April 12, 2017

Every week I spin the online roulette wheel. Round and round it goes and where it stops I always know because what I’m metaphorically spinning is the date of next week’s column. The real game of chance begins with the names that show up on that date, actors, writers, artists, major celebrities, world, or national events. While the second spin sometimes leads nowhere, this week’s number brought up two actors: France’s Harry Baur, who was born on April 12, 1880 and died mysteriously in 1943; and Homeland star Claire Danes, who was born in Manhattan on April 12, 1979, almost exactly 100 years after the man who played the most memorable Jean Valjean came into the world. I might have passed Baur by had I not recently viewed five of his films, all from the 1930s. more

April 5, 2017

Wordsworth & his exquisite sister are with me …. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, July 1797

Besides inspiring and uniting Londoners and Londoners-in-spirit the world over, the terrorist atrocity on Westminster Bridge two weeks ago generated numerous online shares of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.” Lines like “A sight so touching in its majesty” and “Earth has not anything to show more fair” were everywhere. One blogger declared “We must never stop seeing this through Wordsworth’s eyes,” and someone posted a clip of actor Ian McKellan reading the poem.  more

March 22, 2017

One of the most intense reading experiences of my life happened when I worked as a freelance proofreader for Knopf and was Fed-Exed the galleys for Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994) on Friday with the task of getting the proofed work back no later than Monday. I was looking at well over 400 pages of narrative that included a fair amount of Spanish, a language of which I knew little beyond adios. By Sunday I was glassy-eyed, dazzled, mesmerized, and so swept up in the power of the thing that all I could talk about when I came up for air was The Crossing.  more

March 15, 2017

The cover image of Fitzgerald’s Thoughtbook shown here is from the recent University of Minnesota reprint, subtitled A Secret Boyhood Diary, which is available in Kindle and paperback; the copy in Collector’s Corner is the much rarer 1965 Princeton University Library edition of the facsimile of Fitzgerald’s handwritten journal. For more information on the book sale, visit bmandwbooks.com.

It’s so quiet a moment you can hear the earth turning. “Here’s the book I sought,” Brutus says. “I put it in the pocket of my gown.” He’s talking to his servant Lucius in a scene near the end of Act IV of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Let me see, let me see, is not the leaf turn’d down where I left reading? Here it is, I think.” more

March 8, 2017

I have no idea who I am. — James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Exactly when or where the novelist James Michener came into the world has never been officially documented. Which is why I’ve never had a satisfactory answer to the question I’ve been asked most of my life the moment people hear my last name:

“Any relation to the author?”

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this perennial minor dilemma occurred recently at the Doylestown museum that bears Michener’s name. Although I’ve been showing my press card at the admission desk for 13 years in the course of covering close to 30 exhibits, this was the first time I’ve been asked the any-relation question. I gave my usual answer: “Well, uh, um, no, not really, but —”

If I have time or energy for the conversation that often follows, I’ll offer the standard storyline, which is that the famous, fabulously successful author was a foundling taken in by a distant cousin of mine, Mabel Michener, a Quaker woman in Doylestown, Pennsylvania who raised him along with a coming, going brood of as many as 13 homeless children.  more

March 1, 2017

Every now and then the right movie comes along at the right time. If you’re writing a column celebrating Robert Lowell’s 100th birthday, March 1, 2017, the right movie is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. The minute I saw the view of the buildings and boats along the harbor, I thought of Lowell’s “bleak white frame houses/stuck like oyster shells/on a hill of rock,” and of the way “the sea lapped/the raw little match-stick mazes of a weir/where the fish for bait were trapped.” The poem “Water” draws on a 1948 encounter between Lowell and his soulmate poet Elizabeth Bishop in Stonington, a fishing town on the Massachusetts coast. The closing stanza, which refers to the bonding between two poets, also, as it happens, evokes the emotional ambiance of the film’s most talked-about scene: “We wished our two souls/might return like gulls/to the rock/In the end, the water was too cold for us.” more

February 22, 2017

As Black History Month winds down, Sam Cooke’s singing “Don’t know much about history” while the video for “Wonderful World” shows a checkerboard montage of familiar faces, Einstein, Churchill, Castro, Krushchev, the Kennedy brothers, and Martin Luther King. But you can’t dance to history, and right now Sam Cooke’s voice matters more to me than the issues and events suggested by the theme of the month. It was black music, not black history, that energized landlocked high school seniors like myself as we drove through the night listening to WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. Our texts were by Bo Diddley (“I’m a Man”), Chuck Berry (“Sexy Ways”), the Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle” of southern Indiana), and Little Walter teaching us how to “mellow down easy.” The other day, a friend who shared those night rides Shazamed me Little Walter’s “I Hate to See You Go,” from a coffee house in Oaxaca.  more

