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Category: Links: Reviews

The Real Harlem

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Darryl Pickney reviews a terrific book of photography for the New York Review of Books:

Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.

Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents.

Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing. Many gave up because the streets and the schools were so bad, especially middle-class blacks who could at last go elsewhere. But jobs were plentiful in the city. If you didn’t like your boss, an old head told me, you could quit and have a new job by the end of the day. Some people had jobs as well as welfare. Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say. If whites found themselves in Harlem, then they had to run. But you can meet whites who have spent their lives in Harlem, in their family homes, tolerated because they’d always been there, hadn’t run.

Buy Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto here.

Million Dollar Movie

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In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Denby reviews Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War:

In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since. Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans. Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.

“San Pietro” ends with text that demurely admits that some of the footage was taken before or after the actual battle—which hardly amounts to full disclosure. Harris has seen the mass of uncut footage, and he’s indignant about the imposture. Yet the issue remains complicated. Certainly, it’s dishonest to claim that something is authentic when it’s not. But all movies are illusions of one sort or another, and perhaps it’s best to say that some illusions are truer than others. In the case of war, what kind of representation brings you the most vivid and the most accurate sense of a terrible event? Steven Spielberg, staging the D Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” delivered a greater sense of the deadly turmoil on Omaha Beach than either John Ford or George Stevens, both of whom were in Normandy during the landing, with multiple crews and hundreds of cameras. Many of the cameras were unmanned or didn’t work; the footage recorded that day is largely out of focus or grisly in a fragmentary way.

The War Department wanted morale-building movies for the home front, and, under pressure, both Ford and Wyler softened their groundbreaking work. Ford added hokily reassuring dialogue (spoken by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda) to “Midway”; Wyler included scenes of ceremonial visits to the Memphis Belle by top generals and by the King and Queen of England. In “The Battle of San Pietro,” Huston offers no such reassurance. As the soldiers advance through smoke and mist, many of them falling to machine-gun fire, the tone of the narration, which Huston himself speaks, is grim. The beautiful old town, when the Americans get there, is nothing but rubble. The survivors look exhausted—not jubilant but merely relieved that their part of the war is over. Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.

Million Dollar Movie

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Jeanine Basinger in the New York Review of Books:

Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck were separated by fifteen years in age, and arrived in Hollywood more than a decade apart. Although both were famous stars, neither ever won a competitive Academy Award. (Gardner was nominated once for Mogambo and Stanwyck four times, for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She received an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”) Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not.

Gardner, from a not very well off but stable North Carolina family, arrived in town with a minimum of security and no acting experience, but was fed into a system that might be expected to take care of her if she behaved. Stanwyck, coming from a hardscrabble background in New York, arrived from Broadway with the security of a contract and solid experience, but took up her career independently and never let anyone own her.

Gardner’s security came with a price. Unable to pick and choose, she was assigned pedestrian films she had to carry (The Great Sinner in 1949, My Forbidden Past in 1951). She wasn’t given many opportunities to grow as an actress. The studio didn’t need that from her, and because of her spectacular looks, she presented something of a casting problem. Who would believe Ava Gardner as a nun, or a rocket scientist, or a neglected working girl in a tuna cannery? She was born to grab the spotlight, and having shaped her image as “a magnificent animal” (her billing for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Hollywood was content to present her that way.

Gardner became resentful and restless, and began to carouse, have affairs, and create problems. She didn’t care if she caused a scandal, particularly when she took up with the married Frank Sinatra and became the most famous “other woman” of her time. Ironically, it was easy for her studio to fuse this off-screen behavior to her on-screen persona, and the role of “Ava Gardner,” bad-girl-good-time-gal-sex-symbol, became an unbreakable image.

