I feel compelled to note what immediately struck me as similar. As with the Thompson novel, and unlike the noir masterpieces of the 30s, there was a studied purposelessness at the root of the story.

There was a lot going on under the hood of the otherwise placid ’50s.

My friends from an earlier period were either knights-errant, fashioned as detectives for a more modern age. Or they were ordinary men, tempted into high crimes by women. Or they sought revenge or glory only to find comeuppance.

Those tropes have been rendered archaic in this tale. Despite the reputation of the Eisenhower era for conformity, there was a gnawing undercurrent of meaningless and purposlessness, probably fueled by the horrors of war and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

More than anything else, that’s what’s most apparent in this story of the luckiest grifter to ever get in way over his head.







The Future’s so Bright

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Paul Collier

Turn with me now to serious things.

For some, the sky is falling, what with talk of 70% marginal tax rates. For others, the glorious socialist future is only a moment away.

Some of us, who can remember when things seemed less anxious, may wonder why there are only two choices. Continue reading

When the Circus Comes to Town

Cheaper by the Dozen
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth

Some folks say making sure your kids grow up with a firm moral center is a parent’s primary job. My mom would’ve said it’s their only job.

Mom ran a tight ship, behaviorally speaking. Popular culture was particularly suspect and, though we did consume our fair share, the endless reruns of older movies on New York‘s three independent TV stations Continue reading

The Foul Evil Deed I Had Done

The Killer Inside Me
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Jim Thompson

I know when to say “Uncle.” The Library of America (LOA) has beaten me.

Not in any serious way, mind you. But a bruised ego is still a bruised ego and I don’t acknowledge failure easily. Who’d have thought that the Continue reading

Get Your Motor Runnin’

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
Hunter S. Thompson

Before Johnny Depp, before Bill Murray, before Timothy Crouse and before Fear and Loathing, there was a fearless journalist who was one helluva writer.

Though he’ll be remembered, loved or loathed for the self-invented, arguably semi-moronic,  genre of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson was as singular a Continue reading

She’s Just a Crazy Mixed Up Kid

Top Secret Twenty-One
Janet Evanovich

It strikes me as odd that I’ve not picked up one of these silly New Jersey-based crime stories in more than a decade. Time was, reading a volume in this series served as, for me, the print equivalent of reruns on Channel 11. But the tape doesn’t lie and I must have given up Continue reading

Keep Me Warm in December

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

I’m not sure how we got here so quickly, but once again It’s time for the annual listing of the songs from which I borrowed my post titles. There is a Spotify playlist, of course, with a few more holes than I’d care for. (Really, who would have thought The Beatles, The Clash and Gang of Four would be available but not Michelle Shocked or James?)

The music keeps me sane and I hope if you’re interested that you take a listen. If you’re a reader, first of all, thank you, I hope you’ve enjoyed some of what you’ve read here. If this is the place you found or re-encountered a book, author or idea then we are both richer for it.

I hope you enjoy the music. Here’s to better things in 2019.

  1.  These are the Fables—The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema, 2005
  2.  Anchorage–Michelle Shocked, Short, Sharp, Shocked, 1988
  3.  The Fool on the Hill—The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, 1968
  4.  He’s Gone—Grateful Dead, Europe ’72, 1972
  5.  Duke’s Place (C Jam Blues)—Ella Fitzgerald, Ella at Duke’s Place, 1965
  6.  Girl U Want—Devo, Freedom of Choice, 1980
  7.  No More Tears (Enough is Enough)—Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer, 1977
  8.  Seconds—U2, 1983
  9.  Building a Fire—James, 1994
  10.  Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time—Gang of Four, 1981
  11.  Surrey with the Fringe on the Top—Gordon MacRae, 1955
  12.  Ode to Joy—Sir Georg Solit & the LSO, 1990
  13.  Into the Great Wide Open–Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 1991
  14.  He Was the King—Neil Young, 2006
  15.  History Repeating—Propellerheads, 1997
  16.  Mermaid—Train, 2012
  17.  Living through Another Cuba—XTC, 1980
  18.  Holiday—Madonna, 1983
  19.  Down and Out in Paradise, John Mellencamp, 1987
  20.  Ghosts—The Jam, 1982
  21.  When the Cactus is in Bloom—Bill Monroe, 1964
  22.  Rock the Casbah—The Clash, 1982
  23.  It’s Written in the Stars—Paul Weller, 2002
  24.  She’s Leaving Home—The Beatles, 1967
  25.  Trouble—Elvis Presley, 1958
  26.  On Treasure Island, Louis Armstrong, 1936
  27.  Perverted by Language, The Fall, 1983
  28.  She Blinded Me With Science—Thomas Dolby, 1982
  29.  Hanging on the Telephone-Blondie, 1978
  30.  We Can Be Heroes—David Bowie, 1977
  31.  Finest Worksong—R.E.M, 1985
  32.  Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair—Richard & Linda Thompson, 1975
  33.  The Gravity of the Situation—Vic Chestnutt, 1996
  34.  Listen to the Music—The Doobie Brothers, 1974
  35.  Superman—The Kinks, 1979
  36.  For God’s Sake (Give More Power to the People)—The Chi-Lites, 1971
  37.  Easy (Like Sunday Morning)—The Commodores, 1978
  38.  Lost Mind—Mose Allison, 1957
  39.  Tables and Chairs—Andrew Bird, 2005
  40.  It is a Good Day (to Die)—Robbie Robertson, 1994
  41.  Istanbul (Not Constantinople)—They Might Be Giants, 1990
  42.  Jesus is Just Alright—The Doobie Brothers, 1972
  43.  Bad Case of Loving You—Robert Palmer, 1979
  44.  A Certain Girl—Ernie-K-Doe, 1961
  45.  Secret Secrets—Joan Armatrading, 1985
  46.  With a Child’s Heart—Diana Ross & The Supremes, 1969
  47.  Warm in December—Julie London, 1956