February 15, 2017

“Gimme Some Truth” was never one of my favorite John Lennon songs, certainly not compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which the Beatles released on a single with “Penny Lane” 50 years ago this month. But in February 2017 when truth is being blitzed by the unhinged president and his toxic handlers while the Republican Congress looks the other way, it’s time to listen to a song from the Nixon era that nails “neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians” and “uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites.”

Without knowing the numbers, my guess is that the same people who are making a surprise bestseller of George Orwell’s 1984 may soon be searching out this song, with its searing George Harrison guitar break and the passionate singing of a man who might have become a world-class rapper had he lived through the 1980s.

If you want truth with the dimensions of Keats’s “Truth is beauty beauty truth,” however, it can be found in Rectify, the Sundance show that helped my wife and me survive the post-election blues. Having seen all four seasons of Ray McKinnon’s courageous series in the span of a week, as if it were a single work of cinematic art, I’d nominate it for Best Picture and Best Actor of 2016 and throw in a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Given the crowded field, the best Rectify has done so far is a 2015 Peabody Award recognizing it as “a powerful, subtle dramatic series.” Besides some Critics Choice nominations and appearances on numerous Top Ten lists, Rectify is the only television drama to score a rating of 100 percent on Metacritic. more

February 8, 2017

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening …. —C.K. Williams (1936-2015), from “The Singing”

With Valentine’s Day approaching, here’s a bouquet of love notes from three writers who were all born on this date, February 8. According to the peerless prose stylist John Ruskin (1819-1900), he of the unconsummated marriage, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” Jules Verne (1828-1905), the author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, sounded the amorous depths when he asked, “Is not a woman’s heart unfathomable?” While it’s a challenge to pick any one gem from the riches Robert Burton (1577-1640) compiled for his “Symptoms of Love” in The Anatomy of Melancholy, it’s hard to top this spectacular valentine: “better a Metropolitan City were sackt, a Royal Army overcome, an Invincible Armada sunk, and twenty thousand Kings should perish, than her little finger ache ….”

Another literary luminary born into the world of love and loss on this date, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) begins her poem “Three Valentines” by claiming, “Love, with his gilded bow and crystal arrows/Has slain us all.”  more

February 1, 2017

Man is like a ball, the plaything of Chance and Passion. — Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Right now the late Dr. Seuss may be the only author with the vision to do antic justice to the doomsday chaos spiraling out of Breitbart’s White House. Even if we could bring back the author of The Cat in the Hat, my guess is he’d throw up his hands and let his creation, the fussy fish, speak on his behalf, as the hysterical little scold does when he comprehends the extent of the devastation created by The Cat and Thing One and Thing Two: “This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we can not pick it up, there is no way at all!”

In case you’re wondering what the new regime in Washington has to do with Franz Schubert, whose 220th birthday was Tuesday, the answer is that after two weeks of Trump this level of disorder is so big and so deep that words written, spoken, and thought 200 years ago jump out at you like the line about Chance and Passion from Schubert’s diary of September 1816, or this description of the Big Brother regime in Schubert’s Vienna — “absolutism mitigated by sloppiness” — during an era when “youthful high spirits … were viewed with suspicion.” The way things are going in D.C., “sloppiness” or Schlamperei (also defined as “muddleheadedness”) isn‘t doing much to mitigate the rush toward “absolutism.” more

January 25, 2017

The morning after the Inauguration we’re out of milk so I drive over to the shopping center. Maybe because I’ve had no breakfast, everyone I see looks grim and hung-over. It’s a William Blake crowd, “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on every face. Or maybe it’s just me remembering how it seemed on January 21, 2009, everyone smiling, high on hope, strangers shyly nodding hello. Eight years ago! Was the contrast really so stark? Surely life’s more subtle than that.

When I get behind the wheel of my green 2000 CRV, the key won’t turn, steering wheel’s locked, so I give it a turn or two, no use. Then I look up and see almost directly across from me in the parking lot the green 2000 CRV that actually belongs to me.

No, life’s not subtle. I’ve begun January 21, 2017 by getting into the wrong car.