Stanwyck’s independence meant that she could negotiate her films and salaries, but she had to accept that she had no priority in any studio’s plans for casting. She lost significant roles as a result, such as the lead in Dark Victory (1939), which went to Bette Davis. Wilson points out that a studio “would have steadily built her up picture after picture,” as MGM did with Gardner, but Stanwyck didn’t want that: “She found it a constraint.” Stanwyck had to fight to get good films, but she had her own supporters, including her first husband, Frank Fay (an established born-in-a-trunk performer), a shrewd agent, Zeppo Marx (the fifth Marx brother), and particularly director Frank Capra, who saw what she was capable of and who guided her in four of her earliest films. As curator of the Frank Capra Archives, I spent many hours talking to Capra about his career, and Stanwyck was a subject he loved. A great admirer of her talent, discipline, and professionalism, he always stressed that since Stanwyck was never owned by a single studio for any length of time, no specific image was created for her. She had to create her own.

Million Dollar Movie

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In this weekend’s book review, Molly Haskel reviews the massive first volume of Victoria Wilson’s new Barbara Stanwyck biography:

Start with the voice, which seems to have been around since the world began: lush, weary, tender, worldly, skeptical, ranging nimbly between hard and soft. It could be metallic, mannish and brittle or gentle as a down pillow, sometimes within the same film, as befits an actress who was at ease in every genre, from woman’s melodrama to the western, with noir and screwball comedy in between. Though film buffs have treasured her for years, Barbara Stanwyck has burned less brightly among general moviegoers for whom a higher voltage is synonymous with stardom.

She was neither a great beauty nor a glamour puss, and the importance of this — her refusal or inability to be simplified into a single image — has to be seen as a major factor in her longevity. More iconoclast than icon, more a character star on the order of Bogie or Cagney, she was often the second or third choice after Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis and Irene Dunne. Yet she has worn especially well. And if she was underappreciated in her time, her minimalist gifts — the fluid movement, the stillness in repose, the sense of interiority — have come to seem ultramodern.

If ever there was an actress who was ready for prime time, it is Stanwyck, and this enormously informative tribute — juicy yet dignified, admiring yet detached — is the book to bring her to center stage. Or books, I should say, for this full-dress treatment is not for the fainthearted: “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940,” at 860 pages of text (notes, index and appendices bring it to 1,044), is only the first volume, beginning with Stanwyck’s birth and ending with the films preceding World War II. Wilson stays resolutely and sometimes frustratingly within this time frame, resisting even an anticipatory peek at those glorious ’40s films. I confess to having felt a certain alarm when I heard that Wilson, a vice president and longtime editor at Knopf whose first book this is, was writing two volumes on Stanwyck. In general, only someone of global consequence merits such exhaustive and demanding length. It seemed — and still seems — especially disproportionate in the case of Stanwyck, whose talent for passing under the radar was one of her charms. But Wilson’s aims are far more ambitious than documenting the minutiae of a movie star’s life.

What she does is provide context of ­extraordinary breadth, taking in not only Stanwyck’s life, her beginnings in poverty and tragedy and her emergence as an emblem of self-sufficiency, but also the world through which she moved: the cultural and political forces that shaped her years in show business as she went from burlesque and theater in New York to the turbulent Hollywood of the 1930s. Each film from this period is recounted in detail — indeed not just the films she made, but the ones she almost made and the parts she didn’t get. These descriptions are interspersed with mini-biographies of the various participants, forays into Stan­wyck’s social life (or antisocial life, as the case often was), along with politics, both local and national.

Margaret Talbot picks some of Stanwyck’s finest work over at the New Yorker.

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New York Minute

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A day in the life of Pete Hamill:

If it’s a beautiful day, I love taking walks. The walks are always aimless. From where I live, I like walking to the Battery, where so many people, including my own parents, came through that harbor and passed into Ellis Island and became Americans. You can just sit on a bench and look at the harbor, or look at the people. Like being a flâneur. You can just wander around and let the city dictate the script.

