October 19, 2016

book-revSure was glad to get out of there alive. — Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts”

The “there” Dylan’s referring to is Princeton on the sweltering June day in 1970 when he received an Honorary Doctorate, a month after the shootings of students at Kent State. Hearing himself described as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America,” he “shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless.” In the words of his memoir, Chronicles Volume One (2004), “It was like a jolt …. There it was again. I couldn’t believe it!” He’s thinking “this kind of thing” could set “the public perception” of him back “a thousand years.” Yet he’s glad he came to get the degree. He “could use it. Every look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it.”

There it is again — there he is again. At this writing, almost a week after the news from Stockholm was announced, Bob Dylan has yet to make public how he feels about receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Forty-six years on the other side of “Day of the Locusts,” it’s possible that Dylan’s mind is still attuning itself to such things as “public perception,” “respectability,” and “the spirit of the universe.” As glad as he was to get out of Princeton alive, he made the most of it. Not only did the occasion inspire one of the characteristically ambiguous tropes that make his memoir itself a prize-worthy literary work, it gave him the seed of a song: the locusts that were singing for him are still singing for us. more

October 12, 2016


The portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (1809-1896), chalk, 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of the Morgan Museum and Library.

As opening sentences of great novels go, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” doesn’t make much of an impression, certainly not compared to the upfront immediacy of “Call Me Ishmael” from Moby Dick or the expansive vision of society suggested by “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” from Pride and Prejudice. Herman Melville and Jane Austen head the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels. Charlotte Brontë’s no-walk-that-day opener doesn’t make the list. more

October 5, 2016

book-rev1By the time the Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale begins a week from Friday, the second presidential debate will be history. Most post-debate book-sale browsers looking for something to focus their frazzled minds on will find what they’re looking for, if not their heart’s desire. The book of my dreams won’t be there because it hasn’t been published yet and for all I know may never be put between covers, even though J.D. Salinger devoted the last 50 years of his life to writing it.

Pearl Diving

Among the 2016 sale’s stellar offerings is Léonard Rosenthal’s The Kingdom of the Pearl with Persian-miniature-immaculate plates by Edmund Dulac that have to be seen to be believed. Its only defect is a gouge on one edge of the front cover where a bibliophile in a frenzy of desire appears to have taken a bite out of it. Except for that minor, perfectly hygienic blemish, the volume is in a condition comparable to that of copies going for $750 online.

For this semi-retired browser, Dulac’s Pearl evokes the Golden Age of the Book Quest in Princeton when rare finds would turn up at garage and estate sales or on the shelves of Micawber Books or in the bank vault that housed Witherspoon Books and Art. It was around this time of year circa 1981 that I found an unflawed Pearl in the Dickensian clutter of a secondhand/antique store in East Millstone.  more

September 28, 2016

book-revHerman Melville died 125 years ago today in a three-story brick townhouse at 104 E. 26th Street in Manhattan. The makeshift bomb that shook the same neighborhood a week and a half ago exploded a short walk away at 23rd and Sixth Avenue. Virtually unread and unremembered on September 28, 1891, Melville’s most famous work ends, in effect, with an explosion: “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” The actual last words of Moby Dick, however, are less epic than domestic as a ship named Rachel searching for “her missing children” only finds “another orphan.”

The orphan, of course, is Melville, the metaphorical survivor of his most ambitious work, a castaway on the desert island of his obscurity sending the civilized world messages carried like “notes in a bottle” across two centuries and the ocean of the internet.

In Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work (2005), the author is seen as “a living presence in the larger culture,” not only “good for thinking about” but one of the “select company” of writers who “continue to be good for thinking with.” Since his literary revival in the mid-20th century, there have been, according to Delbanco, “a steady stream of new Melvilles, all of whom seem somehow to keep up with the preoccupations of the moment: myth-and-symbol Melville, countercultural Melville, anti-war Melville, environmentalist Melville, gay or bisexual Melville, muticultural Melville, global Melville.” more

September 21, 2016


We were sort of talking a new language. — Slim Gaillard (1916-1991) 

Asked by the editors of TIME to define the last word of his catchy line of word jazz, “the flat foot floosie with the floy-floy,” guitarist, pianist, and Johnny Appleseed of jive Slim Gaillard made the comment about “a new language,” suggesting that the “floy-floy” was just “extra business” — “you got the whole dance right there; you’re swinging. See what I mean?”  more

September 14, 2016


book-revGene Wilder’s recent death has revived Young Frankenstein — not that Mel Brooks’s classic 1974 travesty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) by way of the James Whale/Boris Karloff film (1931) needed reviving. You could stop strangers on the street in Princeton or any university town anywhere and soon find someone who could quote you a favorite line or describe a favorite scene. Even so, for all those who have not already revisited the 1974 film, it will be shown again on October 5 in a special one-night-only presentation in more than 500 theaters nationwide, with a “live introduction” by Mel Brooks.

A Bizarre Course

What takes Young Frankenstein to a level beyond the gags is Gene Wilder’s kindly, horny, out-of-it Dr. Frankensteen. While a stranger on the street may not be able to name the actor who played the monster (Peter Boyle), no one is likely to forget his loving, fatherly creator. In the new Rutgers University Press book, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, there’s an image of a blissed-out Wilder cuddling his “emotionally needy creation”; his expression is the other side of rhapsodic, he might be Chopin caressing the score of a nocturne or listening to the music of the spheres. Co-authored by Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey, Monstrous Progeny may be the most thorough exploration of the bizarre course the Frankenstein myth has taken since Mary Shelley conceived it 200 years ago this summer. Besides tracing the stagings and filmings through the years, the book looks at “laff riots” like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, biological mutation movies like The Fly, reanimation films (Re-Animator and sequels), cyborg films (RoboCop), robot movies (Blade Runner and A.I.), and more. more

September 7, 2016

book rev

I’m an actor, not a clown.

— Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Gene Wilder made his acting debut at 15 with a small role in a high-school staging of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was his teacher again at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955, and his first professional performance was as the Second Officer in a Cambridge, Mass. production of Twelfth Night. After studying method acting with Lee Strasberg, he changed his birth name to Gene Wilder because, according to a 2005 interview in the Daily Telegraph, “Jerry Silberman in Macbeth did not have the right ring to it.” more

August 31, 2016

DVD rev

Responses to Stranger Things, the Netflix summer sensation from Matt and Ross Duffer, have placed the eight-part series in the context of 1980s pop culture, sci-fi/horror flicks, and the novels of Stephen King. There’s more of the same in Monday’s New York Times under a head that refers to how Stranger Things and another show “feed nostalgia with a historical remix.” If that’s so, then the remix goes centuries beyond the 1980s, which means that anyone patronizing the show should heed the message from Hamlet obliquely echoed in its title: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”

In addition to Shakespeare circa 1603, Stranger Things evokes the 1970s by way of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the early 1990s through David Lynch’s network television landmark Twin Peaksmore

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

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 8.12.05 AM

“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?

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