Jerry Lewis and the French

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John F
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Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by John F » Wed Aug 23, 2017 5:00 am

Jerry Lewis, who died recently, was probably best known here for the early movies with Dean Martin, a blatant rip-off of the Abbott and Costello shtick (as were the Crosby/Hope "Road" pictures), and for his annual marathon telecasts for muscular dystrophy. But the French, supposedly sophisticated, celebrated Lewis as some kind of genius. (The French also rate the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe higher than we who read it in the original English.) The French film critic Agnès Poirier has attempted to explain this strange aberration, but I think she fails; quoting others' opinions, she provides no analysis of her own. Her headline has got it wrong - for "understood" read "misunderstood."

Why France Understood Jerry Lewis as America Never Did
By AGNÈS C. POIRIER
AUG. 21, 2017

PARIS — Despite the traditional August lull and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, the death of Jerry Lewis has been big news here in France, where the American actor-writer-director-producer was revered as an outstanding artist, and a polymath auteur. The French daily newspaper Libération stated it clearly and simply on its front page: “Génie Lewis” (“Lewis the Genius”), summarizing in two words what the French have thought of the American comedian since the early 1950s.

Françoise Nyssen, France’s culture minister, said Mr. Lewis had “reinvigorated American burlesque.” She added that he “didn’t always receive the praise he deserved in his home country, whereas French critics recognized his talent from early on.” Ms. Nyssen’s statement concluded: “Jerry Lewis made us laugh, he made us happy. France, which was the country of his heart and of his success, will always dearly remember his voice, his silhouette and his humor.”

Jerry Lewis was always a subject of a deep trans-Atlantic misunderstanding, one that triggered sarcasm in the United States and bewilderment in France. While some Americans felt embarrassed by this contortionist comic, the French embraced Mr. Lewis’s humor as both an abstract art and social satire of American life. Americans mocked the French for falling for this crass clown, while the French couldn’t understand why Mr. Lewis’s genius was not obvious to his compatriots.

The French saw in Mr. Lewis a revolutionary, a man who dared, an experimentalist and a pioneer, and an artist with an absolute creative freedom. He knew no bounds, no limits. His early champion here was the influential French film critic Robert Benayoun, who wrote a seminal book on Mr. Lewis as well as others on the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Woody Allen. A friend of the Surrealists and André Breton, Mr. Benayoun saw in Mr. Lewis’s humor a continuation of Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd. In his book “Bonjour Monsieur Lewis,” Mr. Benayoun wrote, “Since Buster Keaton died, Lewis has been the world’s biggest comic artist.”

Following Mr. Benayoun, the enfants terribles of the French New Wave, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, also embraced Mr. Lewis’s work. His early films as a director, such as “The Bellboy,” “The Ladies Man” and “The Errand Boy” — which he also wrote, produced and starred in — were heralded as masterpieces here in France. Édouard Waintrop, artistic director of the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, said that “The Bellboy,” Mr. Lewis’s directorial debut, “remains one of the funniest and most audacious films in cinema history, a series of gags without any sentimentality.”

“Lewis’s face is the grimacing mirror of our vanities,” said the French film critic Pierre Murat. “His body, as bendy as rubber, is the reflection of our ridicule.” He added that Mr. Lewis, as writer, director and actor, inherently trusted “the public’s intelligence, and their culture,” continuing, “Everybody understood at the time that ‘The Bellboy’ was a rapt homage to Stan Laurel, the thinking man of the Laurel and Hardy duo — exactly like Jerry when he was Dean Martin’s sidekick.” In a memorable scene from the film, Mr. Lewis, in the title role, is ordered to bring a tourist’s luggage to her hotel room from her car. In the next scene, we see him haul in the vehicle’s engine. We don’t know what has happened, we can only imagine. Mr. Lewis’s art and humor lay in the ellipsis.

Jerry Lewis connects the French with their past in a profound way. His work harks back to the time of Georges Méliès, the godfather of comedies in the silent era, when the French were the world’s most prolific film producers — that is before Hollywood made cinema an industry. Méliès, a one-man band, just like Mr. Lewis, performed a split personality onscreen, playing many different parts in his films. It is the same complexity that attracted the French public and critics to Mr. Lewis. Just like another American, Orson Welles, misunderstood at home and worshiped in France, Mr. Lewis was in real life a handsome and intelligent man who loved hiding behind the character he had invented for himself: the ugly duckling — and the idiot.

