Our good pal Josh Wilker is interviewed in the New Yorker’s book blog:
At one point in the book, you write, “I have spent most of my adult life imagining and reimagining the past and now I never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened.” Could you elaborate a little on that? Did that make it easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods”?
I’ve written incessantly about the past for over two decades in any form I could manage—in notebook rantings, in poems, in letters, in essays, most recently in blog posts, and most extensively in fictional form. I am trying to get at certain emotional truths, I guess, and after a while any certainty I once had about how things actually occurred eroded. One thing I do remember for sure is that when I was a kid, I made a vow to myself to remember everything. But in trying to keep this vow I actually broke it, going over the same ground again and again until the ground had changed. It didn’t make it any easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods.” The challenge of the writing of the book was the same challenge I’d always faced, which was to try to get the thing to feel true. I wanted the details to be honest, as honest as I could manage, and I certainly didn’t fabricate anything that I know didn’t happen, if that makes any sense, but I know my memory is faulty and that it long ago became subservient to my ruinous and sustaining need to narrate.
The original “Mildred Pierce” is one of my wife’s favorite movies. If she’s ever feeling blue, that’s a go-to flick of cherce. I have to admit, it’s so stylish-looking and so juicy and melodramatic that it is hard to resist. Now, there is a new HBO mini-series based on James M. Cain’s novel. In the New Yorker, Hilton Als, breaks it all down:
By the late thirties, when Cain began to think about writing “Mildred Pierce,” his fourth novel—his third, the underappreciated “Serenade” (1937), was another first-person account of male alienation—life was dictating a new reality. (A five-part miniseries adapted from the book, and directed by Todd Haynes, will première on HBO on March 27th.) Cain had recently befriended a woman named Kate Cummings, who did perhaps more than anyone else to urge him toward a more sympathetic and complex view of women’s need for both conventionality and freedom. Cummings, the single mother of the actress Constance Cummings, had sacrificed her own prospects as a singer to get her daughter the training and the exposure she needed to become a star. What Cain saw of Kate’s life—and the nearly selfless love with which she made Constance’s career happen—may have jump-started his imagination. After creating two antiheroines, probably inspired by Hemingway’s view of woman-as-death, Cain paid homage to his friend’s indomitable spirit. He set out to explore what one of his characters would call “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support.” As he was writing, employing the third person and creating a female protagonist for the first time, Cummings stood over him, prodding him to revise whenever she felt that his perceptions of a working mother did not ring true. When “Mildred Pierce” was finally published, in 1941, Cain’s alternately stilted and full-bodied portrait of a striving woman was well received, but few reviewers noted the fact that the novel was also a study of a woman who, time after time, subjugates her own needs to those of her child.
I’m curious to see the HBO show but it’s not likely to replace the original in my heart.
Good looking to Long Form Reads for linking to Hilton Als’ 1999 New Yorker profile of Richard Pyror:
Pryor’s art defies the very definition of the word “order.” He based his style on digressions and riffs—the monologue as jam session. He reinvented standup, which until he developed his signature style, in 1971, had consisted largely of borscht-belt-style male comedians telling tales in the Jewish vernacular, regardless of their own religion or background. Pryor managed to make blacks interesting to audiences that were used to responding to a liberal Jewish sensibility—and, unlike some of his colored colleagues, he did so without “becoming” Jewish himself. (Dick Gregory, for example, was a political comedian in the tradition of Mort Sahl; Bill Cosby was a droll Jack Benny.) At the height of his career, Pryor never spoke purely in the complaint mode. He was often baffled by life’s complexities, but he rarely told my-wife-made-me-sleep-on-the-sofa jokes or did “bits” whose sole purpose was to “kill” an audience with a boffo punch line. Instead, he talked about characters—black street people, mostly. Because the life rhythm of a black junkie, say, implies a certain drift, Pryor’s stories did not have badda-bing conclusions. Instead, they were encapsulated in a physical attitude: each character was represented in Pryor’s walk, in his gestures—which always contained a kind of vicarious wonder at the lives he was enacting. Take, for instance, his sketch of a wino in Peoria, Illinois—Pryor’s hometown and the land of his imagination—as he encounters Dracula. In the voice of a Southern black man, down on his luck:
Hey man, say, nigger—you with the cape. . . . What’s your name, boy? Dracula? What kind of name is that for a nigger? Where you from, fool? Transylvania? I know where it is, nigger! You ain’t the smartest motherfucker in the world, even though you is the ugliest. Oh yeah, you a ugly motherfucker. Why you don’t get your teeth fixed, nigger? That shit hanging all out your mouth. Why you don’t get you an orthodontist? . . . This is 1975, boy. Get your shit together. What’s wrong with your natural? Got that dirt all in the back of your neck. You’s a filthy little motherfucker, too. You got to be home ’fore the sun come up? You ain’t lyin’, motherfucker. See your ass during the day, you liable to get arrested. You want to suck what? You some kind of freak, boy? . . . You ain’t suckin’ nothing here, junior.
