September 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When my wife and I checked into the Library Hotel in New York eight years ago, we were installed in the Paranormal Room. We didn’t ask for the Paranormal Room. If we’d known about the hotel’s subject area concept, we might have requested a room on the 7th floor (the Arts) or the 8th (Literature). Even so, we were okay with being in room 11.05 on the 9th floor (Philosophy), though neither of us has ever been seriously into fantasy, science fiction, or the occult unless you count teenage readings of Ray Bradbury, a few seasons of Star Trek, and a brief fling with Carlos Castaneda (a copy of The Art of Dreaming was on the bedside table, along with volumes on ghosts, ESP, and UFOs).  more

September 13, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins explained the difference between novelists and poets this way: “I think of the novelist as a houseguest. The poet is more someone who just appears. You know, a door opens and there’s the poet! He says something about life and death, closes the door and is gone. Who was that masked man?” more

September 6, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Sixty years ago yesterday Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, “a historic occasion” according to the New York Times, which called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” more

August 30, 2017

On the age-old problem of how to begin, what better guide than John McPhee? In his new book Draft No. 4: John McPhee on the Writing Process (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux $25), he says “a lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring. After a tremendous fanfare of verbal trumpets, a mouse comes out of a hole blinking.” He goes on: “The lead — like the title — should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” And then: “A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows.” more

August 23, 2017

The first time my wife and I saw Bonnie and Clyde, the gunfire-driven dance of death at the end left us limp, wiped out, we couldn’t move. We’d been married less than a year. For a couple destined to see thousands of films together over the next 50 years, it was a defining moment. If one of us had started to get right up and leave as if it had been “just another movie” or if one of us had raved about it only to be greeted by a blank look, it wouldn’t have augured well for the future of the marriage. more

August 16, 2017

I watched Carnie as she sang. I was looking at my daughter and thinking about when she was little; about her sister when she was little; about how I was young then, too; about the cover of Sunflower; about feeling my mom’s hands as she lowered me into the crib. People are beautiful. Life can be, too. —Brian Wilson

A week after the 72nd anniversary of Hiroshima, with people talking about fall-out shelters again thanks to the blustering president and his North Korean counterpart, i’ve been thinking about what makes life worth living, things like family, pets, comfort food, art and literature, baseball and rock and roll.  more

August 9, 2017

Jeanne Moreau and Sam Shepard died in the same week, the playwright at 73 on July 27, the actress at 89 on July 31. Their obituaries were paired in the pages of the New York Times and Antonio Banderas posted their photographs side by side with his message on the Los Angeles Times remembrance blog: “thank you for enlightening us at 24 frames per second.”

In 2001 when Moreau was 73 she told the Times: “The cliché is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.”  more

August 2, 2017

Kathryn Watterson’s I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton (Princeton Univ. Press) takes its title from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood’s most famous citizen, Paul Robeson (1898-1976), who celebrates “the honest joy of laughter in these homes, folk-wit and story, hearty appetites for life, and warmth of song” in “hard-working people … filled with the goodness of humanity.” Coming from a man known above all for his prowess as a singer, the emphasis is on “the warmth of song,” as in “Songs of love and longing, trials and triumphs … hymn-song and ragtime ballad, gospels and blues.”  more

July 19, 2017

If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. — Jane Austen, from a letter

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice,” Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” The sheltered drawing-room stereotype of Jane Austen that Twain is ridiculing only redounds to the power of her art. If anything, his vehemence suggests a kind of backhanded recognition of the “wild beast” of a writer she spontaneously and perhaps inadvertently reveals in a May 24, 1813, letter to her elder sister Cassandra. more

July 12, 2017

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday. It’s unlikely that the author of Walden would find all the hoopla “worth the while” — a three-day bicentennial gala in Concord, Mass.; inns and motels booked three years in advance; as many as 750,000 people estimated to be making the pilgrimage to Walden Pond in this celebratory year; the publication of new biographies and numerous books; a full-scale exhibit, “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” at the Morgan Museum and Library in New York.  more

July 5, 2017

the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, — the letter A, — marked out in lines of dull red light. 

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter

Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born on July 4, 1804, David Lynch knows how to sear his brand into the brains of his audience. Some viewers are still trying to shake the surreal image of the thing that slithers into the first-kiss sanctity of sleeping innocence at the end of Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Those of us who have survived the first eight weeks of this most unsettled and unsettling series were given a July 4 holiday break on Sunday. Who knows why? Maybe Lynch is allowing us a week off to ponder the feast of excesses in “Gotta Light?,” his latest serving of killer coffee and spiked cherry pie. Or maybe this is his subtle way of marking the birthday of his predecessor in the never-ending investigation of the American mystery.  more

June 28, 2017

The best time of all was Monterey. It was one of the highest points of my life.

—Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

“Everyone thought the Beatles were at Monterey in disguise,” said Derek Taylor, the group’s close friend and onetime press officer. “Three of the four, no one knew which three. But they were there. Well, they were and they weren’t.”

It didn’t matter that the Beatles were in England that mid-June weekend 50 years ago. People wanted to believe they were at the festival, so they were, and if any entity on the planet could be two places at once in the summer of 1967 it was the creators of Sgt. Pepper, which had come out on the first day of June, like a preface to the glory of Monterey Pop. Plus, Paul McCartney was on the festival’s Board of Governors and George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” was spreading the life-flows-on mantra through speakers all over the fairgrounds.  more

June 21, 2017

It’s only fitting that signed editions of several of Princeton native John McPhee’s acclaimed works — part of what the New York Times called “a grand pointillist mural of our time and place” — are among the items of special interest at the upcoming Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale. During a library ceremony honoring him some years ago, McPhee confessed that when he was a boy he’d borrowed a book and failed to return it (“Well I lost it”). In donating signed editions of all his works to the library’s Princeton Collection on that occasion he was in effect repaying his debt. He then gave the idea of repayment another turn by claiming that he’d written all those books to make up for the one he’d lost.  more

June 7, 2017

Thinking, writing, talking constantly about the poem as a way of life …. —William Carlos Williams, from  The Autobiography

Imagine pitching this idea to a Hollywood producer: “It’s a film about a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry, he’s living with a lovely woman and her English bulldog and when he goes out at night to walk the dog, he stops by a bar and has a few beers.” Long pause. The producer is waiting to hear when does the guy hold up the bar or turn out to be a serial killer who leaves poems attached to his victims, or at least, when does the girl get raped or killed. No such luck. Nobody gets hurt, unless you count what happens to the notebook the bus driver writes his poems in. When the producer’s eyes stop rolling, he asks what happens to the notebook. “Sorry,” says the writer/director. “I don’t wanta give away the plot.” Then, seeing that the producer is hyperventilating, he fills him in: “It’s the dog. The dog’s jealous of the poet. His name is Marvin. He’s amazing. Looks like Winston Churchill after a full meal.” Pause. “It’s, like, a slice of life film about poetry and love and dogs and things like that.” more

May 31, 2017

It’s a familiar sight in Beatles lore, a theatre full of girls screaming and swooning to “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout.” The scene in question was filmed by Pathe news in late November 1963 in Manchester. It’s striking how small and brittle the Beatles look this early in their career, upstaged by the hysteria, out of their depth, the mastered masters performing charades of frenzy on cue while the audience responds with the sobbing, shrieking passion of the real thing. But it’s more than mere frenzy these radiant girls are expressing, it’s the ecstasy of feeling free to let go, sob, laugh, dance, scream, be delirious.

 more

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s a familiar sight in Beatles lore, a theatre full of girls screaming and swooning to “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout.” The scene in question was filmed by Pathe news in late November 1963 in Manchester. It’s striking how small and brittle the Beatles look this early in their career, upstaged by the hysteria, out of their depth, the mastered masters performing charades of frenzy on cue while the audience responds with the sobbing, shrieking passion of the real thing. But it’s more than mere frenzy these radiant girls are expressing, it’s the ecstasy of feeling free to let go, sob, laugh, dance, scream, be delirious.  more

May 24, 2017

A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries you have to enter. —Bob Dylan, from Chronicles: Volume One

Is it any wonder that songs, dreams, strange countries, and parallel universes are on my mind the morning after watching the return of David Lynch’s 27-year-long interrupted dream, Twin Peaks, on Showtime Sunday night? On top of that, today, May 24, is Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday. In fact, the original motive for this column was the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy next Monday, May 29, and while it’s too soon to say anything about the reincarnation of the show frequently credited with inspiring the Golden Age of the Television Series, it’s worth nothing that Eagle Scout David Lynch was present for the inauguration of JFK, which coincided with his 15th birthday, January 20, 1961. more

May 17, 2017

Panthea Reid doesn’t mince words in her preface to Body and Soul: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing (Wild River Legacy 2017). Losing her husband John Fischer, who died in 2015, “nearly destroyed” her mind. What added “fury and guilt” to her grief was the idea that “medical incompetence or indifference hastened his decline.” She’s plagued by thoughts of her “naive trust” in the doctors who misdiagnosed his illness and by the fact that she failed to assert herself and “insist on alternate medical care.”  more

May 10, 2017

After describing Franz Kafka’s “sharp and skeletal face” as it appears in a photograph from 1924, Philip Roth observes that “chiseled skulls like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens” and that had he lived, Kafka’s “would have been among them.” He then adds, “Of course it is no more horrifying to think of Franz Kafka in Auschwitz than to think of anyone at Auschwitz — it is just horrifying in its own way.” In fact, Kafka died the year the photograph was taken, “too soon for the holocaust.” Had such a monumental literary figure actually perished in Nazi ovens it would become a horror of the horror, a legend, an historic abomination.