But the French have always seen him as a thinker and an innovator. Mr. Godard even declared that Mr. Lewis was greater than Chaplin, and “the only one in Hollywood able to transcend categories and norms.” With his fourth film as director and actor, “The Nutty Professor,” Mr. Lewis enjoyed a climax in his career, one he was never able to repeat. However, despite much less successful films from the late 1960s onward, Mr. Lewis’s status was never diminished in France, where his best films are regularly shown in Paris’s art house cinemas alongside other world classics. This week, French television channels are changing their schedules to show the genius of “nutty Jerry” to a younger audience — and keep his name alive.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/arts ... r-did.html
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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Aug 23, 2017 11:04 am

Just so that John's post does not go uncommented, I have long been aware of those two horrid aberrations. The great literary critic Harold Bloom has said, with what degree of seriousness I don't know, that he re-reads Poe every five years just to remind himself of how bad a writer he (Poe) is.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Sat Aug 26, 2017 10:39 am


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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Sun Aug 27, 2017 8:25 am

Confronted with Lewis's comic capers, cosmopolitan Frenchmen turn into ingenues and American innocents into snobs. For that pratfall alone, Jerry Lewis deserves to have auteurship thrust upon him.

Film critic Richard Brody's hommage to Lewis upon his death.
_________________________________________________
The New Yorker
Postscript: Jerry Lewis
By Richard Brody
August 20, 2017


Image

Jerry Lewis, who was both caustically irreverent and keenly sentimental, would have been a hoot to hear on the subject of his own passing. I can imagine him cackling out from a back-row seat at his own funeral, “Maybe now we’ll get to see ‘The Day the Clown Cried.’ ” Whether with God or the Devil, you can imagine Lewis giving an eternal earful while rhapsodizing with tremolos about his own imperishable and irreplaceable greatness. After his former comedy partner Dean Martin’s death, in 1995, Lewis, surprisingly, spoke tenderly and lovingly of their time together—but, then, whatever conflicts Lewis may have faced with Martin, they were nothing compared to the conflicts that he faced with himself.

Lewis certainly gave an earful, in person, to anyone who had the privilege of seeing him onstage, and was as tough on those who loved him as on those who came for kicks. His approach to audience members at the 92nd Street Y in 2012 would have made Don Rickles seem like Don Knotts, and, onstage at the Museum of Modern Art last year, he made the deeply knowledgeable and devoted curator and critic Dave Kehr the butt of his caustic humor. Yet he also displayed an apt measure of pride that was rooted in the self-awareness of his own achievements. That awareness was sorely tested by the circumstances of his life, because Jerry Lewis—who, through his untiring devotion to the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethon (and its precursors), helped to popularize the literal notion of the poster child—is himself the metaphorical poster child for a unique modern curse: they loved him in France.

They loved him in the United States, too, but not for what he wanted to be loved for. Born in 1926, Lewis was a precocious comedian who was already performing as a child. He was also a genius of childhood itself, and his timing was impeccable: in the years after the Second World War, he caught the innocent anarchy that was in the air, the liberating natural impulses that went along with a time when the center of gravity was shifting toward the young. He came of age in the big-band era but he was a hero of the time of Elvis, a grown-up child with no latency period—and Dean Martin, his partner in comedy, who was nearly a decade older, was the adult who had to cope with him. The act, onstage and in movies, brought him extraordinary popularity, turned him into one of the prime celebrities of the fifties, made him rich and famous.

But what Lewis really wanted to do was direct, and he learned from the best: starting in 1955, he was directed by Frank Tashlin, who had come up directing Looney Tunes cartoons and was by far the most original comedy director in Hollywood at the time. Tashlin was hardly acknowledged as such by American critics, but he was admired and beloved by the young French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma. Lewis spoke, in his book “The Total Film-Maker” and in onstage appearances (as in conversation with Martin Scorsese at the Museum of the Moving Image, in 2015, about how he learned to direct: he’d come to the studio and spend time with the technicians in all the various crafts and departments that went into studio moviemaking. Knowing that movie comedy is a rigorous craft (and he spoke movingly to Scorsese about the comedic decisiveness of inches), he became a master craftsperson.

