January 27, 2016

dvd rev

Stirred from sleep by the sound of something large and loud moving in the night, I thought at first that someone was moaning. Really. It was like the sound of a giant enduring a massively bad dream. We were three hours into the Sunday morning after Saturday’s snowfall but our block-long cul de sac was not under attack; we were being rescued, liberated. Seen from the bedroom window, the larger of the two machines had an unreal immensity that made our little street resemble a road in the Caucasus. No wonder, I’d been reading Chekhov at bedtime after a long afternoon watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Chekhovian epic, Once Upon a Time in Anatoliamore

January 20, 2016

record revIf someone in the strange sad days since January 10 were to ask what David Bowie means to me, I’d say two words, Hunky Dory. From all that I’ve read online since the ongoing event of his death, I’m not alone in thinking Bowie’s fourth LP is his best, not an album so much as the creation of a mood, a state of mind my wife and I associate with the best, brightest moments of the 1970s. We lived in the music much as we lived in our consciousness of England and our two years in Bristol, the city we came to know and love. The songs from that haunting, stirring, and most companionable of records evoke the country of Shakespeare and Chaplin, of Hampstead Heath and Kate Bush’s “old river poet” the Thames. Much more than a none-too-sturdy piece of black vinyl, Hunky Dory was a very special, pleasant place to be for a father, mother, and the child who was born five years after its 1971 release and who, on hearing the news of the death of his “biggest hero” four decades later, said “It’s like losing a member of the family.”

While the tracks we found most fascinating and challenging were “Life on Mars,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewley Brothers,” the song that we felt closest to as a family (we and no doubt thousands if not millions of other families) was “Kooks,” which may be the most charming thing Bowie ever wrote.  more

January 13, 2016

book revLet’s say I’m sitting on a bench in Central Park thinking about long-ago weekend afternoons playing catch with Florence Victor, a tall, lean, motor-mouth poet with long black hair tied back in a pony tail, who stopped talking only when she was throwing the ball and did she throw it, crack! every time it hit my mitt. Being truly, proudly, deeply neurotic, she was usually talking about her various ailments and anxieties, which tended to be interchangeable with her poetry.

So as I’m sitting there smiling, remembering how Florence and I sometimes kept the ball flying between us until twilight and beyond, along comes this tall guy in a hoodie with a camera in his hand, asking if he can take my picture. Ordinarily I’d say “no thanks” and find another bench, but since this is an imaginary encounter I know right away that this guy is Brandon Stanton whose book Humans of New York: Stories has been my constant companion, along with the fiction of Chekhov, ever since the new year began. In fact, the more I read the two together, the more I realize how many subtle unexpected things the humans of New York have in common with the humans of late 19th-century Russia. Before he can get started, I explain that his book was a party gift from a friend at work. “It’s addictive,” I tell him. “It lights me up every time I look inside.”  more

January 6, 2016

book revHis fearless inventions … quest after the entirety of life: he will include every emotion, every bit of evidence that has a natural claim on our attention. Contemporary life is so rich and vivid in his poetry that by contrast many of the movies and poems we are used to seem pale, spaced-out and insipid. – Robert Pinsky on C.K. Williams

In the special December 27 poetry issue of the N.Y. Times Book Review (NYTBR), after admitting that the Times “has not always treated poets well,” John Williams quotes an unsigned review from 1860 faulting Walt Whitman for seeing “nothing vulgar in that which is commonly regarded as the grossest obscenity.” Whitman is also upbraided for rejecting “the laws of conventionality so completely as to become repulsive,” although it’s noted that on occasion “a gleam of the true poetic fire shines out of the mass of his rubbish.”

Reviewing C.K. Williams’s Selected Later Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux $30) in the same issue, Katy Lederer finds “visceral discomfort … — a sense a human boundary has been knowingly traversed, an intimacy exploited” through “intrusions into others’ private lives” that “feel less acquisitive than desperate.” Williams, who died September 20, is also cited for “subject matter” that “could be pedestrian and at times vulgar,” giving “the impression of a writer” who is “spiritually off-balance.”  more

December 30, 2015

Book Rev

My wife and I celebrated Christmas Day in Simla, the former summer capital of British India. The only catch is it’s not really Simla, it’s the Masterpiece Theatre series Indian Summers, filmed on location — in Malaysia.