With a Child’s Heart

R. J. Palacio

Just how does a grown-ass man find himself laid low by a book written for children, reduced, repeatedly, to puddles? Why is he even reading such a book in the first place?

I’d say these are mysteries but that’s not true. The answer to the second question is mundane; to the first Continue reading

By Intelligence You’ve Got to Swear

Thoughts on a Brouhaha in Academia

Casual readers be warned, this is one of those occasional posts about matters of little import to everyday folk. Normally that includes you and me, but in this case I’m invested, for reasons I hope become clear.

Anyone who spends more than a nanosecond on social media (or any Fox outlet for that matter) has no doubt stumbled across some bit of outrage being stoked on a Continue reading

There’s a Certain Girl

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
Linda Ronstadt

Mistakes are part of life, so I try to learn from mine.

Take my declarations about genres. Every time I declare I don’t read a particular type of book, I find myself behaving in a contradictory manner.

Consider Exhibit A: biography, a category that includes autobiography and the successful publisher-created Continue reading

Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the Continue reading

Jesus is Just Alright

Miss Gomez and the Brethren
William Trevor

Lost. Once again I am completely lost.

I really hate when that happens.

If you’ve visited before, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered me in my befuddlement. Almost always, the cause is a work of fiction. I always say it’s important to Continue reading

Even Old New York was Once New Amsterdam

New Netherland In a Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch
Colony in North America
Firth Haring Fabend

It’s always easy for me, in the months when the year seems to be collapsing in on itself, to recede into a cocoon of learning. I may not much fancy human company, but I never avoid a book.

Not even one as oxymoronically subtitled as this one.

Concise history indeed. The very notion is suspect and the reality is something different altogether. Even Continue reading

Rock the Vote

On the cusp of the 2018 election

I’m very good at miscalculating. So it’s not surprising that with a reawakened client, an assignment to grade, a midterm to draft and too many long books in progress that I’m short a post.

So this week I’ll keep it brief. In the United States we will vote in a new Congress. Whatever your policy views, it’s important to be part of the process and, if you are registered or can still register, vote.

It’s too easy to be cynical. My own politics are too complicated for bumper Continue reading

Raise Your Voice up to the Sky

The Way to Rainy Mountain
N. Scott Momaday

There’s been so much noise lately that I needed a
quiet book.

So I went hunting in the unread stash I keep in my basement, the acquired-but-unread treasures of a life-long booklover. And I found exactly what I was looking for.

Look this book up–on Wikipedia, say, or on a bookseller’s website–and you’ll find a synopsis. Perhaps Continue reading

If We Can Call Them Friends

A Factor of Six (from a Focus Group of One)

Fifteen to one.

That was the sole answer I received when I asked a simple question in a political discussion on Facebook yesterday.

I actually wasn’t looking for a ratio when I Continue reading

Help Me Find My Mind

How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes

Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I Continue reading

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Six Easy Pieces
Walter Mosley

Academia and I have a rocky relationship that’s a bit one-sided. I see great potential, often squandered; they don’t pay me much heed at all.

So it should come as no surprise that my academic colleagues look askance at ‘binary thinking.’  I’m a Continue reading

(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People

Ruminations in the wake of Kavanaugh

Photo by Gratisography on

It is done.

Now we must pick up the pieces and move on.  Why, I wonder, add more words at a time when so many seem so set in their beliefs that persuasion has become chimerical?