The comic actor who directs himself with a consummate mastery of technique—there’s a noble tradition at work, and when Lewis planned to direct he had that tradition, with Charlie Chaplin at the head of it, in mind. When Lewis directed his first feature, “The Bellboy,” in 1960, he did it, audaciously, as a silent film. Well,not exactly: the movie had plenty of sound and plenty of talk, but none at all from the titular protagonist, a beleaguered staffer at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, played, in pantomime, by Lewis himself. In his first feature as a director, Lewis played a grown man whom everyone called a “bellboy”—someone who spent his day taking orders, whose maturity was a matter of collective doubt, and whose views and ideas nobody asked for. As a filmmaker who insisted on the personal side of his work—who was producer, writer, director, star, and over-all boss of his productions in the interest of his artistic conception and passion—he was an auteur by temperament and in practice long before the word travelled Stateside.

Lewis was also a radical democrat whose conception of the audience was as total as his identification with the art of filmmaking: he understood the lifelong reproached child, the repressed imp, the inner free person cowering in fear and cringing with embarrassment, as the more or less eternal counterpart of employees and family people of any age everywhere. The terrors that he unleashed upon the haughty and the famous (as in “The Ladies Man”), and the pure exuberance that he unleashed in moments of secret abandon, were acts of collective liberation. At the same time, he unleashed a torrent of repressed childhood wildness, and, to the earnest American critics of the time, it just seemed childish—whereas, to French critics and audiences, who were deeply imbued with the same cinematic tradition that nourished Lewis, and who were also isolated from the ballyhoo of celebrity and advertising and were able to see Lewis’s work apart from the phenomena that media made of it, recognized that he was more than the heir to that tradition; rather, he extended and enriched it.

The French were right: Lewis is one of the most original, inventive, and, yes, profound directors of the time. In his films of the nineteen-sixties, he put himself through a wide range of humiliating situations and discovered a range of sentimental triumphs, using technical devices onscreen and off with a gleeful audacity (he actually invented, and held the patent on, the video assist that allowed him to see himself on closed-circuit TV while acting on camera). In the enormous cutaway set of “The Ladies Man” and the metacinematic airplane comedy of “The Family Jewels” and the inside-studio farces of “The Patsy” and “The Errand Boy” and, of course, the enduring twist of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story “The Nutty Professor,” Lewis made his mark on the times by way of a distinctive cinematic consciousness.

Lewis’s art was both emotionally and physically self-sacrificing. He spoke movingly of the pathos and even the shame of wanting and needing to be onstage and on camera in quest of attention for his person, and he wrote that “the battle within himself is part and parcel of what makes him a total filmmaker.” He added that “it is often torture when you have complete personal control. You answer to yourself once you get it. . . There is no easy way to shake that schmuck you sleep with at night. . . . I have to sleep with that miserable bastard all the time. Very painful, sometimes terrifying.” Physically, he took some terrible falls and gave himself some terrible injuries; one, on television, in 1965, gave him a literal lifetime of pain, as well as a dependence on pain medicine that took a heavy toll on his life and his work.

The inner child romanticized childhood; though he was a wild poet of liberation, he was also sentimental enough about childhood that he hoped to spare actual children the coarseness of life that he experienced. He was troubled by the public disinhibitions of the late nineteen-sixties, and put high hopes on a chain of movie theatres that would show only movies for children. Making the terrors of life bearable for children—though the chain of movie theatres failed, it wasn’t the only, or the largest, of his early-seventies ventures in that vein to go awry. That would be the movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” from 1972, which he directed and starred in—as a German clown, imprisoned in Auschwitz during the Second World War, who did an elaborate number to amuse the children as they were being led to their extermination. At least, that’s how the plot is described; few have ever seen it in its entirety, and Lewis put it in his closet, vowing that it not be shown.

I don’t know whether the film is as bad as Lewis himself has said that it is. The point is that, in the early nineteen-seventies, when the very term “the Holocaust” was hardly known and when the extermination of six million Jews by Nazi Germany was a little-discussed phenomenon, at a time before Claude Lanzmann made “Shoah,” Lewis took it on. He may have been naïve to do so with a twist of comedy, he may have been naïve to do so with such uncompromisingly direct and untroubled cinematic representation—but he also went where other directors didn’t dare to go, taking on the horrific core of modern history and confronting its horrors. What childhood can there be with such knowledge, and what comedy? The moral complicity, the self-scourging accusation of the role of the clown in amusing children en route to their destruction, is itself as furious a challenge to himself, and to the entertainment of the time, as any by the most severe critic of media.