As it happens, Rudyard Kipling’s 150th birthday is today, December 30, 2015, and the lively, elegant nightmare of a doomed society that is the Simla Club in Indian Summers (“No Dogs or Indians”) evokes, for better or worse, the writer who put Simla on the map in 1888 in his first and most famous story collection, Plain Tales from the Hills. Half a century later in the PBS series being billed as “Downton Abbey Goes to India,” it’s 1932, Gandhi is on a hunger strike and Kipling’s “imperialist claptrap” is being mocked by two of the most likeable characters in the series, a politically passionate Parsi girl and a haplessly heroic Scotsman. They’re talking about the man George Orwell nonetheless credited for “the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India,” something Orwell claims could be accomplished because Kipling “was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.” more

December 23, 2015

record revA good way to go in this life is to find something you really enjoy doing and then learn to do it better than anybody. — Chet Baker

Tis the season to be jolly and celebrate Chet Baker, who was born on this date, a day short of Christmas Eve, December 23, 1929. What does the man whose trumpet and voice put West Coast jazz on the map have to do with Christmas? You could ask the same of the weather, with 72 degrees predicted for Christmas Eve, or of Bob Dylan, whose album, Christmas in the Heart, was reviewed here on the same day of the month six years ago.

Online you can join the patrons of an Amsterdam jazz club watching Chet Baker play “Auld Lang Syne” on the last New Year’s Eve of his life, December 31, 1987. He begins in a tentative, almost desultory way before the momentum of the moment moves him and he makes a gesture to the rhythm section, as if to say really play it, take it to the limit, give it the full measure of your devotion, and with that he dives into the second chorus, bending the notes just so, as only he can do, each one as bright and simple as the lights on a Christmas tree.  more

December 16, 2015

DVD the killing

He sat back, checking only to see if the tape was still running, lit his pied piper, and gave ear. — John Lennon, from Skywriting by Word of Mouth

On one of this December’s rare rainy afternoons a dark green 2000 Honda CRV pulls into a deserted parking lot and sits idling while the male occupant talks urgently into his cell phone. Ten minutes later a silver-gray 2011 CRV pulls up alongside. Rolling his window part way down, the man in the green car calls out “Yo Linden!” and the woman in the silver car laughs and shouts back “Holder!”

The couples’ playful nod to Linden and Holder was inspired by their total immersion in the rain-drenched world of The Killing, where two Seattle detectives are trying to capture the Pied Piper, a serial killer so named because his victims are teenage girls, street kids selling sex to make ends meet. more

December 9, 2015

EH 4907P

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia in 1952 posing in front of Waldo Peirce’s oil portrait of the author in 1929. (The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The best news I’ve heard lately is that Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has become a bestseller in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. With sales surging, copies of his bittersweet celebration of life and art in the City of Light are appearing among the flowers and candles in makeshift memorials honoring the victims. The title in French, Paris est une fête, has become a trending hashtag on Twitter.  more

December 2, 2015
(Filmframe)

(Filmframe)

When Bogart tells Bergman “We’ll always have Paris” as they say their farewells in Casablanca, he’s responding to her plaintive question “What about us?” For Rick and Ilsa, Paris is another word for love. “We lost it until you came to Casablanca,” he tells her. “We got it back last night.”

While the city of the title is a Moorish fantasy fabricated on a back lot at Warners with stock footage of an overview, Paris is the absolute that will always be the City of Light as Humphrey Bogart will always be the epitome of cool, Ingrid Bergman the epitome of beauty, and “As Time Goes By” the theme song of their romance.

When the two lovers were reunited in Rick’s night club, they talked of the last time they were together, in a Montmartre cafe called the Belle Aurore on the day the Germans marched into Paris. “Not an easy day to forget,” said Rick. “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” more

November 25, 2015

book revOnce upon a time a long time ago Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) came to Bloomington, Indiana, in the form of a Classic Comic of Gulliver’s Travels being read by an eight-year-old boy and an impish, bespectacled, congenitally effusive young man of 25-going-on-15 who will eventually be proclaimed Swift’s “best and fullest biographer” by Christopher Ricks in the London Review of Books.

The boy and the biographer are both seated on the living room floor, the Swiftian-to-be having politely refused the boy’s parents’ offer of a chair. “It’s exciting, but scary” the eight-year-old says when asked his thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels. To show what he means by “scary,” he points out the frames where the Lilliputians are swarming over Gulliver’s body, binding it with ropes, staking his long blond hair to the ground. After discussing the imagery, the biographer begins to make playful comments about the “Life of Swift” on the comic’s last page, which the boy has read and finds disturbing. At this point, the parents intervene and the biographer is coaxed into a chair.