Driving home, the date begins sinking in. At sunrise on January 21,1966 I was with seven million pilgrims at Sangam, the meeting of holy rivers, the Ganges and the Jumna. Seven years later a friend who’d shared the moment with me writes from England with the news that his first child was born in the early morning hours of January 21. A year later living nearby in Bristol, my wife and I come to know and love the little girl and begin to think, “We can do this,” and so we do, and here we are in Princeton on the morning after.  more

January 18, 2017

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. — Albert Einstein

I’m thinking of two Lears. Edward is the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” one of the happiest poems ever written. The other Lear is Shakespeare’s mad king who brings the world down on his head because he only hears what he wants to hear no matter how evil the source and when he hears something he doesn’t want to hear, even when it’s spoken by an angel, he banishes the angel, opens the door of his kingdom to evil, and is lost. It’s our good fortune that Shakespeare makes great literature out of all that madness and misery. It’s our absurd fortune that someone with the failings of the mad king is about to take the throne. more

January 11, 2017

Every now and then certain cliches become not only useful but indispensable. That’s what makes them cliches, after all. In the period since November 8, and to a lesser extent during the presidential campaign itself, “skating on thin ice” has said it best for me. The idea also describes how it is to look for Shakespeare in his play Pericles, the first two acts of which are thought to be the work of a hack named George Wilkins. Then there’s Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) and his first full-length film Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient), which puts thin ice under your feet even before it begins with an epigraph from Charles Péguy that says “Paris belongs to no one.”

As it happens, the “thin ice” sensation in both works gives them a disturbing relevance to any real-life crisis or turn of events, regardless of time, place, or context.

The greatness of Shakespeare is that he’s always with us, forever pertinent, there to be shaped or tempered or all too often twisted to flow with the currents of the time, even when the work in question is as damaged as Pericles. How “topical” is Pericles? An article by Cynthia Zarin from the New Yorker’s online Culture Desk mentions “the Middle East, refugees, perilous sea crossings, and sex trafficking.”  more

January 4, 2017

Medicine is my lawful wife and writing is my mistress. — Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

In Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian police procedural, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the daughter of a village mayor is serving tea to some detectives, a prosecutor, a doctor inspired by Chekhov, and an accused killer who has been leading them on a haphazard search for the body of the man he murdered. Heavy winds having knocked out the power, the room is dark, and the men are in awe of the beauty of the girl’s face cameoed in the light of the candle on the tray she’s carrying as she moves among them. Someone remarks on the sudden apparition of “such an angel.” Gazing up at her when she bends to serve him his glass of tea, the killer begins to weep.

Given Ceylan’s frequent references to the influence of Chekhov’s fiction on his work, the hushed wonder of the girl’s entrance may owe something to his story, “The Beauties,” which is told by a man looking into the cinema of his memory to a moment in his late teens. A 16-year-old girl at some miserable outpost swarming with flies in the middle of nowhere is serving tea. She has her back to the narrator at first, all he can see is that she’s slender, barefoot, in a simple white cotton dress and kerchief. When she turns around to hand him his tea, he feels “all at once as though a wind were blowing away all the impressions of the day, all the dust and dreariness.”  more

December 28, 2016

I should like to be a free artist and nothing more …. — Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

Time for a premature New Year’s Eve toast by way of Chekhov’s “Champagne,” a story from the 1880s narrated by a “young, strong, hot-headed, giddy, and foolish” man in charge of a small railway station in the vast desolate remoteness of the steppe. His only diversions are getting wasted on vodka and watching the windows of the passenger trains for a glimpse of a pretty woman, for which he “would stand like a statue without breathing and stare … until the train turned into an almost invisible speck.” He and his wife are getting ready to see in the New Year. The fact that she adores him only magnifies his boredom. He has two bottles of champagne, “the real thing,” Veuve Clicquot, and as the hands of the clock point to five minutes to twelve he begins uncorking a bottle, which slips from his grasp and hits the floor, but he manages to grab it, fills two glasses, and delivers a toast, “May the New Year bring you happiness,” oh-oh, his wife’s upset, a dropped bottle is unlucky, “a bad omen,” she says. “It means some misfortune will happen to us this year.” more

December 21, 2016

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Let me not mar that perfect dream…. — Emily Dickinson

The four-line poem ends with the Belle of Amherst planning to “so adjust my daily night” that the perfect dream “will come again.” The far from perfect dream that follows has been adjusted to permit me a dreamer’s freedom of movement regarding time, space, life, death, and documentary authenticity. The main thing to know is that many of the celebrated somebodies and occasional nobodies who come my way happen to have been born in the year 1916.  more