Lewis’s directorial career slowed down; his last feature as director, called alternately “Cracking Up” and “Smorgasbord,” is the story of a man—played by Lewis—who tries and repeatedly fails to commit suicide. It’s one of the most poignant—and one of the most ingenious—terminal points of any great comedy director’s career. He was in his mid-fifties when he made the film, though he has been anything but silent in the last thirty-four years. Rather, Lewis has been making glorious noise, onstage. But he hasn’t been making movies, which is why the celebration of his career and his art involved an element of mourning and of loss long before his passing.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultu ... erry-lewis

John F
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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by John F » Sun Aug 27, 2017 10:00 am

jserraglio wrote:Confronted with Lewis's comic capers, ... American innocents [turn] into snobs.
Huh?
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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Sun Aug 27, 2017 10:11 am

John F wrote: . . . the early movies with Dean Martin [were] a blatant rip-off of the Abbott and Costello shtick . . . the French, supposedly sophisticated, celebrated Lewis as some kind of genius . . . . The French film critic Agnès Poirier has attempted to explain this strange aberration, but I think she fails . . . . Her headline has got it wrong - for "understood" read "misunderstood."
jbuck wrote:[re: French admiration for Poe's poetry & Jerry Lewis's movies] ... I have long been aware of those two horrid aberrations.
I think the French invariably get it right about undervalued American artists like Lewis and Poe.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Sep 11, 2017 5:40 am

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Aug 27, 2017 10:11 am
John F wrote: . . . the early movies with Dean Martin [were] a blatant rip-off of the Abbott and Costello shtick . . . the French, supposedly sophisticated, celebrated Lewis as some kind of genius . . . . The French film critic Agnès Poirier has attempted to explain this strange aberration, but I think she fails . . . . Her headline has got it wrong - for "understood" read "misunderstood."
jbuck wrote:[re: French admiration for Poe's poetry & Jerry Lewis's movies] ... I have long been aware of those two horrid aberrations.
I think the French invariably get it right about undervalued American artists like Lewis and Poe.
I don't think Poe is undervalued by Americans. Quite the opposite, in fact. That is not the point. Lots of bad writing is highly valued, which does not keep it from being bad. I once had a student who was preparing The Raven, a horrid poem if ever there was one, for some sort of out-loud reading. (I'm the math teacher, remember, but she was one of my special cases.) Where was her English teacher in not steering her to a different choice?

Poe was his own greatest creation. Did you know that he was a drop-out from West Point? After a dissolute life he died and was buried in Baltimore (I've seen the grave). For many years, an anonymous person skulking around at night left flowers and a bottle of wine there on the eve of his birthday. Eventually the police figured out who this person was, but playing along with the innocent joke never apprehended him or her or divulged the name.

Maybe my only happy thought of Poe was attending the completion of the fragment of La tombée de la maison Usher by Debussy done by Carolyn Abbaté when she and I were together in grad school. (I mention her searchable name because though she has long been a famous scholar, I have nothing but good things to say about her.) It was in a small space with student forces, but I remember it as a happy event.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by John F » Mon Sep 11, 2017 6:27 am

What a perfect setup for one of my favorite ridiculous records: a recitation of "The Raven" by the Australian baritone Percy Hemus, with piano accompaniment - yes! - by Gladys Craven, rhymes with "raven." The YouTube clip is provided by another oddball who calls himself the Colonel and shows the 78 rotating on his ancient gramophone. The record begins at 0:40.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqr0tVHdJKc&t

I'd say it's impossible to undervalue Poe's poetry. The stories are something else.
Last edited by John F on Mon Sep 11, 2017 8:07 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Mon Sep 11, 2017 7:19 am

I think Poe is one of the great American writers. For me his stories are marvelous imaginative achievements. Dubious claims to the contrary aside, English teachers not presumptuous enough to steer students into the narrow stalls of handpicked good authors are to be commended. We need more of them.

Juicy gossip about Poe reveals more about its disseminators than it does about Poe. Writers who led dissolute lives lie thick on the ground, great ones not so much.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by John F » Mon Sep 11, 2017 8:49 am

jserraglio wrote:
Mon Sep 11, 2017 7:19 am
I think Poe is one of our great writers. For me his stories are marvelous imaginative achievements. Dubious claims by the literati aside, English teachers not presumptuous enough to steer students into the narrow stalls of handpicked good authors are to be commended.
Including those who steer students into the all too wide stalls of truly crummy writing, such as Poe's "The Raven" with its obsessive and tin-eared rhyming and alliteration?