Savage Commentary

Because my parents had the first 20 issues of Classic Comics bound as a present for my ninth birthday, I still have the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Irvin Ehrenpreis and I were perusing together all those years ago. Looking over the “Life” at the end, I’m struck by the vehemence of the language describing Gulliver’s “savage commentary on the European world” as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Pretty heady stuff for an early reader; no wonder I found it disturbing, not to mention the concluding paragraph, in which “Swift’s satire became more and more violently bitter, possibly the result of a mental disease which, by 1736, caused him to become insane. He never recovered and died on October 19, 1745.” In the brief biographies at the end of every Classic Comic, each author dies in such and such a time and place, but Swift’s fate became one of the numerous shadowy elements of a childhood occasionally haunted by the sound of phantom footsteps and the sight of an abandoned playground where the empty swings were still in motion.  more

November 18, 2015

book rev

In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paris is a “cradle” in which “each one slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris” — which could also be said of cities everywhere, including Cairo and Damascus, Istanbul, Aleppo, and Baghdad. In Paris, Miller adds, “Everything is raised to apotheosis. The cradle gives up its babes and new ones take their places … where Zola lived and Balzac and Dante and Strindberg and everybody who ever was anything. Everyone has lived here some time or other. Nobody dies here.” more

November 11, 2015

Book RevNear the end of her new memoir M Train (Knopf $25), Patti Smith returns from a trip to find the West Village café she considers a second home closed, for good. When she taps on the window, the owner lets her in and offers to make her a last cup of coffee. She sits there all morning in the closed café, the “picture of woebegone” shown on the cover with her camera and her coffee, head propped on one hand while she keeps the other hand palm down on the table, as if to hold it, claim it, keep it until she’s ready to give it up. The cover photo was taken by a bystander with a Polaroid camera like the one Smith uses to illustrate her travels with pictures of stations along the way, her aim being “to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett, sickbed of Keats.” After sitting at her corner table “a long time thinking of nothing,” she picks up her pen and begins to write.

When she says “good-bye to her corner,” the owner gives her the table and chair. It’s a Patti Smith moment.

Atmosphere

In M Train, which has been on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for several weeks now, Patti Smith withdraws into her own “atmosphere,” and wherever she goes, the atmosphere, like Mary’s little lamb, is sure to follow. The effect on chosen scenes, situations, places, objects, and dreams resembles Keats’s notion of the poetical character, which “has no self … is every thing and nothing … enjoys light and shade” and “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”  more

November 4, 2015

Stuart RevIn the course of checking to see whether the 2015 World Series is the first to begin and end in extra innings, I found that the longest game ever played without being called a tie or suspended was between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals on September 11, 1974. The game lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes, and when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning, it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium. Writing a few weeks ago when post-season play had just begun, I quoted catcher Bengie Molina’s father telling Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last forever if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.”

If I’m thinking of extra innings in cosmic terms — baseball’s version of the afterlife — it’s because I’ve been reading W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (1982), the basis for the 1989 film Field of Dreams. Among the novel’s numerous challenges to the “suspension of disbelief” are two formidable fantasies: the return of baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson to a ball field laid out for him (“If you build it, he will come”) and the forced return of literary legend J.D. Salinger from self-imposed exile in New Hampshire. An even more improbable leap of the imagination for Kinsella than the resurrection of Jackson was the notion of a fictional baseball-loving Salinger ultimately going along with the field-of-dreams fantasy. Still more improbable was that the real-life Salinger would allow himself to be written into someone else’s novel.  more

October 28, 2015

Book Rev

Like everyone else, I’ve never gotten over The Recognitions. — Harold Bloom

When I told a friend who likes big, difficult novels that I was about to begin William Gaddis’s 956-page tour de force The Recognitions, which was published by Harcourt Brace 60 years ago, he wished me luck: “I’ve tried at least 4 or 5 times to crack that book, but without success.” In a later message, after hearing that I’d embarked on so daunting a journey, he said, “I’ll pray for you.”