Als contends that Pryor’s two greatest albums are “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and “Bicentennial Nigger.” I love the former but think the later is not nearly as good as “Is it Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert.” But I do think that Pryor at his peak reached a place that no comic has ever approached, before or since.
[Picture by Ken Taylor]
Used to be that no baseball season felt complete until Roger Angell’s piece appeared in the New Yorker. Mr. Angell just turned 90 but he’s still writing. However, I don’t know if we’ll get the usual piece, as Angell was blogging for the New Yorker during the post-season. My favorite bit came his final post–because he dug up a quote from one of his old pieces that I’ve been looking for, unsuccessfully, for years now:
Players have little awareness of fan angst, but I’ve not forgotten an amazing late-summer conversation I had with the iconic, forty-year-old Willie McCovey at Candlestick Park, in 1978, at a time when his contending Giants had just dropped five out of six games and were beginning a customary September slide toward oblivion.
“The fans sitting up there are helpless,” he said. “They can’t pick up a bat and come down and do something. Their only involvement is in how well you do. If you strike out or mess up out there, they feel they’ve done something wrong. You’re all they’ve got. The professional athlete knows there’s always another game or another year coming up. If he loses he swallows that bitter pill and comes back. It’s much harder for the fans.”
“The Social Network” is getting rave reviews. Check out this gusher from David Denby in The New Yorker:
“The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, rushes through a coruscating series of exhilarations and desolations, triumphs and betrayals, and ends with what feels like darkness closing in on an isolated soul. This brilliantly entertaining and emotionally wrenching movie is built around a melancholy paradox: in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, invents Facebook and eventually creates a five-hundred-million-strong network of “friends,” but Zuckerberg is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can’t stay close to anyone; he blows off his only real pal, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a fellow Jewish student at Harvard, who helps him launch the site. The movie is not a conventionally priggish tale of youthful innocence corrupted by riches; nor is it merely a sarcastic arrow shot into the heart of a poor little rich boy. Both themes are there, but the dramatic development of the material pushes beyond simplicities, and the portrait of Zuckerberg is many-sided and ambiguous; no two viewers will see him in quite the same way. The debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue. In this extraordinary collaboration, the portrait of Zuckerberg, I would guess, was produced by a happy tension, even an opposition, between the two men—a tug-of-war between Fincher’s gleeful appreciation of an outsider who overturns the social order and Sorkin’s old-fashioned, humanist distaste for electronic friend-making and a world of virtual emotions. The result is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place. “The Social Network” is shrewdly perceptive about such things as class, manners, ethics, and the emptying out of self that accompanies a genius’s absorption in his work. It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake.
The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”
These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?
I don’t know too much about Susan Orlean though I really enjoyed a profile she once wrote on Felipe Lopez. She appears to be a gifted, dedicated writer. I do know that she has a blog at the New Yorker and it’s worth checking out.
