August 24, 2016

“Negro American style” is defined by novelist Ralph Ellison as “the sudden turns, shocks, and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing.”

For anyone looking to make life swing in this hot, heavy summer I recommend the elixir of Christian and Gray. While the joy and energy may be coming from long ago and far away, the message delivered by the electric guitar of Charlie Christian and the tenor sax of Wardell Gray is that the music of life plays on in spite of deranged demagogues, poverty and misery, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks. more

August 17, 2016

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“HERAT AFTER TEN YEARS OF BOMBING,” Afghanistan, 1992. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of Steve McCurry.

When I wandered out of Friday’s heavy heat into the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, there she was, Afghan Girl, the banner image of “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic Afghanistan: Through the Lens of Steve McCurry.” Taken in 1984 at a tent school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan, the National Geographic cover photo won world renown as a symbol of the plight of refugees everywhere. more

August 10, 2016

book rev

Do your thing and I shall know you.

—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

When Gertrude Stein arrived in New York in October of 1934 after 30 years abroad, “her eminence on the American scene,” according to her biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, “was shared only by gangsters, baseball players, and movie stars.”  more

August 3, 2016

book rev

Just as hate knows love’s the cure

—Stevie Wonder

For psychiatrists treating patients fearful that Donald Trump might win, the most potent remedy for Trump Anxiety Disorder is absolutely natural, over the counter, no synthetics, no suspect chemicals, just stature and beauty, strength and charm, sweetness and light in the form of Michelle Obama. When she walked onstage in that bold blue dress smiling and waving, it was possible to believe that whichever side this woman was on had nothing to fear from T.A.D. more

July 27, 2016

book revMy earliest memory of political excitement was rooting for Eisenhower during the suspenseful first roll call at what the New York Times called the “bitterly divided” 1952 Republican convention in Chicago. My childhood party loyalty was due to love of Lincoln, who the history books said was a Republican, which was good enough for me—until Kennedy came along. Even so, my first vote almost went to Richard Nixon. I have Norman Mailer’s Esquire essay “Superman Comes to the Super Market” to thank for helping save me from so ignominious a fate.

I only wish Mailer, who died in 2007, had been covering events in Cleveland last week. Is there a writer in the summer of 2016 brash or brilliant or courageous enough to make something novelistically engaging out of that festival of hate and its nightmare nominee? Trump would have been rich dessert for Mailer’s hungry, equally huge and infinitely more stylish and self-aware ego. In a photo online of the two tuxedo-clad men with their wives taken at a 1987 Trump Plaza party for Trump’s The Art of the Deal, Mailer is looking boisterously genial at 64, a barrel-chested battler ever ready for a brawl, while Trump looks hale and handsome at 41, an age at which he had “the attention span of a 9-year-old,” according to a Fox News interview with Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote the book being so lavishly celebrated.  more

July 20, 2016

book rev

The time’s right for a column about baseball. The All-Star game’s behind us, the World Series of American politics has begun, and I’ve been reading The Baseball Whisperer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $26), a book by Michael Tackett subtitled “A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams.” The town is Clarinda, Iowa, named for Clarinda Buck, who, legend has it, carried water to workmen when the area was being surveyed 150 years ago.  more

July 13, 2016

book rev

Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.

—Michael Herr (1940-2016)

All I need to do is type “nyt” on the iMac and Paul Krugman is hurrying past “the horror in Dallas” on his way to the subject of the day. In his column headed “A Week from Hell” Charles M. Blow is asking “soul-of-a-nation questions.” On Sunday’s virtual front page of the Times, a detective from Queens says, “This is insanity. It’s just freaking horrendous.” The African American Dallas police chief David Brown “cannot adequately express” the sadness he feels.  more

June 29, 2016

After approving my 2000 Honda CRV for another two years last month at the Inspection Station, the DMV technician wants to know about my MOBY license plate — is it about the musician or the whale?
 more

June 22, 2016

The girl from L.A. had just arrived in Venice and was sitting at a cafe on Piazza San Marco being hassled by a Yugoslavian when she noticed a bedraggled individual shuffling across the great space, probably on his way to the American Express office to check for mail. His hair was long and scraggly and his jeans were baggy and halfway falling down, as if he had recently lost a great deal of weight. For the better part of a year she’d been exchanging letters with a guy she’d met in Berkeley; they had arranged to meet at the foot of the campanile on the evening of June 21.  more

June 15, 2016

Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine ….

—John Keats (1795-1821)

All the great poets should have been fighters.

—Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

Courtesy of a live feed from the BBC, we’re driving through the streets of Louisville under bright blue skies with the hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali to Cave Hill cemetery. As the procession passes through modest neighborhoods like the one Cassius Clay grew up in, past his school, Central High, crowds on both sides of the street are throwing flowers, waving, shouting, chanting “Ali! Ali!” The flowers have fallen so heavily on the windshield of the hearse, it’s a wonder the driver can see where he’s going. more

June 1, 2016

book rev

I grew up with a picture of her in my bedroom hanging over my bed … watching over me … not as the icon, not as a sex symbol, but as an ordinary girl, her arms outstretched, her head back, the sun’s out, she’s laughing, barefoot in the grass, at Roxbury, where she lived with Arthur Miller.

—Michelle Williams, from an interview about My Week With Marilyn 

Pictures of Marilyn are all over Times Square, for sale to tourists who want to take home a souvenir from the sidewalk caricaturists lining 7th Avenue, plying their trade, deftly capturing the essence of someone’s husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or child.  more

May 25, 2016

Ever since Einstein revealed his special theory of relativity, we’ve known that time travel — at least moving forward through time — is possible. Einstein didn’t pull this theory, or even the notion that time travel is possible, out of thin air. Rather, he took the knowledge of the day, saw an inconsistency — a piece of a puzzle that didn’t fit, so to speak — and thought about possible explanations. — PBS, Nova Online

Viewers immersed in the Starz series Outlander, where a feisty English nurse is transported from 1945 to the mid-18th-century Scottish Highlands, will know why I’m time-travelling back to January 3, 1777, and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. The most sympathetic figure to emerge from the Battle of Princeton, Mercer might as well have been a time-traveller himself, given the shape-shifting sweep of his story.  more

May 18, 2016

book rev

Charles Mingus and his music gave the impression of howling assurance and terrifying emotions. His bass echoed like a giant’s threat, to be soothed by his balmy melodies…He was dogmatic, pensive, demagogoic, irreverent, furious, nostalgic…He is the best example we have of disciplined turmoil.

—Gary Giddins, from Visions of Jazz

On midwest radio nights around the middle of the previous century teenagers up past their bedtime could pull in clear-channel stations like CKLW in Toronto, WLS in Chicago, and WLW in Cincinnati which, legend had it, beamed a signal so powerful it could be picked up on backyard fences and, some said, on the fillings in your teeth. In a college town 200 miles south of Chicago, a high school sophomore listening to a station in Dallas/Fort Worth on “a little crackerbox AM radio” picked up the music that changed his life. more

May 11, 2016

A little over a year ago, the morning after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, a Photoshopped image of his red-nosed circus-clown face filled the front page of the Daily News next to the massive headline CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ. A little over a week ago, the day after Trump won the Indiana primary and became the presumptive Republican nominee, the front page of the same newspaper showed a piggy-bank-sized GOP elephant in a coffin with the words “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of a once-great political party, killed by epidemic of Trump.”  more

May 4, 2016

art rev

Time for some free association: if someone says Andy Warhol, what’s the first thing you think of? For me, the word is face, not Warhol’s bland, pallid, never-quite-there visage, anything but that. I’m thinking of the faces he blew up, daubed, and decorated, like Blue Marilyn at the Princeton University Art Museum and the screenprints of Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Alexander the Great, plus the Polaroid portraits of, among others, Pia Zadora, Sylvester Stallone, and Princess Caroline of Monaco on view through July 31 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick in “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs.” more

April 27, 2016

Book RevAs Big Ben rang the first hour of January 1, 2014, the skies over London were overwhelmed by a fireworks display of such scope and magnitude, I was sure the occasion had to be something greater than the beginning of another year. At a loss for superlatives worthy of the spectacle, I remembered a night when I stood outside the newly reborn Globe Theatre between acts of As You Like It gazing at the floodlit dome of St. Paul, my head swimming with Shakespeare. Of course, that was it. The only word for all that glory at the midnight hour, in that place, was Shakespeare.

At the time I didn’t know that the year 2014 brought with it the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a connection also ironically unremarked by the organizers of a New Year’s show that had been touted as “multi-sensory,” an orgy of orange-flavored smoke, strawberry mist, peach snow, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. Whatever it was, celebratory serendipity or a happy coincidence, the timely grandeur of the display made Shakespearean sense.  more

April 20, 2016

book rev

You can’t write a sentence in English without Shakespeare being in there somewhere. — C.K. Williams

The Writers House is located on Locust Walk, which runs through the heart of the Penn campus, like McCosh Walk at Princeton. For just over two decades the 165-year-old cottage has been a venue for readings, seminars, lectures, and events like the April 11 memorial celebration of the life and work of poet C.K. Williams (1936-2015), who died last September. more

April 13, 2016

book rev

Musical protest helps the Japanese “to voice what they cannot ordinarily express in words” according to Princeton resident Noriko Manabe’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima (Oxford $27.95). It’s a formidable work: 433 pages, 35 pages of notes, a nearly 15-page-long bibliography, with web icons interspersed throughout the text highlighting links to pronuclear public relations videos, press conferences, music videos, extensive footage from anti-nuclear demonstrations and rallies, plus color photos on a companion website. more