Over the decades, for every person who told me I had to read The Recognitions, someone else told me it was unreadable. Yet people who had “been there” carried on as if they’d returned from the journey of a lifetime. Having arrived safely, if dazed and word-weary, I’ll tell you some of what I experienced on my four-month sojurn in Gaddis’s mid-century wasteland. more

October 21, 2015

Art Review 2

Cézanne…was the greatest. The greatest for always. — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s love of Cézanne is expressed more guardedly in his posthumous Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). Even there, after saying he was learning “very much” from Cézanne, he admits he was “not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” Here’s a world-famous writer entering his 60s and he’s still celebrating his enthusiasm as if he were a boy with a secret. Writing as his youthful alter ego in The Nick Adams Stories (1972) he lets his feelings show (Cezanne “was the greatest”) in a short hitherto unpublished piece titled “On Writing.”  more

October 14, 2015

book rev

Book love is your pass to the greatest, the purest, the most perfect pleasure….The habit of reading is the only joy in which there us no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.

—Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

The quotes about “book love” and “the habit of reading” spearheading this introduction to the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale surfaced while I was gazing into the sprawling immensity of Anthony Trollope’s beard. Of all the views of Trollopian facial hair shown in an online gallery of images, this prodigious display most fittingly suggests the depth and range of the event that begins Friday morning at ten in the Community Room. Seen here in full flower compared to the more crafted and contained incarnations, the author’s beard spreads hugely east and west, a veritable landscape, offering in its sheer breadth not only an evocation of the scope of the sale but a definitive image of its owner’s productivity, at rough count 40-plus novels, 15 story collections, and 15 works of non-fiction. more

October 7, 2015

Book RevI’m planning ways to pipe “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics into the St. Louis clubhouse when the Cardinals host the National League Central Division playoffs this Friday. Why send a Power Pop anthem to a team that has won 100 games in spite of losing virtually half their starting lineup this season? That’s not miracle enough? Not if you add to that truckload of adversity the loss of a potential Hall of Fame catcher and proven post-season clutch hitter who saves pitcher’s souls and throws out baserunners at a major-league-leading clip. When “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold,” Yadier Molina is the center that holds, and at this writing, there’s no way of knowing how effective he’ll be even if he’s cleared to play in the post season.

The September 20 incident that put Molina out of action is an example of what his former manager Tony LaRussa calls “beautiful baseball” — in the bottom of the eighth inning in a do or die game against the surging Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo racing for home, a perfect throw from right-fielder Jason Hayward snagged on one hop by Molina, one quick stab of Molina’s mitt to tag out the sliding runner, a medley of forces converging in game-saving synchronicity. Except that as the catcher executes the neat rapier-like motion of the tag, the force embodied by the 6’3, 240-pound Rizzo going hellbent for home has Molina slinging off his mitt, in pain from what proved to be a partially torn ligament in his left thumb, and just like that, the one indispensable player is out for the last ten days of the regular season and perhaps the playoffs.

So it goes with baseball. Beautiful, yes, but also inevitably bipolar, a field of ups and downs and broken dreams. more

September 30, 2015

book rev

Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday $26.99), which entered the N.Y. Times non-fiction best-seller list in 7th place this week, is a gutsy rock and roll memoir whose sales have undoubtedly been boosted by online chatter surrounding the author’s account of a sexual attack and her repeated refusal to blame her attackers. Now she finds herself, as she slyly puts it in a recent Washington Post interview, “a leading authority on rape.”

In the same interview, she says, “I wouldn’t expect most people to do some of the stuff I did. But then again, most people don’t get to be a rock star, either. We have to walk the plank.” In her case, walking the plank meant going to a biker “party” with a shipload of sexist pirates and suffering the consequences.  more

September 23, 2015
book rev

Photo by Tom Grimes

After walking in a daze down the brightly-lit aisles of McCaffrey’s, stunned by Monday’s New York Times obit, I find myself in the same check-out line where I last spoke with the poet C.K. Williams, who died at home in Hopewell Sunday. When he and his charming wife Catherine lived on Moore Street, I used to see him often at McCaffrey’s. He was hard to miss. At 6’5, he loomed over everyone else. We would shake hands and I would think how good it is to live in a town where you can shake hands with a great poet while pushing a shopping cart at the market. Life in Princeton …. more

September 16, 2015

Book Rev web

On drives from Indiana to New York City before the Interstate, my parents took U.S. 40 east, which brought us into the hilly outskirts of Pittsburgh at night. It was the most vivid moment of the trip: the red-orange glow of steel mills against the dark sky, the smoke-hazed aura around the glow, the balmy summer air, the excitement of seeing that vision lighting up the sky. The moment was marked by the metallic scent of industry, like the aroma of pure power, which is what I seemed to be breathing again in “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection” at the James A. Michener Art Museum.  more