And here is Hamill’s review of The Boy Detective by Roger Rosenblatt:

To enter the world of this wonderful memoir is to leave the dull certainties of home and go wandering. The author’s destination is always the great wide world Out There, and through his sharp, compact prose, Roger Rosenblatt takes the reader with him. He is, after all, what some 19th-century Parisians called a flâneur, a stroller sauntering through anonymous crowds in the noisy, greedy, unscripted panoramas of the city.

In that role, Rosenblatt has no exact destination. In unstated homage to such wandering scribes as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, he doesn’t consult Google Earth or a guidebook. He doesn’t need a tour bus or a taxicab. He walks the streets like a poetic stray, embracing chance and accident, inhaling the gritty air of his true Old Country, a Manhattan village called Gramercy Park. He is not, however, parochial. Sometimes he slips over the border to make the strange feel familiar. Along the way, he bumps against human beings he almost surely will never see again.

Those nameless men and women are moving in the streets, retreating into shops, escaping snow or wind in the churches, the schools or the malls that have replaced the arcades once so precious to Parisian flâneurs. At times, a single person is the object of his scrutiny. Above all, his subject is people one at a time. He studies them, he says, like a detective. Clothes, hairdos, shoes, postures. And eyes, which say so much without words about what used to be called the soul. Rosenblatt tells us he has been doing this since his age was written in single digits. Detective fictions filled his head with ways to see the world, really see it, and then try to figure out what he was doing in that world. He suggests that though he studied at Harvard, and even taught there, his most important education came from popular fiction. Above all, detective fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes.

[Photo Credit: Dave Sanders]

Hip to Be Square

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Peter Schjeldahl has a kind word for Norman Rockwell:

Rockwell’s populous American mythos is ever more to be valued as the shared beliefs that used to gird it devolve into hellish divisions. His lodestar was Charles Dickens, naturalized to New England towns and to suburbs anywhere. And he drew and painted angelically, with subtle technical ingenuity, involving layered colors, that is still underappreciated. I took instruction on this point from de Kooning, who opened a book to a reproduction, handed me a magnifying glass, and made me peruse Rockwell’s minuscule but almost fiercely animated painterly touch. “See?” said de Kooning. “Abstract Expressionism!” Solomon reports that de Kooning remarked of Rockwell’s astonishing imitation of a Pollock drip painting, being viewed by a fancy gent in “The Connoisseur” (1962), “Square inch by square inch, it’s better than Jackson!” I agree, though the pastiche is unpersuasive overall. Rockwell had labored mightily to get the Pollock look right, not as a parody but in homage. He said, “If I were young, I would paint that way myself.” Never anti-modernist, he was always in awe of Picasso.

But—or really and—Rockwell was an obsessive-compulsive, anxiety-riddled, miserable hypochondriac, as at least two of his three schoolteacher wives and his three emotionally stunted children could testify. He didn’t behave badly so much as he hardly behaved at all, outside his studios in, successively, New Rochelle, New York; Arlington, Vermont; and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His psychoanalyst—no less than the renowned developmental psychologist and pioneer of psychobiography Erik Erikson—is said to have remarked that Rockwell funneled all his happiness into his art. Solomon plumbs a suspicion (almost de rigueur in biography-writing lately) of homosexuality. Her verdict: temperamentally so, but moot in one who was puritanically shy of intimacy. I can almost imagine Edmund Wilson, whose “The Wound and the Bow” (1941) theorized a link between psychic trauma and creative genius, adding a chapter for Rockwell. (Wilson’s leadoff essay is about Dickens.) Certainly, there can be few more extreme endorsements of W.B. Yeats’s chilly dictum, “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.”

 

Kansas City Lightning: Bird’s Early Years

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Over at the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz reviews the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s long-anticipated Charlie Parker biography:

That Parker was a child of Kansas City swing should be obvious, but it has been obscured. The temptation to hear Parker’s music as a complete rupture with swing has been fed not only by his beatnik admirers, who saw him as a kind of natural wonder, but by Parker himself, who insisted that bebop was “no love-child of jazz” but rather “something entirely separate and apart.” Indeed, Parker’s work sounds utterly different from the music that preceded it, particularly in its unusual phrasing, and in its splitting of the four beats in a bar into eight. When Parker launches into his improvisation in “Ko-Ko,” his exhilarating reworking of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” he seems to be taking flight and bidding farewell forever to the Swing Era.2 To listen to the recordings Parker made for Savoy and Dial in the mid-1940s is to feel you’re witnessing the birth of modern jazz, with its eighth notes, flatted fifths, and breathless velocity.

