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Tag: dwight garner

Put the Needle to the Groove


Peter Guralnick’s new biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, looks promising.

From Dwight Garner’s review in the Times:

Phillips was ahead of his time. So-called race records were selling in the early 1950s, but not widely. The singles he recorded in Memphis weren’t moving. He was in danger of going out of business. When the mystery train that was Presley came around the bend, he was not too stupid to climb aboard.

It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider how lucky it was that Presley walked into Phillips’s studio and not someone else’s. Another producer (that term had not yet come into use in the record industry) might have put him to work singing country-pop ditties with string sections. He might have been another Eddy Arnold.

Phillips already had an aesthetic ethos. In some ways, he had prepared his whole life for Elvis’s arrival. Part of Phillips’s ethos, Mr. Guralnick writes, was his “sense that there were all these people of little education and even less social standing, both black and white, who had so much to say but were prohibited from saying it.”

And here’s Louis Menand in the New Yorker:

“We Record Anything—Anywhere—Anytime” was the slogan. This meant a lot of church services, weddings, and funerals, but Phillips’s dream, the reason that he set up the studio, was to have a place where any aspiring musician could come in and try out, no questions asked. Phillips would listen and offer suggestions and encouragement. If he liked what he heard, he would record it. For a fee, the performer could cut his or her own record.

Phillips was extremely good at this. He was patient with the musicians; he was adept with the technology; above all, he was supportive. He hated formulas. He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different. The pop sound in 1950 was smooth and harmonic. Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic. Word got around, and musicians no one else would record started turning up at the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips got them to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.

Family Portrait


Here’s Dwight Garner on Sally Mann’s memoir:

There aren’t many important memoirs by American photographers. I wish especially that, along with Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, Walker Evans had left one behind. How good was Evans’s prose? He once described James Agee’s sartorial style as “knowingly comical inverted dandyism.” He added: “wind, rain, work and mockery were his tailors.”

I held Evans’s writing in mind while reading “Hold Still,” the photographer Sally Mann’s weird, intense and uncommonly beautiful new memoir. Ms. Mann has got Evans’s gift for fine and offbeat declaration. She’s also led a big Southern-bohemian life, rich with incident. Or maybe it only seems rich with incident because of an old maxim that still holds: Stories happen only to people who can tell them.

…Her writing about “Immediate Family” is only one of many reasons to read this memoir. “Hold Still” is a cerebral and discursive book about the South and about family and about making art that has some of the probity of Flannery O’Connor’s nonfiction collection “Mystery and Manners” yet is spiked with the wildness and plain talk of Mary Karr’s best work. Like the young Ms. Karr, Ms. Mann was a scrappy, troublemaking tomboy, one who grew into a scrappy, troublemaking, impossible-to-ignore young woman and artist.

The details in “Hold Still” nail Ms. Mann’s sentences to the wall. She describes being dropped off after a date, for example, emerging from some boy’s El Camino and walking into the house to confront her parents. “My hair, trailing bobby pins, would be matted and tendriled against my hickey-spotted neck, and the skirt of my dress would be wrinkled, the taupe toes of pantyhose peeking out from my purse,” she writes. “My swollen lips were now a natural, chapped red, and my cheeks blushed with beard burn.” Taupe toes of pantyhose. It’s been a while since I’ve read a phrase that good, even in poetry.

I’m sold.

Fail Better


Langdon Hammer, the chairman of the English Department at Yale, is the author of a new biography on the poet James Merrill. It looks like a formidable book and in the Times, Dwight Garner calls it “nearly flawless.”

I’m sure the book is an achievement and I’m not interested in minimizing that but I really like what Garner says here:

Mr. Hammer’s book is something close to brilliant, but it would have benefitted from committed liposuction. Its “Shoah”-like length will repel many casual readers, and likely even noncasual ones. While this book is not stuffed with sawdust, 800 pages is a lot of James Merrill, and its girth is admission of a certain kind of failure. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to add.

Picture by Giorgio Morandi.

Deep Dish


Another week, more fun book reviews by Dwight Garner at the Times. I remember enjoying when Ruth Reichl wrote restaurant reviews for the paper. I wasn’t interested in going to fancy restaurants I just enjoyed reading her. I feel the same about Garner, although sometimes I do want to read what he’s reviewing–I just like reading him.

Here he is on pair of celebrity memoirs. The first, Yes, Please, comes from the comedienne Amy Poehler:

Amy Poehler’s memoirish book is titled “Yes Please,” as in Bring it on, but its tone is more “No, Really, Make This Stop,” as in Get me out of here.