From a recent post:
There is nothing at all novel about the peculiar, ambient intimacy of social media if you have spent any time living in New York City. Life in Manhattan is like living inside a gigantic Twitter stream. What you get to know about people you don’t know simply by accidental adjacency is astonishing. For a few years, a guy who lived in the building across the street from me practiced piano every day in the nude. He had double-height windows in his apartment and had positioned the piano to take advantage of the nice western exposure, and would plop himself down every afternoon and begin his etudes wearing not one stitch of clothes. I had an unobstructed view of him from my living room. I wouldn’t have recognized him on the street and I didn’t know his name, but I knew him, or at least knew his body, and knew this odd habit of his. To put it in social-media terms, it was as if @weirdneighbor were tweeting, “I like playing piano in the nude. Whatever.” Because of the slant of the sun and the size of my windows, I don’t think he could see me, so our relationship, as it were, was less like Facebook, where the exchange is mutual, and more like Twitter: in other words, I was “following” him, but he wasn’t following me.
[Night Windows, By Edward Hopper (1928)]
Zuckerberg may seem like an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing. But that’s kind of the point. Zuckerberg’s business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display. The more that people are willing to put online, the more money his site can make from advertisers. Happily for him, and the prospects of his eventual fortune, his business interests align perfectly with his personal philosophy. In the bio section of his page, Zuckerberg writes simply, “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”
The world, it seems, is responding. The site is now the biggest social network in countries ranging from Indonesia to Colombia. Today, at least one out of every fourteen people in the world has a Facebook account. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is becoming the boy king of Silicon Valley. If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, Zuckerberg is named No. 1 in the magazine’s power ranking of the New Establishment, just ahead of Steve Jobs, the leadership of Google, and Rupert Murdoch. The magazine declared him “our new Caesar.”
Despite his goal of global openness, however, Zuckerberg remains a wary and private person. He doesn’t like to speak to the press, and he does so rarely. He also doesn’t seem to enjoy the public appearances that are increasingly requested of him. Backstage at an event at the Computer History Museum, in Silicon Valley, this summer, one of his interlocutors turned to Zuckerberg, minutes before they were to appear onstage, and said, “You don’t like doing these kinds of events very much, do you?” Zuckerberg replied with a terse “No,” then took a sip from his water bottle and looked off into the distance.
I missed this when it was first posted but it’s still worth noting–Roger Angell on Bob Sheppard:
Up in the pressbox, every night ends the same way. Herb Steier, a retired Times sports copy editor, comes to every game and sits motionless in the third row, his hands in front of him on the long table. He doesn’t keep score but watches the action intently, with bright, dark eyes. When the ninth inning comes, he gets up and stands by the railing behind the last row of writers, near the exit, and after the potential final batter of the game has been announced, Bob Sheppard, the ancient and elegant Hall of Fame announcer, comes out of his booth and stands next to him, with a book under his arm. (He reads novels or works of history between announcements.) Eddie Layton, the Stadium organist, is there, too, wearing a little skipper’s cap. Eddie has a private yacht—well, it’s a mini-tug, called Impulse—that he keeps on the Hudson, up near Tarrytown. He gets a limo ride to the Stadium most days from his apartment in Queens—it’s in his contract—and a nice lift home with Bob Sheppard and Herb Steier at night. Eddie and Bob Sheppard make a bet on every single Yankee game—the time of the game, the total number of base runners, number of pitches by bullpen pitchers, whatever—but won’t tell you which one of them is ahead. The stakes are steady: a penny a game.
Steier is Sheppard’s neighbor, out in Baldwin, Long Island, and he drives him to work every day and home again at its end; they’re old friends. Sheppard, a stylish fellow, is wearing an Argyle sweater and espadrilles tonight. This is his fiftieth year on the job at Yankee Stadium, and once in a while I ask him to enunciate a player’s name for me, just for the thrill of it. “ ‘Shi-ge-to-shi Ha-se-ga-wa,’ ” he’ll respond, ringing the vowels. It sounds like an airport.