December 14, 2016

We’re just in time for a 100th birthday toast to Jack D. Ripper, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget Bat Guano. In real life, the clinically paranoid general who precipitates the nuclear apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove was played by Sterling Hayden and the paranoid colonel with a thing about “preversion” was done to a dead-eyed turn by Keenan Wynn. Both actors entered the world in 1916 and left it in 1986, and while both had 40-year-long Hollywood careers, their place in cinema history will be forever linked with Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy masterpiece and its we’re-just-kidding-folks subtitle, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As for George C. Scott (1927-1999), who was unforgettable as Gen. Buck Turgidson, and Peter Sellers (1925-1980), whose chameleon comic genius infused Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, president Merkin Muffley, and the title character, both Scott and Sellers had roles (i.e. General Patton, Inspector Clouseau) that transcended their association with Strangelove.  more

December 7, 2016

There’s a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in. — Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

A famous singer songwriter dies, someone you never found time to appreciate, so you go back and start listening and recognize the distant music you heard long ago walking through the fairgrounds of rock, a snatch of song coming from over there, not far, just a whisper away if you’d taken another turn somewhere between Van Morrison and David Bowie. more

November 30, 2016

Unknown

Oscar Wilde died in Paris on this day, November 30, in the first year of the 20th century. He was 46.

“They could attack him, but they could not take their eyes off him. Derision was a form of tribute and, if it went on long enough, could not fail to be so interpreted. He could, moreover, appeal over the head of the journalists, to the people. This he did.”  more

November 23, 2016

book-rev

In the foreword to his best-selling autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster $32.50), Bruce Springsteen pictures himself on a hypothetical stage “face to face with eighty thousand (or eighty) screaming rock’n’roll fans” waiting for him to do his “magic trick,” which is “to provide proof of life to that ever elusive, never completely believable ‘us.’” The writing of his life, then, will be his big show, his spectacle, and at 508 pages, the intention is clear: he’s going to give us our money’s worth.  more

November 16, 2016

record-rev

“What will become of us?” — PJ Harvey

In PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, the music lifts you up even as the words bring you down. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, when the lyrics “go low, the music goes high.”

During the weeks leading up to the election, I was listening day in day out to Hope Six without fully registering the words. In the election aftermath, Harvey’s dark vision of devastated war zones and the mean streets of Washington D.C. makes timely sense. more

November 9, 2016

book-rev

The portrait of Turgenev was painted in 1872 by Vasily Perov

I’ve been looking at a photograph of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who was born on this day, November 9, in 1818. What interests me about the photo, which isn’t clear enough to be reproduced here, is the unorthodox pose. He’s seated with one leg tucked under the other with a book propped on the thigh of the tucked-under leg. There’s a suggestion of amusement in his expression that seems to say, “Hello, whoever you are, let’s agree about the absurdity of humans striking poses and be comfortable together in the moment. We’re all in this together.” more

November 2, 2016

book-rev

The portrait of Emily is by her brother Branwell, as restored by Michael Armitage.  It was originally painted around 1833-34 when she would have been 15 or 16. It is on view in The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Imagine a neighborhood dominated by bookish types who costume their children in the garb of their dark favorites every Halloween. Not for them the everyday Draculas, Darth Vaders, Freddy Krugers, and Norman Bateses. No, this is the domain of wee Lady Macbeths and Crookback Richards. more

October 26, 2016

book-revThere again was my lost city, wrapped cool in its mystery and promise. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

The singer songwriter Rosanne Cash was 14 when she recognized New York City in her own image. The moment of truth came at a leather goods store in Greenwich Village where she’d been taken by her father, “who had a lifelong love affair with the city and kept an apartment on Central Park South.” She was standing in front of a mirror trying on the green suede jacket he’d had made to order for her, “light pouring in the windows from busy Bleecker Street” when everything clicked. “That was my real self there in the mirror …. I belonged here. It was more than an idea; it was a sharp ache and a calling that tugged at me … until I pulled my entire life apart to come home.”

She made the move 23 years later, in 1991. She’d been living in Nashville for most of the 1980s, frustrated because she wasn’t writing the songs or making the records she really wanted to make; then she recorded Interiors, which she thought was “the best work” of her life, and the record label “utterly rejected it.” At the same time, her marriage was falling apart, she was despondent: “Only one thing made sense: New York.”  more

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