No artistic movement, however, is born of immaculate conception. Thanks to the work of Albert Murray, Gary Giddins, and Scott DeVeaux, we now know that the music of Parker and Gillespie evolved from the big-band swing against which it rebelled. Murray, in his 1976 book Stomping the Blues, described Parker as “the most workshop-oriented of all Kansas City apprentices,” rather than a highbrow modernist “dead set on turning dance music into concert music.”

Crouch has praised Stomping the Blues as “the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music,” and there is a lot of Murray in Kansas City Lightning: the celebration of the battle-of-the-bands milieu of Depression-era Kansas City; the insistence that jazz is a proud dance music, rather than an aspiring art music pleading for admission to the concert hall; and above all, the evocation of what Crouch has called “the rich mulatto textures” of American culture. These Murray-esque riffs will be familiar to anyone who has read Crouch’s cultural criticism. But Crouch understands that Bird was more than a gifted exponent of the Kansas City style, and that his inspiration arose from a hidden place that cannot be located on any map. Kansas City Lightning is about what Parker owed to his native city, but also about why he had to make his mark elsewhere.

The glories of Kansas City big-band jazz, which Crouch describes in lush detail, are well known. The formidable leaders of the “territory bands”—Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Walter Page, and others—all plied their trade there. They clashed with one another in fierce, joyful “cutting contests,” and sometimes raided one another’s bands for members. The more than fifty cabarets between 12th and 18th Streets provided an education for young black musicians barred from attending the city’s musical academies. The pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later took part in the bop revolution at Minton’s, remembered Kansas City as a “heavenly” place. It was also a sinner’s paradise, where sex was easily purchased and clubs were supplied with Pendergast’s own brand of whiskey. (When the temperance advocate Carrie Nation came to Kansas City, she was shown the door and told never to return.)

Take a Letter…

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Oh, this is good. The wonderful Letters of Note site has published a book.

The Big Crowd

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Our pal Kevin Baker’s new novel, The Big Crowd, was reviewed by Scott Turow yesterday in the Times:

The novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world. Most of the telling is through dialogue, and Baker’s re-creation of the cadences and diction of another time is impressive. Charlie is described as “a jake guy,” while Toots Shor says of a bet he’d like to make, “I could use the kale.” In anger, Tom barks “Nuts,” rather than the coarser language of today. And the hit men have the colorful nicknames of bygone times: Kid Twist, Cockeye Dunn, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.

Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. “A city like New York,” Charlie tells Tom, “it’s got to have great men — not good men — to run it. . . . We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.” Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters — cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on — who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly.

I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.

[Photo Credit: Mark Nadir]

Talkin’ the Talk

Elmore Leonard

Over at the New Yorker, Anthony Lane delivers the finest tribute to Dutch Leonard that I’ve come across so far:

Once you hear the Dutch accent you can’t get it out of your head, and for innumerable readers it became a siren song. I fell prey to it in the mid-eighties. Leonard had a breakout, with “Glitz” (1985), and it led many of us to raid the back catalogue with glee. Some of the books weren’t easy to get hold of, and the hunt only sharpened our zeal. A friend and I ravened through whatever we could lay hands on; there is a strange, barely sane satisfaction in happening upon an author—or a painter or a band—and making it your mission to consume everything that he, she, or they ever produced. You rarely succeed, yet the urge for completeness is a kind of love, doomed to be outgrown but not forgotten. I have often pursued the dead in that fashion, but Leonard may be the only living writer who spurred me to such a cause.