“Content That I Can Breathe”

According to Kafka: The Early Years (Princeton Univ. Press $35), the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s landmark biography, Franz Kafka was “newly confronted with the problems of Jewish identity” four years before he died.

In one of the first entries in Diaries 1914-1923, January 8, 1914, however, Kafka is already asking, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” Content to live, a stranger in the strange land of the self, Kafka, a Jew, asks what he has in common with Jews. Ten years later, upon asking his doctor for a lethal dose of morphine, he says, “Kill me or else you are a murderer.” more

May 3, 2017

Born May 2, 1903, a household name in his time at the heart of the 20th century; a Best Actor Oscar winner, Hollywood’s top box-office attraction for five years, with 38 number-one records, more than Elvis or the Beatles — Bing Crosby was “a monumental figure,” in the words of his biographer, Gary Giddins. Yet during a 2001 book tour for Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940, Giddins was surprised by the “degree of ignorance about his entire career …. It really became a question of ‘Bing who?’”

With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ monumental Sgt. Pepper album only a month away, no one’s asking “Paul who?” Not when Sir Paul McCartney, who’ll be 75 on June 18, has been filling stadiums during his One-On-One tour, finishing off the last three nights in April at the Tokyo Dome. In July he’ll be in arenas from Miami to Chicago, ahead of a September 11 concert at the Newark’s Prudential Center, followed by concerts at Madison Square Garden, and Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

How big were and are the Beatles? Crosby himself had some thoughts about the dimensions of the phenomenon: “Sinatra was … bigger than I ever was, and Presley was bigger than Sinatra, but there’s never been anything like the Beatles.” That was in 1964, three years before Sgt. Pepper lit up the 60s. Now here it comes again, “the act you’ve known for all these years” trailing clouds of bicentennial glory with a new stereo mix of the album, an expanded deluxe edition as a two-CD set or two-LP vinyl package, and a “super deluxe” six-disc box set.  more

April 26, 2017

Beginning a column about Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday (April 25, 2017) on my mother’s 105th birthday (April 20, 2017), feels sentimentally right if only because she lived in the songs Ella sang, notably “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Whenever my father played either of those classics on the piano, my mother would be, as she liked to say, “reduced to rubble.”

In Visions of Jazz (1998), Gary Giddins makes the point that Ella “taught us something vital about joy, as Billie Holiday taught us something vital about pain.” He also observes that she was one of those jazz performers “who have become public monuments,” her “enduring authority” having “more than a little to do with an image of youthless (which is to say ageless) maternalism, sturdy and implacable.” Terms like “enduring authority” help explain why I never owned a single Ella album, never was a fan, even though she’d been magnificent the few times I’d seen her in person. Another problem was that, as Henry Pleasants notes in The Great American Popular Singers (1974), she’d “never been one for exposing her own heart in public,” preferring to share “her pleasures, not her troubles,” so that listening to her was “a joyous, exhilarating, memorable, but hardly an emotional experience.” more

April 19, 2017

I love poetry. I love rhyming.

—Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

If he had not become such an extraordinary director, Jim would now be a rock star.

—Wim Wenders on Jim Jarmusch

Several times a week I drive up the hill into Kingston, always with music on the stereo. One morning it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing “Lush Life,” and I take the hill nice and easy, true to the late-night flow of the lyric about “those come-what-may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life/to get the feel of life.” But when Chuck Berry’s singing, the axis is tilting, the wheel of life is spinning, the come-what-may places have gone south, the car’s “rocking like a hurricane,” Beethoven’s rolling under the wheels, Tchaikovsky’s running for his life, and my CRV is a Coupe de Ville with mad Maybellene in the passenger seat urging me on (“go, go, go!”) as Chuck comes up from behind in his Ford V8. Now we’re side by side, Kingston’s turned into Cape Girardeau, and we’re motorvatin’ down I-55 on our way from Chuck’s St. Louis to Elvis’s Memphis, the setting of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The method behind my vehicular madness is simple: one of the wisest, most interesting, most humane filmmakers in the world is in town today, Wednesday, April 19, and will be appearing on campus at 4:30 in McCosh 50. more

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