The instant the last batter strikes out or pops up or grounds out Sheppard and Steier and Layton do an about-face and depart at a slow sprint. Out the door they go and turn right in the level corridor, still running. A few kids out there are already rocketing down the tilted runways. “Start spreadin’ the noooss…” comes blaring out from everywhere (the Yanks have won again), but Bob and Herb and Eddie have turned right again, into the quiet elevator lobby, where the nearer car awaits them, its door open. Down they go and out at street level, still at a careful run. Herb’s car, a beige 1995 Maxima, is in its regular slot in the team parking lot, just across the alley—the second car on the right. They’re in, they’re out, a left turn up the street, where they grab a right, jumping onto the Deegan, heading home. The cops there have the eastbound traffic stopped dead, waiting for Bob Sheppard: no one else in New York is allowed to make this turn. Two minutes, maybe two-twenty, after the game has ended and they’re gone, home free, the first of fifty thousand out of the building, every night.
I sat in the lobby of Yankee Stadium on the night of the final game back in September of 2008. Next to me was Herb Steier. I’d seen him before. He was always easy with a smile and a story. Sat through a game a year earlier talking to him, Richard Ben Cramer and Angell. When Rodriguez hit two home runs that day, Cramer was smiling and Steier had a twinkle in his eye (Cramer is writing a book about Alex Rodriguez).
Now, those eyes were sad. He was hunched over slightly as he told me how the Yankees were giving him a hard time about sitting in the pressbox now that Sheppard wasn’t working regularly anymore. I don’t know what he’s up to these days but Steier is good people. I hope he is well.
An American Master…
Interesting piece on Duke Ellington’s music and race in America by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker:
What did he feel about—what did he contribute to—the mire of American race relations during the last century? Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America” (Chicago; $40) attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. One of Ellington’s few confidantes, his sister, Ruth, believed that he concealed himself under “veil upon veil upon veil,” and Cohen is not the first Ellingtonian to treasure the smallest telltale sign of his subject’s human susceptibilities. There is, for example, an uncharacteristically angry letter to a white business associate with whom Ellington wished to break (which is nevertheless signed “with great respect,” and turns out not to have been sent). Cohen’s extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington—is not a standard biography; Ellington’s personal life and sexual mores are officially beyond its scope. Nor is it a critical work, since it contains no musical analysis and not a great deal of musical description. Cohen’s long hours in the Smithsonian’s huge trove of Ellington papers were devoted to the business records and the scrapbooks, and, as his title suggests, he has broad social issues on his mind. Even Ellington’s professional life is examined in circumscribed areas, almost all of which touch at some point upon race. The question is whether, sooner or later, everything did.
Early in the book, Cohen quotes Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn objecting to a movie project about Ellington that Strayhorn was told would have a racial theme. “I don’t think it should be racial because I don’t think he’s racial,” Strayhorn protested. “He is an individual.” But Strayhorn concluded, in a line of thinking that seems emblematic of the era and of the personalities involved, “You don’t have to say the darn thing.” Cohen keeps Ellington’s individuality firmly in sight, while detailing such targeted subjects as his relationship with Mills, the white man who has been lauded for launching Ellington’s career and—both before and after they split, in 1939—accused of exploitation; Ellington’s travels with his band in the harshly segregated South of the nineteen-thirties and forties; the overt, if often forgotten, racial programs of much of his music; and his sometimes contentious relationship with the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.
A different set of subjects—Ellington’s musical development, his band members, even his women—might have yielded something closer to the post-racial portrait for which Strayhorn argued, a portrait more in accord with the high personal horizon on which Ellington’s sights were set. But “the darn thing” will not go away, and race remains unsurprisingly essential to the story of America’s first widely recognized black artist, and of what he had to say.
Cartier-Bresson has the weakness of his strength: an Apollonian elevation that subjugates life to an order of things already known, if never so well seen. He said that the essence of his art was “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Too often, the “significance” feels platitudinous, even as its expression dazzles. Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans” (1958) treated subjects akin to many in the older photographer’s work, put it harshly but justly: “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” The problem of Cartier-Bresson’s art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news. He rendered a world that, set forth at MOMA by the museum’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart.
…The hallmark of Cartier-Bresson’s genius is less in what he photographed than in where he placed himself to photograph it, incorporating peculiarly eloquent backgrounds and surroundings.
I’m looking forward to seeing this one…