September 9, 2015

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky“If I live.” These words translated from the Russian can be found at the end of nearly every dated entry in the 1895-1899 journals of Leo Tolstoy, who was born on this date, September 9, in 1828, and died at 82 on November 20, 1910. I wonder what Oliver Sacks, who died at 82 ten days ago, would make of Tolstoy’s daily acknowledgment of his mortality. Sacks’s maternal grandfather, who fled Russia at 16 to avoid being drafted into the Cossack army, might know. Perhaps it was nothing more than an abbreviated prayer. After “If I live” July 31, 1896, Tolstoy is quite literal, writing later the same day: “I am alive. It is evening now. It is past four. I am lying down and cannot fall asleep. My heart aches. I am tired out. I hear through the window — they play tennis and are laughing.”

Short, simple statements of fact. You can almost hear him breathing.

While the most familiar image of Tolstoy may be the photograph from 1908 of a white-bearded patriarch seated on a rattan chair, one leg crossed over the other, very much the ruler of his domain, I prefer the word-pictures by his neighbor in the Crimea, Maxim Gorky, who used to see him along the coast, “a smallish, angular figure in a gray, crumpled, ragged suit and crumpled hat … sitting with his head on his hands, the wind blowing the silvery hairs of his beard through his fingers.” This sounds more like the man who would write “If I live” and “I am alive” in his journal. But then, in the same paragraph, Tolstoy becomes “the old magician” in whose “musing motionlessness” Gorky feels “something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a search-light into the blue emptiness above the earth.” more

September 2, 2015

DVD rev 1You guys have a way of making a way out of no way. You know the sun comes after every storm—President Obama to New Orleans

Ten years after Katrina, the president comes to New Orleans, looks the city in the eye and says,” You inspire me.” At the same time he’s shining a light on his administration’s high points, he’s making sure the audience in a community center in the lower 9th Ward knows there’s a grease stain on his pants from some fried chicken he ate at Willie May’s Scotch House on St. Ann Street in Tremé; he’s just glad it didn’t get on his tie; he’s got his mojo working; after all, he’s in “the gateway to America’s soul, where the jazz makes you cry, the funerals make you dance, and the bayous make you believe all kinds of things.”

It’s the human touch, mix the politics with some sloppy downhome reality you can rub between your fingers, and make your exit while Bruce Springsteen’s singing “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  more

August 26, 2015

book rev

Ten years ago this week, August 29, Katrina savaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Just under two thousand people died, with damages estimated at over a hundred billion dollars. Spike Lee in When The Levees Broke, David Simon in HBO’s Treme, and Dave Eggers in his book Zeitoun are among the artists who have done justice to the magnitude of the event and its troubled aftermath. You could say Walker Percy did justice to it before it happened. more

August 19, 2015

record rev

A chapter near the end of Neil Young’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider 2012) begins with him behind the wheel of his car “rolling down a California two-lane highway” listening to a group called the Pistol Annies, with “visions of the future and past” brewing in his “coffee-soaked mind.” I can relate to a driving-listening-to-music chapter because that’s how I bonded with his new album, The Monsanto Years (Reprise), in which he teams up with Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah and Lukas’s group Promise of the Real to put the Fear of Neil into corporate giants, with special attention to the one targeted in the title. more

August 12, 2015

book rev

On the last day of his life, August 12, 1827, at 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand in London, William Blake, who was born in Soho in November 1757, stopped working and turned to Catherine, his wife of 45 years. “Stay, Kate!” he said, “keep just as you are — I’ll draw your portrait — for you’ve ever been an angel to me.” What followed that last drawing “has been told more than once in print,” and “can never be told without a sense of some strange and sweet meaning,” Swinburne writes, picturing “how, as Blake lay, with all the tides of his life setting towards the deep final sleep, he made and sang new fragments of verse,” which his wife heard as “songs of joy and triumph.” After telling her that they would never be parted, that he would be with her always, he died, says one witness, “in a most glorious manner.”

With the help of Peter Ackroyd’s definitive biography, Blake (Knopf 1995), it’s possible to visualize the scene that took place in the “plain, red-brick house of three stories” adjacent to the future site of opera impresario D’Oyly-Carte’s luxury hotel, the Savoy. The Blakes had moved into two rooms on the first floor in the spring of 1820.  more