When faced with despair–and, given the Continue reading

Wish I Could Fly Like Superman

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
Gerard Jones

The fact that I could have found a song lyric about  Superman written in almost any decade from 1940 to the present tells you everything you need to know about the power and persistence of this cartoon/cultural icon. Yet despite its pretensions to helping explain how that Continue reading

Listen to the Music

Best Music Writing 2011
Alex Ross, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

This is going to be one of those semesters.

We’re only a couple of weeks in and  I’m already so far behind I’m in danger of seeing myself out on my way in.

Luckily, though I hadn’t planned it this way, it turns out that I am prepared for just such a contingency. That Claude S. Fischer book from last month is not the only read-but-not- Continue reading

The Gravity of the Situation

Slapstick (or Lonesome No More)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Now I remember why I stopped.

Reading novels, that is.

You might not know that from the list of books discussed in this space.  But for at least a half decade the only craftsman I trusted with story-telling was Continue reading

Sea Cruise in a Diving Bell

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Jean-Dominique Bauby (trans. by Jeremy Leggatt)

Take it from me, there is almost nothing on earth as obnoxious as a freshly-degreed graduate of a liberal arts college .

I emerged confident that my opinions–a good many received rather than thought through–were actually facts and those held Continue reading

The Finest Worksong

Labor Day 2018

It’s been over 95° for the last few days of August and even though the Fall semester has already started (at least for me), this seems like a good time to make a cocktail and relax. So let’s end summer 2018 with a Continue reading

We Can Be Heroes

John S. McCain

John S. McCain III 1936-2018
Senator, aviator, POW

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate, speaking in Ames, Iowa, July 2015

When I Google “John McCain war hero” two types of listings appear. The first type is his obituary. The second are  blogs intent on validating the Continue reading

Hanging on the Telephone

America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940
Claude S. Fischer

My capacity for procrastination is legendary.

That’s probably not news around here, where I routinely fess up to getting around to books I acquired decades ago. By that standard the present volume, acquired sometime in the last seven to ten years, is almost contemporary.

Except for the fact that I read it that long ago and am just Continue reading

Blinding Me With Science

The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2003
Richard Dawkins, Guest Editor, Tim Folger, Series Editor

For some inexplicable reason, 2018 has been the summer of nerds. And by that I do not mean a sudden influx of pale males sporting pocket protectors and high waters.

No, this is the summer Mrs. AHC decided to take note of my tendency to set up data collection exercises and social psychology experiments.  When she wasn’t issuing Continue reading

Tunes on the Dunes 2018

Roomful of Blues
At Misquamicut Beach, RI, August 1, 2018

There’s an 8-piece band in there, I promise you.

Bear with me a moment.

In September, 1980, I found myself sitting in line at an ungodly hour at UMass, waiting to buy tickets to see the Grateful Dead at Radio City. The chatter among the other line-sitters was of past shows.

If you’ve never suffered through one of these sessions they offer their own special Continue reading

The Progs You Miss

Early Morning Thoughts on Some 1970s Music

What were they all thinking?

Not just the bands, but the fans.

Better yet, are they thinking it still?

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that last question.

As I ponder that possibility, let’s turn to an Continue reading

I Sailed Away to Treasure Island

Caribbean Rim
Randy Wayne White

The idea of a remote location with no electronic tethers, megaphones or anchors has never seemed more appealing. Times being what they are that’s not likely to happen, so I’ll have to settle for the next best thing.

That would be a chair at the town pool and a Doc Ford adventure. You remember Doc, we’ve met him before. He’s the onetime black op turned marine biologist who’s Continue reading

Born Standing Up and Talking Back

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business
Charlan Nemeth

A Fortune 500 CEO who repeatedly voiced his desire to entertain a wide range of thinking once publicly clarified that position for me. Skepticism, he averred, is good. It shows your mind is working.  Just don’t make a habit of it.

I’m pretty sure Charlan Nemeth would find at least half Continue reading

She’s Leaving Home

The Awakening
Kate Chopin

My ongoing dialog  with the Tao te Ching has convinced me of one thing: the universe sends us messages and we’d be foolish not to listen.

Consequently, when a hardcover edition of Kate Chopin‘s most celebrated work fell into my hands soon after I’d terminally misplaced my just-set-aside-for-a moment Continue reading

It’s Written in the Stars

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil de Grasse Tyson

A long time ago, in a high school not so far away, I toyed with the idea of joining. So, despite my demonstrated lack of athletic and social ability, I tried some sports and clubs.

One of those clubs seemed perfect for a nerd like me. The Astrophysics Club met on Friday nights and got to Continue reading

Sharif Don’t Like It

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis

It isn’t always easy, amid all this demonizing, to remember there was a time when the world east of the Bosporus beckoned.