…One proof of literary genius, we might say, is a democratic generosity toward your mother tongue—the conviction that every part or particle of speech, be it e’er so humble, can be put to fruitful use. If that means trimming the indefinite article, leaving us with a Albanian and a oyster, so be it. Nothing need go to waste. Richard again, aiming at the formal locutions of a police report, and missing by yards: “I cruised the street and the street back of the residence, the residence being dark, not any light on, but which didn’t mean anything.” So much dumb-ass delusion in so little space, and the linguistic shortfall squares with an overriding sense, throughout the novels, that our grip on the world—and this goes for all of us, not just the chancers and the thugs—is never as secure or as enduring as we would like. Marriages crack like plates; one side of the tracks has no concept of life on the other side, though it may harbor a risky desire to find out; and words will not stay still. That is why the movies inspired by Leonard’s fiction (a slew of disasters plus the odd success, like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” and “Jackie Brown,” which was based on “Rum Punch”) struggle to match his equilibrium. The souls that he surveyed, even when they were played by George Clooney and John Travolta, were unquiet and fairly uncool. Leonard’s gaze was cool, but, in all honesty, it belonged in a book.

I’m curious what Leonard’s reputation will be in 40-50 years. He sold a lot of books in his time but was also a critical darling. Not many writers enjoy both kinds of success but he sure did.

[Photo Credit: AP]

Agee’s Hidden Treasure

Here’s John Jeremiah Sullivan on James Agee’s Cotton Tenants, a previously unpublished magazine story that would later turn into Agee’s acclaimed book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

BEFORE THE FAMOUS BOOK, there was the essay, the thing Agee and Evans were sent to Alabama for in the first place. It never got published. Agee wrote it at least twenty thousand words longer than Fortune wanted; he turned it in late; the rubric under which it was supposed to run was done away with by editorial higher-ups, etc., etc. Anyone who’s written for magazines will recognize the thousand mystifying in-house obstacles that doom so many pieces. The very manuscript of this was considered lost, until Agee’s middle child and younger daughter, Andrea, found it a decade ago, and The Baffler excerpted it last year. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, it exists in full, published by Melville House with the title Cotton Tenants.

It’s a very different creature from the book. More restrained. More disciplined, overall—perhaps it’s more correct to say, more confident. Cotton Tenants knows its form: the long, weird, quasi-essayistic, documentary-infused magazine piece, a form older than the novel, despite a heritable instinct in critics to continually be calling it New. Agee was pushing the form—that’s partly what makes it exciting to see and read this new book. He was pushing Luce, too, seeing what he could smuggle into Fortune, stylistically, in a Trojan-horse kind of way. Later, writing for himself and Evans, he was willing to go further.

The earlier constraints had both limiting and salutary effects. It’s a smaller, lesser work, but a more perfect one. Prose is like glass in this respect. The bigger you go, the more opportunities for cracks. We cut more ambitious works slack not out of pity but in just measurement. There are places, like pressures, to which you can’t go without a little weakening of the structure. Cotton Tenants is a smaller pane of glass. Very clear. You can see Agee’s influences, in bud form, but you can also see a couple of years’ practice at writing what William Hazlitt called “periodical essays,” pieces that existed under a certain pressure to keep the attention of distracted readers. Agee had become good at it.

 

Fit to Print

Here is the story of James Agee’s magazine piece for Fortune that never ran. The article was an early draft of Agee’s classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and is now being published as Cotten Tenants: Three Familes.

Photograph by Walker Evans.

In the Name of The Father

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, David Wolpe reviews Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart:

After James Atlas’s 2002 biography, widely panned, with its portrayal of an altogether unappealing philanderer, is there balm in Gilead?

“Our father was always easily angered, prone to argument, acutely sensitive, and palpably vulnerable to criticism.” Reading this sentence in Greg Bellow’s new memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart, one remembers the saying attributed to a French King, “I would rather be killed by my enemies than by my children.” Maybe we should have stuck with Atlas.

