March 2015


"The Second (Book) Coming"


Many have wondered, some even waiting, to see if Harper Lee would ever overcome a presumed Titanic-sized writer’s block—one that had stymied her for several decades—and write another book. Was she “only” a one book wonder? Though if so, what a wonder! (The Serendipity of Harper Lee JULY, 2010 MUSE-LETTER).

Published in 1960 when Lee was 34, To Kill a Mockingbird became an immediate best seller, won a Pulitzer Prize, and to this day has been a fixture on educational required reading lists. It has sold a record forty million copies and counting, to the tune of currently a million a year, a hundred an hour, two more just in the time you started reading this. And the movie version it inspired, is the 25th best ever made, according to the American Film Institute’s latest rankings.

Now it turns out, that not only did she have another book in her, but apparently one that she actually wrote before Mockingbird. It was announced last month, that fifty-five years after that classic, there will be what might be called “the second book coming.” On July 14th to be exact. It is entitled Go Set a Watchman.

This rather head-scratching title for those of us not up on biblical reference, comes from Isaiah 21:6 (King James Version)…“Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” And interestingly, according the biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields (2006), this was the original title of what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird.


While there will obviously be heightened anticipation as this event draws near— stoked assuredly by a publisher’s PR campaign firing on all cylinders—it doesn’t quite sit right. There are more red flags here than at a Moscow May Day parade.


To begin with, we read that…“ ‘the manuscript was rediscovered last year,’ Lee, 88, said in a statement from her publisher, HarperCollins.”

Rediscovered? From where? By whom? Obviously not by Lee herself, as can be implied by this statement. It’s as if it’s a surprise to her as well. Not to mention, did she really make that statement?


There is a lot of speculation as to her current condition and state of mind. According to some reports, a stroke Lee suffered in 2007 left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and that she is now largely deaf and blind. And if so, is this book really being published with her true blessing and lucid consent?


What clouds the issue, is Lee’s reputation for being a recluse. And so of course it is assumed that no public statement would ever be directly forthcoming from her, all age and health considerations aside. Yet that reclusiveness has always been rather exaggerated.

For example, she came to LA in 2003 from her home in Monroeville, Alabama (where she has always mingled and been part of the community), to attend Gregory Peck’s funeral mass and memorial at Los Angeles Cathedral (where the actor’s body is interred). I learned from a parish priest who was at that event, that she was very approachable, talkative, sociable, endearing.

As recent as nine years ago when she was pushing 80, there she was right on the front page of the Arts section of The New York Times at an awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Writer’s Block or… Six Authors in Search of a Character? FEBRUARY, 2006 MUSE-LETTER). Hardly Salingeresque; he who never ventured much beyond his well fenced-in turf for any reason—literary or otherwise.

But the bigger questions, have to do with the merits of Go Set a Watchman itself. It was after all, rejected at the time as being unpublishable in its then current state. So much so, that Lee went back, and in effect, wrote a whole other book. This time through the eyes of Scout as a child, rather than as an adult. And in this way, To Kill a Mockingbird was born. What we have in Watchman, is a recycled book that turns out to be a sequel.

Aside from Godfather II, has any sequel of anything ever artistically measured up to the original hit? And in the realm of what is considered to be literature (and taught in schools), only The Odyssey following The Iliad readily comes to mind. So it’s probably safe to say Watchman won’t be timeless. And there’s a chance that it might quickly come and go without a whimper, much as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time sequel to Catch-22 did twenty years ago.

In being published now some sixty years after the fact, has Watchman once again been reworked or re-edited? By Harper Lee herself? (Doubtful). By anyone else? And if so, by whom? If it wasn’t good enough then, why is it good enough now?

Perhaps a first printing of two million copies—which aside from the Harry Potter franchise, is an unheard of number in the book publishing business— lies the answer to this last question. (Visions of dollar plums dancing in their heads?).

On the flip side of anticipated monetary gain, is the spectra of a loss in prestige value, as one can imagine the literary critics having a field day tearing this book apart. Especially those who even question Mockingbird’s place in the literary pantheon to begin with. Then there’s the whole new world of social media that didn’t exist when Mockingbird took wing, that can also be brutal and instantly destructive. A stoning death by a million pebbles.

So there’s no way this “second coming” can turn out well, given the standard to which it will be held. All the same, I for one among the many, will be at a Barnes & Noble on that day buying Go Set a Watchman. Scout’s honor!





Quote of the Month







Nitrous Oxide Insights


There’s the Erie Canal. The Panama Canal. And the Root Canal. This last of which I encountered for the first time ever, last month.


No big deal here, this being commonplace and hardly life threatening. Yet no day at the beach either, as this dental rite of passage has long been synonymous with that dreaded euphemistic phrase uttered by white-coated professionals: “you may experience some discomfort.” We lay people and patients call it for what it is. PAIN.


To ward off such anxiety in the dental chair—call it a throne as many of us have been crowned there on several occasions— I have gone under the influence of nitrous oxide. (To which I attribute the preceding bad pun as well as what might follow for which I claim no responsibility.). The goal has been to temper any “discomfort,” not so much physically—though it does help to dull the number of piercing shots of Novocain in nerve sensitive areas, but without which such a “procedure” as root canal would be unendurable—but equally important, psychologically. Or maybe it’s just me. Call me a wuss. I’ve been called worse.


With a nitrous infusion now wafting through my nostrils, they proceed to put goggles on me. (“What are these for?” “I will be working with sharp instruments.” I had to ask.). Then something made of rubber gets stuffed into my mouth that challenges the gag reflex. I feel that I am now in the hands of terrorists. I would gladly tell them whatever they want to know if I could speak—the mouth kept wide open by some sort of doorstop device. But as the nitrous begins to peak, the terrorist illusion gives way to one of a car. They might be mechanics probing under my hood. A small tune-up and I’ll be out of the garage and back on the road in no time. But that playful notion is literally drilled out of me.


Suddenly, Dr. Whitecoat Professional—wall-mounted diplomas implying competence—goes all Con Edison on me. He proceeds to jack-hammer my street with no prior warning or explanation. There are now sounds coming from down below, that in all my visits to the chair, I’ve never heard. Weird variations on a drilling theme in the key of Eek sharp!

One particular adagio drill bit passage, reminding me of a mandatory machine shop class I had to take as a high school student at Brooklyn Tech (Tech alma mater, molder of men), somewhere in the deep recesses of the previous millennium. And in the absence of any sign of gracefulness in the execution, there is pressure, penetration and screaming metal, hell-bent on reaching China. And while I feel no actual pain by this point, I am sweating. Audibly. What if he slips? His assistant will no doubt cover up the evidence of this unfortunate accident, which could result in years of expensive litigation…and all to no avail.



In need to go elsewhere, the brain heads off to the movies. Appearing on its screen now, is that crazed dentist played by Steve Martin in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Followed shortly, by the dental scene from “The Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman and a menacing Lawrence Olivier. (“Is it safe? Is it safe?”) And though such imagery and attendant associations race along, time seems eternal.


I was in that chair for about a week. And as I wandered into the dessert of resignation by say the sixth day, a thought seeped in and took hold, and repeated itself through the nitrous haze. That with all the advances in science and technology, with all its robotics and killer apps— even in the sci-fi sounding year of 2015— reality is literal, not virtual. We look to science, or God, to eliminate the discomforts that come with living. And neither can do it.


Oxygen now finally freely flowing, and having come back fully to my all too common senses, it was time to leave to go pick up my computer that had crashed and was in the shop. Okay, I’ll admit to “going Brian Williams” here. My computer did not crash at that particular time. Nor was it even shot at. I misremembered. You know, the nitrous oxide and all.







Tabloid Inspiration…a Poem Reprised





Squirrels Making Bad Decisions


The animal instinct so acute
these cute little animals
ought to know better.


Or so it would seem.
                                   And yet they dart
with such precision—precisely
at the wrong moment
across the road.
Some even stopping in mid-dash and thereby
compounding the error of their ways.


Then retracing with scurried steps
                                                         eyes wide open
feverishly twitching
                                  ears wired for sound


they forego the concept altogether
of being past the point of no return.
And given options, they tend to return


to the road
                    or to be more precise
to that side of the road most traveled by;
where cars like comets come hurtling by.


Their rocket scientist fathers
having since moved on
to their own bad decisions
                                             whereabouts unknown


perhaps a pelt left strewn across
some double yellow line
have nothing to teach in the matter.


And proper nutrition left to the mother—
she knows nothing of speed and oncoming cars.


The only sense of safety here
lies somewhere in the numbers.
Which they throw at the world
with reckless abandon.


             —Ron Vazzano





Who Would Like To Go on a One-Way Trip to Mars?



Would you believe… 200,000 people?!

At least that was the original purported number of applicants for a project by a Netherlands-based group called Mars One, whose stated mission is to “establish a permanent settlement on Mars,” beginning in 2025.


According to a story last month, those 200,000 have now been whittled down to a “Final 100.” Comprised of which, a 50/50 gender split, and a younger age skew— not surprising, given the bizarre nature of what would be a taxing mission to say the least.


Half of the candidates (or contestants as you will see) are between 25-35, with another twenty, under the tender age of 24. (“Hey mom and dad, I’m like, you know, I wanna go to Mars. And uh, I’ll never see you again because I can’t come back. But we can probably Skype, and all that.”).


Ten are over 50, and might be eligible for Medicare by the time they ever get to leave. (Will Obamacare cover pre-existing conditions on Mars?).



Forget for the moment that according to a recent MIT study regarding this project, that given the current technology, even if first explorers were successful in landing, they would likely survive just 68 days. Forget that a trip to Mars, while not as problematic as a Carnival Cruise, has historically been successful in unmanned missions, only about half the time. Forget that Co-founder/CEO of Mars One, Bas Landsdorp, has been focusing not on overcoming the obvious technical challenges, but rather on the business model. Forget that his company has a history of launching squat.


According to a piece from the Daily Mail out of the UK, “The company has no spacecraft in development. This includes, but is not limited to a vehicle to take humans into orbit, a habitat to take them to Mars and something to get them through the atmosphere.”


But most importantly— speaking of business model—we read that a critical component to this project is the makings of a reality show:

“… the venture's accompanying reality TV show which was to be made by the makers of Big Brother to document their training and new lives on the red planet — has been shelved after the companies were 'unable to reach an agreement on details', MailOnline has learned.


“Instead, Mars One is working with a new production company to record the colonists' progress.”

Ah, so that’s it. The ultimate reality show? People being voted off the planet? People vying for a shot at a cool new suicide? Is there no end to the indignity inherent in this genre of “entertainment”? What next? “Pistol Duels in Weehawken New Jersey”?


The takeaway here then, is not about the feasibility of this project and if it will ever see the light of day— it won’t— but that human folly, now further infused by the prospects of a brave new world, is as limitless as the universe itself. Which continues to surprise those of us who like to think we have our feet on the ground.


As a footnote, NASA, which has demonstrated the ability to land human beings on another orb and return them safely to Earth, is working on something called Orion. It is estimated to have a first manned mission to Mars in the 2030’s. One assumes there would be no reality show around their astronaut selection process; these the people who brought you Neil Armstrong. But then again, given where our species is heading, who knows.






Web Maintenance by HK Creative Design
Copyright © 2004-2014