Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.
[Photo Credit: George Clinton]
Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.
[Photo Credit: George Clinton]
Offering: Live at Temple University offers further evidence of the catastrophe of the last phase of John Coltrane’s work. “Last” rather than “late” because he became ill and died too suddenly (on July 17, 1967), too early, to have properly entered a late period. He was forty. In any other field of activity that would be a desperately short life. Only in jazz could it be considered broadly in line with actuarial norms. So there’s no late phase in the accepted sense of Beethoven having arrived at a late style, only a sudden ceasing of the unceasing torrent of sound.
The interest of recordings from this final phase—in which Coltrane’s playing became increasingly frenzied and the accompaniment more abstracted—lies partly in what they preserve and partly in any hints they contain as to where Trane might have headed next. Given the composition titles from the last studio duets recorded with drummer Rashied Ali in February 1967—“Mars,” “Venus,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn”—and released posthumously on Interstellar Space, the question might reasonably be asked, where was there left to go?
This latest discovery—more exactly recovery since parts of the concert have circulated as poorly produced bootlegs—in the ongoing archaeological dig of Trane’s work was recorded in Philadelphia, on November 11, 1966. There’s a degree of irony about the date, Armistice Day, with its traditional Minute’s Silence, given the shrieking, screaming, and wildness—the ferocious anti-silence—of the music. Three of the concert’s six songs—“Crescent,” “Leo,” and “My Favorite Things”—are over twenty minutes each. Only the title track, a short and devastated ballad, offers respite from the extended wailing and overblowing.
[Photo Via: Photomusik]
Over at the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic gives us Spaghetti Lessons:
Italian restaurants produce not only epicures but also aspiring cooks. I bought cold cuts, cheeses, and olives for years in Italian groceries on Bleecker Street until one day I started cooking pasta, grilling sausages, and inviting friends over to my place on East 13th Street. In the 1950s and 1960s almost no one in literary circles knew how to cook, so these modest efforts of mine received extravagant praise. From then on, each time I tasted something in a restaurant, I’d wonder how it was made, what spices were used, and recollected other occasions when the same dish had come out differently. Now that I live in a village in New Hampshire, cooking Italian is a way of carrying on that comparative study. This may be a tautology, but a meal that does not cause an outpouring of memories is not a memorable meal. I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.
It is their unhurried air that makes most Italian restaurants congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion. You linger over a glass of red wine and a plate of cheese at the meal’s end, alone or in the company of friends, while the place empties. Outside, there may be the lights of Manhattan or the tugboats in Portsmouth harbor. The waiter or the owner may bring a grappa eventually to remind you of the lateness of the hour, but he does not rush you. When you finally get up and leave, it’s out of consideration for him, but also out of genuine panic that you might be crazy enough to ask for another bowl of pasta or some of that grilled squid on a bed of white beans you enjoyed so much.
If you’ve never read John O’Hara’s first novel, do yourself a favor. Penguin Classics has published a new edition of the book with an introduction by Charles McGrath, excerpted over at The New York Review of Books:
Originally published in 1934, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra is still the only American novel I know that begins with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex and on Christmas morning, no less. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”
Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”
The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of Appointment in Samarra—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph, taken from W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey (in which Death speaks of meeting a merchant in Samarra): an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself.
Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.
There are many dramatic events, throughout the volume, that illustrate Caro’s theme. I begin with one that could seem insignificant to those not knowing the background on both sides, because it shows that even the slightest brush between these two triggered rancorous inner explosions. Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.
Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.
When I was sixteen the Regency Theater on the Upper West Side ran a Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin-Woody Allen revival for a few months. That was my introduction to Buster and it was love at first sight. I adore Chaplin too but Buster speaks to me in a more direct, personal way.
There’s a wonderful article on Buster by Jana Prikryl in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. If you are not familiar with Buster, this here is a fine introduction:
More than fifty years have passed since critics rediscovered Buster Keaton and pronounced him the most “modern” silent film clown, a title he hasn’t shaken since. In his own day he was certainly famous but never commanded the wealth or popularity of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, and he suffered most when talkies arrived. It may be that later stars like Cary Grant and Paul Newman and Harrison Ford have made us more susceptible to Keaton’s model of offhand stoicism than his own audiences were. Seeking for his ghost is a fruitless business, though; for one thing, film comedy today has swung back toward the sappy, blatant slapstick that Keaton disdained. There’s some “irony” in what Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler do, but it’s irony that clamors to win the identification of the supposedly browbeaten everyman in every audience. Keaton took your average everyman and showed how majestically alone he was.