Even though the charges of imperialism, cultural appropriation, and intolerance stand up to some scrutiny, you can’t deny the existence or effectiveness Continue reading

It’s Roundup Time

Reading Round the Web

If you’ve spent any time around here, and were prone to cataloging, you’d rightfully say this was a book blog. It’s true. My first love was books.

But I am not a complete Luddite. Like any other reader I spend a lot of time online.

So today I’m sharing some things I’ve read there recently. They’re mostly longer form. Continue reading

That Ain’t no Ghost

Reading in the Dark
Seamus Deane

Some years back I worked with a woman who hailed from Mississippi. A talented engineer who would tackle advanced math the way you might the dishes, she was also a walking encyclopedia of regional folkways. Among these was the delightful phrase, “Haints is real y’all.”

I’ve a lot of sympathy for that belief. Continue reading

The Milk and Honey Done Run Out

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell

Why, I wonder, in reading a book set in early 20th century London and Paris,  did I find my mind wandering ever closer to home and New York during the same era?

I’m always the first to point out that reading helps me connect things otherwise unconnected. So what I was Continue reading

We Need a Holiday: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2018

I always start from the premise that it’s important to remember why we even have a holiday called Memorial Day.

So, as I’ve been doing for decades now, I’ll turn out early on Monday to watch the parade and remember that our freedoms Continue reading

Living Through Another Cuba

The Cuban Affair
Nelson DeMille

While I’m fighting the urge to begin with a lament, I might be better off with a trite observation: there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I may, in fact, have established that I should limit myself Continue reading

An Island so Remote

The Crofter and the Laird
John McPhee

As I look across the room at a shelf half-filled with John McPhee titles, I wonder how I managed to go this long without talking about him.

It’s not as though the man or his work are unknown. Some years back a  copywriter who commuted from Princeton told me many of her neighbors considered the long Continue reading

A Little Bit of History

History of the United States of America
During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson
Henry Adams

In the midst of the 2016 US Presidential election I accidentally started a stupid fight.

For me, the issue was using the proper words to describe things. For my interlocutor, the issue was reinforcing her political position. Logical fallacies like the appeal to authority are hard to miss, but I dropped the matter when Continue reading

He Was the King

Albert King: An Appreciation

They called him the big man.

Standing in front of the stage at the original Lone Star Cafe, which may have been all of three and a half feet off the barroom floor, he appeared a giant. From the balcony that wrapped around the front and right hand side of Continue reading

Article I. Section 8.

Emphasis added:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; Continue reading

Into the Great Wide Open

Into the Wild
Jon Krakauer

In almost perfectly backward fashion I have finally read the book after seeing the movie which I only did after the song got stuck in my head. No slave to directionality I.

This story, which turned Jon Krakauer from a niche journalist focused on mountaineering and the outdoors into a best-selling author, is now almost thirty years old. It may even be familiar in rough form: a young man, Continue reading

Ode to Joy

Easter/Passover 2018

As we celebrate two great feasts there seems no better time to remember the promise of the season:

Peace. Continue reading

Nosey Pokes’ll Peek

Miss Julia Stirs up Trouble
Ann B. Ross

Here’s a recipe for a literary car wreck: a book rooted in a regional setting and culture; an author who holds a PhD in English; and a heroine who is among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered.

At times like these I really wish I’d been born with the Continue reading

He’s Obsessed with Order

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

We readers spend an awful lot of time inside our own heads, don’tcha think? At least that seems to be the case for me, although I have long been loath to admit it.

When I’ve taken those typology batteries, you know, the ones like Myers-Briggs, the results almost always suggest that I prefer solitude. This book, now 15 years old, which Continue reading

Those Who Lead

“Presidential Leadership & The Separation of Powers”
Eric A. Posner
Daedalus, Summer 2016

Binary thinking irks me.

Just consider the state of political discourse in the US. One side advocates for restricting unwelcome speech and, at times, seems to think that only wholesale rebuilding of the American system into a parliamentary one will result in the desired, I’m tempted to say proper, Continue reading

And They’re Doing the Atomic Bomb

Radiant Angel
Nelson DeMille

It’s not everyday a prime example of publishing practice and authorial obsession drops into my lap. Maybe it’s just Long Island luck.

Our author is an old friend, reared in the same town as me. Nelson DeMille‘s books are my guilty pleasure and the most pleasurable ones are set on Long Island. Only a Continue reading

Enough is Enough

Columbine. Blacksburg. Newtown. Parkland.

The list, incomplete as it is, likely will go on.

We shouldn’t  accept that.

How have we gotten here? How do otherwise well-meaning people get so riled up that they feel compelled Continue reading