December 13, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

In the unlikely event that the New York Times Book Review or anyone else ever asks me what books are on my night stand, the tome that’s been there for years waiting for me to write about it is Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat (Knopf 1920), which has been called “the best single treatise on the cat” and “a treasure house of literary gossip.” Like so many of my books, this one, the 1936 edition, has passed through the secondhand bookstores of Manhattan and therefore embodies three of my favorite things — cats, used bookstores, and New York City. more

December 6, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner 

Imagine a literary theme park, a Disneyland for readers and their kids where you can ride a raft with Huck and Jim, or climb aboard the Pequod with Ishmael, or fish the Big Two-Hearted River with Hemingway. Since the former Soviet Union is ever more massively imminent as we approach the moment of truth about Russian involvement in last year’s election, let’s say you could also visit a Chekhov pavilion complete with cherry orchard or tour Tolstoy’s estate where little Natashas can enjoy horseback rides and make-believe balls, or better yet you could take your chances in a fun house of existential chills dedicated to the work of Dostoevsky. Given the American public’s undying fascination with the dark side, the Dostoevsky House would draw the biggest crowds.  more

November 29, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

I was still in my teens when I read Dostoevsky for the first time. Going from Holden Caulfield in New York to a Russian student plotting an act of murder in St. Petersburg seemed like growing up. Crime and Punishment was electric, fascinating, a new world.

I was 20 when I read The Possessed, older but not much wiser. I was out of my depth, unprepared for the upgrade from a philosophical axe murderer named Raskolnikov to a charismatic child molestor named Stavrogin. It would have helped if I’d been able to read the chapter in which Stavrogin describes his crime, but it was considered too shocking to print in 1872 no matter how often Dostoevsky tried to tone it down.  more

November 22, 2017

Great writers and artists ought to take part in politics only so far as they protect themselves from politics.  — Anton Chekhov

By Stuart Mitchner

Almost exactly 80 years ago, November 21, 1937, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. According to Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, the audience was aware that the 31-year-old composer’s “fate was at stake.” Two of his most recent works, an opera and music for a ballet, had been attacked at Stalin’s behest in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee; in effect, he had been “cast down overnight from the summit among the brightest stars of young Soviet composers to the abyss as pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues were “disappearing.” Members of his family had been arrested, exiled, sent to labor camps. One of his foremost supporters had been charged with treason and executed. In case he doubted how dangerously close he was to being labeled an enemy of the state, the Fourth Symphony, his most ambitious work to date, was forcibly withdrawn on the eve of its debut performance because instead of following the party line, it appeared to be an even more extreme expression of his “depraved, difficult, formalist Western” values.  more

November 15, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

So, with the crash of artillery, in the dark, with hatred, and fear, and reckless daring, new Russia was being born.

John Reed (1887-1920)

Here he is again, George Kennan, our Hodge Road landlord in the 1980s. It can’t be helped. When the overriding subject of the hour is Russia, Kennan is always there. If he were alive today, he would be the guest of choice on cable and network news, whether the subject were Russian “meddling,” or the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, or even the admirable Fox series The Americans with its bizarre bromances — FBI agent Stan and his neighbor Philip, a Russian spy, and Stan and the KGB’s Oleg, who have bonded in spite of themselves over love of the same Russian woman.  more

November 8, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

With Russian hacking, Russian interference, and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution dominating the news, it’s a time to look at another, less insidious side of the U.S.-Russia dynamic. If you extend the possibilities inherent in “hacking” and tweak “interference” as “influence,” then anyone in this or any other country who has been susceptible to the work of Russian writers, artists, and composers has been “hacked.” At 18, I was drunk on the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the symphonies of Shostakovich, fascinated, thrilled, exalted, under the influence. A lifetime later one of my most trusted sources of positive influence is a Russian whose work was of little interest to me then. more

November 1, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

The New York bus stops outside the building I work in. Several times a day I see it idling in front, waiting for the light to change. In the car last week listening to a CD of live jazz from May 1953, I hear the announcer say “We’re coming to you from Birdland, Broadway at 52nd Street, the heart of Manhattan” and I know it’s time to get on that bus. I’m thinking of the lost city of automats and movie palaces when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and I was allowed into jazz clubs in my mid-teens. more

October 25, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Writing about Twin Peaks in May of 2014, I made special mention of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, how from the first note, the mood created by his music is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace and dread that comes into play whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura Palmer’s home. Above all the music is about Laura Palmer, whose murder is what sets the machinery of the Twin Peaks project in motion with the simplistic but effective tag-line Who killed Laura Palmer? and the answer delivered toward the end of the series’ second season: her father.  more

October 18, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

One thing to be said for living in a country led by a deranged narcissicist is how it heightens your appreciation for explosive poets; it also exposes your stressed senses to outrageous fantasies. For days now I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Season in Hell with special pleasure (“Alas! there were days when all active men seemed to him playthings of grotesque madness”) while enjoying a twisted vision out of Disney’s Snow White where an evil queen with an orange pompadour is staring in the mirror shouting, “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest ruler of them all?” and being told time after time in an icky sweet sugar-plum fairy voice, “Snobama! Snobama! Snobama!” And when Snobama’s face actually appears in the mirror grinning that ear to ear grin, the queen begins screaming. Once she’s calmed down she sends a troupe of rogues and jesters out to destroy everything Snobama created, a futile task because the documents of destruction have no substance, it’s like writing in water.

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October 11, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died.  more

October 4, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner 

On one of last week’s unseasonably hot heavy days, deep in the late-afternoon do-nothing know-nothing blahs, I tried to pull out by reading the latest New Yorker and only felt worse. Next I tried King Lear, usually a reliable energy source, but this is the play that begins when Lear tells Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing,” which dooms them both and is the word at the dead center of my ennui. more

September 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.  more

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 26, 2017

The image shown is Anna Alma-Tadema’s Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on a Blue Pillow, 1902, watercolor and bodycolor with some graphite on board, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

BBC America’s Broadchurch and HBO’s Game of Thrones have descended on our household just in time to impact my impressions of the Princeton University Art Museum’s (PUAM) current exhibit, “Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum.”  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