April 6, 2016

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CLASSICAL BOOK COLLECTION FROM DOT & BO

Give your bookshelf a face lift with these gorgeous editions of your favorite literary classics.

 more

Record Rev_1It was around this time half a century ago that people began to suspect the Beatles of being the creation of supernatural forces. Had they signed a pact with Lucifer? The “more popular than Jesus” frenzy that led to the burning of their records in crazy America demonstrated that, yes, they were unthinkably, absurdly big. The “Paul McCartney is dead” madness caught fire for the same reason. Nothing less than mysterious death or divinity could explain the phenomenon; the resulting paranoia of disbelief had reached the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” level. All this cosmic commotion and they had yet to astonish the world with albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and singles like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “I am the Walrus,” and “Hey Jude.”

“Tomorrow Never Knows”

Fifty years ago today, April 6, 1966, when the Beatles began recording Revolver in EMI’s Studio Three at Abbey Road, a tall, elegantly handsome gentleman with no evident resemblance to Mephistopheles, and no pact signed in blood in his pocket, guided John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to the top of Mt. Revolver.  more

March 30, 2016

SPOOKS

Head of MI-5 Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) with his most trusted asset Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) 

“Hold the right thought,” my father used to tell me. That dated variation of “Look on the bright side” didn’t count for much on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we’re better off turning to Shakespeare.  more

March 23, 2016

book revUltimately we read in order to ­strengthen the self. — Harold Bloom

Like it or not, there will always be a market for self-help books. While readers whose lives have been enhanced by poetry and literature tend to patronize that seemingly inexhaustible genre, anything worth reading could be studied and enjoyed under the same heading. Taking the idea to the most enlightened extreme, it’s fair to say that that a wealth of “self-help” books will be on the tables at Princeton Day School between Friday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 29 at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale.

In an interview on bookbrowse.com about his book How to Read and Why (Scribner Touchstone 2001), Harold Bloom mentions being deluged with mail from people saying how pleased they are that he’s “writing about literature for the common reader.” As a result, he became aware of a need that he felt “highly qualified and highly driven to meet” for “a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading.”

When asked how reading great literature can provide an alternative to the sort of self-help books that top the best-seller lists, Bloom singles out the stories of Chekhov because they have “the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real are being demonstrated for the very first time.” It’s not that either author “created those truths,” but that “without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.” more

March 16, 2016

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Get those baskets ready!

Make Easter fun for the whole family with these personalized Easter gifts. Simply click on each item to purchase. more

book revHere’s a trivia question from left field: what do Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, C.K. Williams, Stephen Crane, Paul Simon, Sarah Vaughan, Chris Christie, Jerry Lewis, and Percy Shelley’s grandfather have in common? 

Answer: they were all born in Newark.

So was Leslie Fiedler, author of the landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel. In his essay, “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis?” from Murray Pomerance’s anthology Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (NYU Press), Fielder recalls once working in a shoe store side by side with “a crew of losers,” one of whom was Danny Levitch, who happened to be Jerry (Levitch) Lewis’s father. Fiedler recalls that although Levitch was constantly boasting about his “rosy prospects in the theater,” he always seemed to end up working as an extra salesman. Fiedler thinks that the father’s habitual failure “must have haunted Jerry and fueled in him a relentless desire to succeed.”

In 1945, Jerry Lewis, who turns 90 today, was 19, living in Newark with “a very pregnant wife” and earning $135 on “a good week” in various Manhattan night clubs; his act was to make funny faces while lip-synching along with photograph records.  more

March 9, 2016

book revFrom a gang land point of view, it makes more sense to put a body in the Pine Barrens than in the Hudson River. — John McPhee

I’m beginning a column about Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) with a quote from John McPhee to note the fact that yesterday, March 8, the author of The Pine Barrens celebrated his 85th birthday. While it may be difficult to imagine two writers with less in common, I have no doubt that McPhee could sit down tomorrow, do a month of research, and produce an essay or even a book that would stand as the go-to work about pulp fiction, the mass market paperback revolution, the McCarthy Era, and the author of Kiss Me, Deadly, who once admitted he’s not sure which side of midnight 1918 he was born on (he went with March 9).

Reading McPhee, who grew up in Princeton, you are in the company of a renowned master of non-fiction prose. Reading Spillane, who grew up in Elizabeth and made his fortune writing about the world of buried bodies, you are partaking of an experience that has been compared to eating take-out fried chicken. He himself once used a beloved American snack to tease “those big-shot writers” who “could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” Besides creating Mike Hammer, the last word in brutal, sex-crazed private eyes, Spillane sold the equivalent of 200 million packs of “salted peanuts” worldwide, and as of 1980, seven of the top 10 all-time fiction best-sellers in America were written by him.  more