But Greg (permit me the first name, to distinguish from his father) has done something complicated and remarkable. He has spared none of the unsavory parts of his father’s character and still enabled us to understand why this man could generate, throughout his life, so much love. Greg expresses anger along the way — this book does not pull punches with the characters who moved through Bellow’s life — without the rancorous bitterness that suggests still unsettled reflections. Greg has opened his own heart. If there is any truth to the old adage that you judge a parent by the child, Greg is a testimonial.

[Photo Credit: Ann Street Studio]

House Calls

 

Go here to read some of the Good Doctor’s writing.

Coming Straight From the Underground

 

Here’s a nice appreciation of Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man by Malcolm Forbes:

Throughout his career, Ross Macdonald—the pen name of Kenneth Millar—was hailed as the true heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as master of the hardboiled mystery. But accolades beyond the reach of a genre writer still eluded him—until towards the end of his career, when he was finally acknowledged as not “only” a crime writer but a highly regarded American novelist. Macdonald subverted the genre by delivering the riddles and intricacies demanded of the crime novel in language that could be stark but also subtly nuanced and beautifully cadenced, while never slowing the requisite pace or diluting the excitement. In doing so he silenced those naysayers who had previously scoffed at the idea that the humble detective novel could possess any intrinsic literary worth. Praise finally came from both sides of the literary divide, with James Ellroy acknowledging his debt to Macdonald’s Lew Archer books and Eudora Welty lauding him as “a more serious and complex writer than Chandler and Hammett ever were.” Five of the gripping Lew Archer novels have just become part of the U.K. Penguin modern classics series. For many, this anointment is long overdue.

The Underground Man is the only Lew Archer mystery I’ve read. It’s enjoyable. The private eye helping out the lost hippie kids. Like Altman’s Marlow without the satire.

Mr. Popularity

Over at the New York Review of Books, here’s Joyce Carol Oates on the mystery of Charles Dickens:

Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Yet even its most exemplary practitioners are frequently left behind, like hunters on the trail of elusive prey, in the tracking of genius. Claire Tomalin’s biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of “the life” to “the art”—and what a perilous balancing act it is, in which, just barely, Dickens’s art isn’t lost amid a smothering welter of facts. “This may be more detail than one normally wants about anyone’s life,” Tomalin acknowledges. And indeed there is an inordinate amount of detail in this biography, particularly in regard to Dickens’s frantically busy social life, his scattered interests, and his grinding public career. (How many reading tours Dickens embarked upon before, finally, his “last farewell to the London reading public” in 1870! The reader begins to be as fatigued as Dickens.)

The problem with such assiduously recorded lives of great artists is that one is drawn to an interest in the artist’s life because of his or her accomplishments, primarily; the “life” in itself is of interest as it illuminates the work, but if the often banal details of the life detract from the work, the worth to the biography is questionable. Even an ordinary life, cataloged in every detail, will bloat to Brobdingnagian girth, distorting the human countenance. Only a very few encyclopedic biographers—Richard Ellman most illustriously, in his long yet never dull biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde in particular—transcend the weight of their material, and make of it an intellectual entertainment commensurate with its subject.

[Photo Credit: Cecilia Majzoub via Film is God]

The Duke in His Domain

 

Here’s John Schulian, writing about Jim Murray in the Wall Street Journal.

Jim Murray made the sports page seem as if it should have a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum. In the last four decades of the 20th century, he wrote four, five, even six columns a week, delivering one-liners faster than a stand-up comic with his pants on fire. Casey Stengel’s rambling oratory reminded him of “the sound a porpoise makes underwater and an Abyssinian rug merchant.” Louisville, he wrote, smelled like “a wet bar rag.” One look at boxing’s baleful Sonny Liston and Murray told readers, “you only hope it doesn’t bite.” Even when he railed against the carnage at the Indianapolis 500, there was a laugh, however dark, in his outrage: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”

He’d throw a change-up once in a while, something serious about racism or violence, and it was when deep pain entered his personal life that he wrote perhaps his best columns. Still, the Jim Murray I most loved to read was the one who wisecracked his way onto a stage made of newsprint. Sportswriters before him had dealt in humor—Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Ring Lardner and Ring’s boy John—but Murray played a different game entirely: Even when a joke tanked, you had to stick around because his next one would slay you.