Composing “Yes Please” was a burden, this gifted comic actress says, that she shouldn’t have shouldered. “I had no business agreeing to write this book,” she declares in a preface, pleading a hectic existence: young sons, new projects, a recent divorce, a new love. What’s it been like to write “Yes Please”? “It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

…Ms. Poehler’s slow drip of gripes (“Dear Lord, when will I finish this book?”) breaks Rule No. 1 about comedy and about writing: Never let them see you sweat. Her persecuted mood is airborne and contagious. Reading “Yes Please” is not like hacking away at a freezer. It’s like having the frosty and jagged contents dumped in your lap.

The second, A Curious Career, comes from the British journalist, Lynn Barber, who is famous for her interviews withe celebrities:

Ms. Barber’s interviews are prized because of her ability to seize on a telling detail, and to not let go even if clubbed with a stick.

“I do believe that detail is everything,“ she says. “Detail is evidence. When I interviewed the novelist Lionel Shriver, she obviously thought I was mad to keep asking about her central heating. But I was trying to nail my hunch that she was frugal and ascetic to the point of masochism, and I needed the evidence — which indeed she delivered. She told me that she prefers to wear a coat and gloves indoors rather than have the heating on, even though she suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which means her hands and feet are always cold, and she will only let her husband switch the heating on if it is actually freezing outside, but not until 7 p.m.”


Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!


Dwight Garner reviews The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lapore. He writes that is is “a long, strange thing to chew on”:

On the one hand, the story it relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It’s a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

Not Fade Away

Dwight Garner profiles John Le Carre in the Times:

Yet John le Carré’s greatest invention is easily John le Carré himself. Born in 1931 in Poole, a sprawling coastal town in Dorset, he is a product of a childhood both unusual and enviable — if you happen to be a writer. It made him suspicious of charm of any sort and gave him a limitless fascination with humans and their secrets.

Le Carré, as most of his fans know, is a son of a great, debonair English con man. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, born into mundane middle-class life, remade himself into a funny, gracious man who found that he could talk anyone out of anything, and did so. He was friendly with the Kray twins, the notorious and photogenic London gangsters. He was jailed for insurance fraud. He always, le Carré said, had a scam or two in the works.

“In his high days, he had a racehorse at Maisons-Lafitte outside Paris, and dancing girls, and he’d go whizzing off to Monte Carlo with the former lord mayor of London to stay in grand style at the Hotel de Paris,” le Carré said. “His social rise was extraordinary.” When things went badly, le Carré recalls, “not only were the police looking for him, but the boys were. We had to put the cars behind the house, keep the lights out and so on.”

Le Carré likes to cite a passage from the autobiography of Colin Clark, the son of the art collector Lord Clark, who wrote about what it was like to be taken in by le Carré’s father: “He was your favorite uncle, your family doctor, Bob Boothby and Father Christmas rolled into one.” He could, Clark wrote, “fix anything” and did. “Ronnie invited me to Royal Ascot and gave me a few good dinners. Then he showed me a piece of derelict property, which he did not own, promised to double my money in three months and took the lot.”


Hammer of the Gods

From Dwight Garner’s review of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron:

Mr. Bryant’s book can be read as a companion piece, and a reply of sorts, to “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” the recent biography by James S. Hirsch. These two ballplayers were both born in Alabama during the Great Depression (Mays in 1931, Aaron three years later), and both were among the last Hall of Famers to have played in the Negro Leagues. Their years on the field overlapped almost exactly. But they could not have been more different as personalities. Mays was joyous and electric, on the field and off, while Aaron was introverted, sometimes painfully so. They became lifelong, if low-key, antagonists.

Mr. Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN magazine, quotes the sportscaster Bob Costas as remarking, about Mays, that we “associate him with fun” and remember him with fondness. With Aaron, he added, “it is all about respect.” That quotation lingers like wood smoke over “The Last Hero.” These biographies of Mays and Aaron, taken together, are a striking and elegiac assessment of race relations in America during the 20th century. They are elegant portraits, as well, of two different ways of being a man. Wrap them both up for the 14-year-old in your life. The volume that’ll be left standing when the major book awards are handed out, though, is Mr. Bryant’s, I suspect. His is the brawny one, the one with serious and complicated swat.

…Aaron is clearly a hard man to get to know, and I’m not sure Mr. Bryant entirely does. His life off the field is detailed haphazardly: his two marriages, his children, his passions. His own words, quoted here, are mostly unmemorable. But “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” had the forceful sweep of a well-struck essay as much as that of a first-rate biography. In an era in which home runs are now a discredited commodity, Henry Aaron looms larger than ever: a nation has returned its lonely eyes to him.

[Photo Credit: Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts]

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