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Give me a break! One of the purposes of schooling in literature, beyond developing cultural literacy, is surely to help students learn the difference between good and bad writing, by presenting some of the best writing there is. Not stuff like this.
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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Mon Sep 11, 2017 10:34 am

John F wrote:
Mon Sep 11, 2017 8:49 am
Give me a break! One of the purposes of schooling in literature, beyond developing cultural literacy, is surely to help students learn the difference between good and bad writing, by presenting some of the best writing there is. Not stuff like this.
Thanks all the same, but many of us can do without cajolery of that sort.

Say what you will about "The Raven," Poe's writing is not "crummy," as you put it. But at least your assertion that it is bad deals with his writing instead of trying to tarnish him by way of his biography.

For me, Poe is one of the great writers in the American tradition. Yes, Bloom blasted him but Frye admired him. I've made up my own mind and can't imagine life without having Poe's stories to fire my imagination.
Last edited by jserraglio on Tue Sep 12, 2017 5:41 am, edited 5 times in total.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Sep 11, 2017 11:18 am

Poe wrote bad horror stories. If an English teacher wants to assign a good one, she can introduce her students to the novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a small literary masterpiece that is surprising and not what one would expect from the many dramatizations. It can be the springboard for much edifying discussion, which is more than I can say of The Pit and the Pendulum.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Mon Sep 11, 2017 11:31 am

jbuck919 wrote:
Mon Sep 11, 2017 11:18 am
Poe wrote bad horror stories. If an English teacher wants to assign a good one, she can introduce her students to the novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a small literary masterpiece that is surprising and not what one would expect from the many dramatizations. It can be the springboard for much edifying discussion, which is more than I can say of The Pit and the Pendulum.
I loved RLS as a boy but to compare his powers to those of Poe is a bit like saying that Stevie Bannon eclipses the Prince of Darkness.

The Pit and the Pendulum terrorized me then, still does today. For me, it's one of the greatest power-of-blackness tales ever written. Still, I'm not sure I would assign it. Maybe Rappaccini's Daughter, Shawshank Redemption or Dorian Gray. In long form perhaps The Handmaid's Tale, The Other, Harvest Home, 'Salem's Lot or It. Best of all. Wuthering Heights.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Sep 11, 2017 4:08 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Mon Sep 11, 2017 11:31 am
jbuck919 wrote:
Mon Sep 11, 2017 11:18 am
Poe wrote bad horror stories. If an English teacher wants to assign a good one, she can introduce her students to the novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a small literary masterpiece that is surprising and not what one would expect from the many dramatizations. It can be the springboard for much edifying discussion, which is more than I can say of The Pit and the Pendulum.
I loved RLS as a boy but to compare his powers to those of Poe is a bit like saying that Stevie Bannon eclipses the Prince of Darkness.

The Pit and the Pendulum terrorized me then, still does today. For me, it's one of the greatest power-of-blackness tales ever written. Still, I'm not sure I would assign it. Maybe Rappaccini's Daughter, Shawshank Redemption or Dorian Gray. In long form perhaps The Handmaid's Tale, The Other, Harvest Home, 'Salem's Lot or It. Best of all. Wuthering Heights.


Wuthering Heights is another masterpiece (in comparison Jane Eyre by Emily's sister is a soap opera), not to mention the short stories of Hawthorne, but let's not deviate to Stephen King. "To have read Stephen King is not to have read" said Harold Bloom, and I concur. (I have to admit a guilty pleasure in having enjoyed the old TV serialization of Salem's Lot with David Soul, but writing scriptable horror stories is not the same as writing good books.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jserraglio » Mon Sep 11, 2017 4:57 pm

"To have read Stephen King is not to have read". I respect Harold Bloom but his glib put-down of Stephen King doesn't invalidate actual experience: I picked up 'Salem's Lot cold, knowing almost nothing about the book, sat down and read the thing thru in one sitting, breaking off only to double lock all the frickin' doors in my house b/c the book scared the living bejesus outta me. Total immersion is one of the things I think reading's all about.

The most recent book to impact me in that way was Melissa Fleming's nonfiction A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea. Reading it on the iPhone and then again months later in hardback, I found the book had lost nothing of its remarkable forward thrust.

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Re: Jerry Lewis and the French

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 14, 2017 4:56 pm

I only came back here because I noticed the high number of posts. You would think that the "off" boards here would attract less attention, but the reverse is true. Our former moderator Corlyss knew that we had a lot of lurkers, and I guess we do. If you go back far enough, there are thousands of posts to many original posts, and we only have a couple of dozen recognized, active members.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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