You can order Ted Geltner’s new Murray biography, The Last King of the Sports Page, here. And if you’ve never read Rick Reilly’s 1986 bonus piece on Murray, check it out. 

Play it Again (and again and again)

Sometime in the late 1990s I read up on Jazz music. I went through a pile of books and my favorite overview came from Ted Gioia in his book The History of Jazz.

I thought about Gioia today when I read this review of his new book, The Jazz Standards, in The Los Angeles Times:

“The Jazz Standards” is an attempt to offer a kind of one-stop shop overview of the genre, looking not so much at the musicians as at the songs. An alphabetical survey of 252 classic pieces, it is to some extent an extrapolation of “The Real Book” — “the underground collection of jazz lead sheets that began circulating in the 1970s” that itself grew out of a series of “fake books,” bootleg compilations used by jazz players to work their way through the entire tradition. This history is fascinating, a reminder that jazz is at heart a vernacular medium in which the most essential skill for a musician may be the ability to think on his or her feet.

[Photo Credit: William Claxton]

It’s No Capital Crime

Ted Conover had a piece in the Times Magazine last week about a snitch. It was the latest impressive piece of work from Conover who has produced good articles for a long time.

A bunch of those stories can be found at Conover’s website, including this one: an appreciation of Dance With the Devil: The Rolling Stones & Their Times, by Stanley Booth:

He is strongest when writing about the music — the history of it, the business of it, and the experience of it. Booth’s believer’s passion results in all sorts of luminous insights into the enterprise: “The Stones’s show was not a concert but a ritual; their songs . . . were acts of violence, brief and incandescent.” And later, “Making love and death into songs was exactly the Stones’s business.” Booth tells a story in which “Each night we went someplace new and strange and yet similar to the place before, to hear the same men play the same songs to kids who all looked the same, and yet each night it was different, each night told us more.” He suggests that “In the sixties we believed in a myth — that music had the power to change people’s lives. Today people believe in a myth — that music is just entertainment.” He writes about what it was like backstage and what it was like in the audience, what it felt like when things really clicked and what it was like when they did not.

The backstage view is, of course, the main draw to a book like this, and Booth offers anecdotes intriguing, disgusting, and amusing. He writes about a comely woman in the studio audience during the taping of the The Ed Sullivan Show who does not succeed in getting taken advantage of: a minion picks a “big blond in buckskin” to visit the boys backstage instead. Booth writes of leaving the studio with a friend, “the pretty little girl in the brown outfit ahead of us, smiling, lucky to be left with her dreams.” He reports on how, a couple of days after a recording session, the Stones “made more money than they had ever made in one day by recording a television commercial for Rice Krispies . . . .” In one particularly delightful scene, Booth describes Jagger on his hotel bed after a concert, exhausted, eating Chinese food, and taking flack from others for his smelly socks:

Mick drew his feet up under him . . . and began talking to me about the future, where to live, what to do . . . . “I’ve got to find a place to live, got to think about the future, because obviously I can’t do this forever.” He rolled his eyes. “I mean, we’re so old —we’ve been going on for eight years and we can’t go on for another eight. I mean, if you can you will do, but I just can’t, I mean we’re so old — Bill’s thirty-three.”

 

Through the Park, Bitterman (You Know How I Love the Park)

Nice review in the Times today of “Central Park: An Anthology,” a collection of essays about our cherished park (edited by Andrew Blauner).

It’s a book worth having.

Here’s Buzz Bissinger’s piece, reprinted over at Slate.

[Photo Credit: Nataliemarie]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver