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 14, 2017

The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them!

—Walt Whitman, from “Mannahatta”

The beautiful women on view in the James A. Michener Museum’s vision of Jazz Age Manhattan in “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Formrange from elegant ladies in “dragonfly-stitched ermine coats” to Ziegfield dancers like the exhibit’s cover girl Bobbe Arnst and little (4’10) Ann Pennington, who can be seen in a series of Sheeler photographs performing Black Bottom moves like “Bon Bon Buddy,” “Down Baby,” “Step Out,” “Raggedy Trot,” and “Clap Hands.” 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 24, 2017

According to his wife Jeanine, “a large chunk” of her late husband William Rosen’s Miracle Cure (Viking $28) was written “on the old second floor” of the Princeton Public Library. Subtitled The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine, the book’s heroic backstory is touched on in the acknowledgments, where the author writes, “Shortly after I began researching what would become Miracle Cure, I was diagnosed with a rare and highly aggressive form of cancer. After thanking the doctors and nurses who ‘literally kept me alive long enough to complete Miracle Cure,’ Mr. Rosen, who died in April 2016, notes that it’s “perhaps, a little ironic that a book that documents the birth of the modern pharmaceutical firm should have been so dependent on the products of its maturity.” more

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 29, 2017

AUTUMN PATH: This photographic work by Frank Sauer is from his exhibit “Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons,” which will be on view at the Arts Council of Princeton through April 30. There will be an artist talk with the photographer at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 1.

Watching snow flurries from the south-facing rear windows of our house a day after the opening of Frank Sauer’s exhibit, “Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons,” I seemed to be seeing his photography again in the white haze of distant trees, the way limbs and branches were sharply defined and at the same time fluid in the fallen and falling snow.  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