Very early in his movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t he realzie he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occured to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Starting tonight, the Film Forum is hosting The Best of Buster Keaton. They will be showing a Buster movie, along with a couple of two-reelers, every Monday for the rest of the summer. Tonight gives Buster’s first feature for MGM–and arguably, his last good movie: “The Cameraman.” It’s worth seeing on the big screen for many reasons (the pool scene), not the least of which is this gorgeous sequence filmed at the original Yankee Stadium.
In the New York Review of Books, Chess master Gary Kasparov reviews the new Bobby Fischer biography:
Fischer’s remarkable life and personality will surely produce countless more books, and probably movies and doctoral theses as well. But there is little doubt that none of the authors of those future works will be more qualified to write on Bobby Fischer than Frank Brady. A close acquaintance of the young Fischer, a “chess person,” as we call them, himself, as well as an experienced biographer, Brady also wrote the first and only substantive biographical book on him, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy (1965, revised edition 1973).
It is hard to imagine a more difficult subject than Bobby Fischer to present in an accurate and evenhanded fashion. He was a loner who trusted no one. His charisma attracted both starry-eyed sycophants and spiteful critics. Fischer had strong opinions of the kind that tend to create equally categorical sentiments in those who knew him—and in those who didn’t. He had a very small family and both his mother, Regina Fischer, and his only sibling—older sister Joan Targ—have passed away. Fischer’s general inaccessibility also led to countless rumors and outright lies about him, making the biographer’s task a challenge.
With all that in mind, Brady’s book is an impressive balancing act and a great accomplishment. Before even picking up the book there is no reason to doubt that Brady liked Bobby Fischer and that he has a friend’s as well as a fan’s rooting interest for the American chess hero. But there are few obvious traces of that in Endgame, which does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of Fischer’s character even while it does not attempt to judge or diagnose it. What results is a chance for the reader to weigh up the evidence and come to his own conclusions—or skip judgments completely and simply enjoy reading a rise-and-fall story that has more than a few affinities with Greek tragedy.
This is a lengthy piece but worth the time. Fascinating stuff.
Since the summer of 2007, when Mad Men premiered on the cable station AMC, the world it purports to depict—a lushly reimagined Madison Avenue in the 1960s, where sleekly suited, chain-smoking, hard-drinking advertising executives dream up ingeniously intuitive campaigns for cigarettes and bras and airlines while effortlessly bedding beautiful young women or whisking their Grace Kelly–lookalike wives off to business trips in Rome—has itself become the object of a kind of madness. I’m not even referring to the critical reception both in the US and abroad, which has been delirious: a recent and not atypical reference in the Times of London called it “one of the…best television series of all time,” and the show has repeatedly won the Emmy, the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Writers Guild of America Award, and the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Series. (A number of its cast members have been nominated in the various acting categories as well.) Rather, the way in which Mad Men has seemingly percolated into every corner of the popular culture—the children’s show Sesame Street has introduced a Mad Men parody, toned down, naturally, for its tender viewers—suggests that its appeal goes far beyond what dramatic satisfactions it might afford.
At first glance, this appeal seems to have a lot to do with the show’s much-discussed visual style—the crisp midcentury coolness of dress and decor. The clothing retailer Banana Republic, in partnership with the show’s creators, devised a nationwide window display campaign evoking the show’s distinctive 1960s look, and now offers a style guide to help consumers look more like the show’s characters. A nail polish company now offers a Mad Men–inspired line of colors; the toy maker Mattel has released dolls based on some of the show’s characters. Most intriguingly, to my mind, Brooks Brothers has partnered with the series’s costume designer to produce a limited edition Mad Men suit—which is, in turn, based on a Brooks Brothers design of the 1960s.
I’ve only seen a few episodes. I’ve talked to some people who say the show is spot-on; others say it is contrived.
What’s all the hubbub…bub?