I missed the dawn of Elvis. I was just a bit too young, only four years old in July, 1954, when the King recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” for Sun Records and, as Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “it was as if the nebulous, unformed kid was a genie let loose from a Coke bottle.” By the time I became aware of the world outside our family home in Chicago, Elvis was a major fixture in the American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was already established. I heard stories of how shocking Presley had been, arriving on the scene, but that was old news. He was a name, like Ike and like Mickey Mantle, that everyone knew. He was — in that alchemy of celebrity — part of my life and the lives of everyone else. Mason’s short biography Elvis Presley, part of the Penguin Lives series, was sort of remedial reading for me. Mason, a Southerner, is a novelist and short story writer, and she spends her book looking at how it felt like Elvis, how he arose out of the fabric of the South, how his personality was formed by poverty and crushed by the expectations his talent and success […]
There is, in a meandering way, a story here. But Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid isn’t really about story. Like all his other stuff, it’s about people. In this case, it’s people revolving around the youthful U.S. Marshall Carlos (Carl) Webster, the “hot kid” of the title, who has gained renown by tracking down violent miscreants and taking them in — or, more usually, taking them down, outdrawing them. Here are some descriptions of characters, and one place, and one politician, from the book. If you find them interesting, then you’ll like this book. If not, you might want to pick up a sense of humor somewhere. Virgil and Narcissa Virgil Webster was forty-seven years old, a widower since Garciaplena died in ought-six giving him Carlos and requiring Virgil to look for a woman to nurse the child. He found Narcissa Raincrow, sixteen, a pretty little Creek girl related to Johnson Raincrow, deceased, an outlaw so threatening that peace officers shot him while he was sleeping. Narcissa had lost her own child giving birth, wasn’t married, and Virgil hired her on as a wet nurse. By the time little Carlos had lost interest in her breasts. Virgil had acquired […]
Look at these three portraits: Look at the eyes of Georgia O’Keefe in Paul Strand’s photograph. Leave aside the fact that she was a great 20th century artist. Leave aside the composition of the picture. Can you avoid looking at her eyes? They jar. They unsettle. The Robert Frank photograph of John F. Kennedy, taken in 1956 after JFK’s losing effort to win the Democratic nomination for Vice President, literally turns the idea of portraiture on its head. The image of Kennedy’s face is deeply woven into the American and world consciousness. Yet, with this picture, Frank makes us see the assassinated president anew. (It also hints at tantalizing “what ifs” of history.) Then there is a goofy-looking, goofy-posing George Armstrong Custer in this ambrotype taken during his years at the West Point Military Academy, probably in 1859. You’d never know it was Custer since he doesn’t have his thick, shaggy moustache nor his long flowing blond hair. But, in this image, doesn’t Custer give a sense of the man who would become the fame-monger who would die, through his own stupidity, at the Battle of Little Big Horn? An American face? These three images are from Americans, a […]
It was almost 40 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, prowling around the cramped and labyrinthine aisles of a bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago, a couple blocks south of Diversey Boulevard. And, there on one of the rows of paperback fiction, I saw a title that caught my eye, Now Playing at Canterbury. It was by Vance Bourjaily, a major American writer whose star, by this time, was starting to set as literary fashions moved along to the Great Next. Now Playing at Canterbury was his wildly inventive modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I loved it. Then, I came across The Violated, his 1958 book about four friends whose lives are twisted and snarled in the aftermath of World War II. It knocked me off my feet. Over the years, I read everything I could of his. He was, and remains, my favorite author. I even had the chance to review his last published novel, Old Soldier, for the Chicago Tribune. In print That was a quarter of a century ago, and, in the meantime, all of his books went out of print. Until now. Finally, nearly five years after his death at the age of […]
I’ve known David Axelrod for more than 30 years. We were colleagues as reporters at the Chicago Tribune. Then, after he moved across the street to become a political operative instead of a political reporter, I would bump into him now and again as I covered various stories. Then, in 2008, he was the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s first presidential run, and I was assigned to do a profile of him. My 4,600-word article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine was titled “The Agony and the Agony,” an allusion to Axelrod’s constant fear of failure, even in the midst of great triumph, the inner engine that drove his frenetic pace…and pacing. Now, here’s his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. Spin As a reporter, I hated to interview Axelrod because of his ability as a spin doctor. So I found it interesting that, in Believer, he mentions the word “spin” only six times.
There is much to admire in Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013), but I had my problems with it. What I especially liked about the book was how, at various points in the narrative, Anderson would step back and explain or put into perspective something that other authors tended to just take as a given. Or were too lazy to look into A good example is his description of how it feels to ride a camel. I’m not sure how many books about World War I hero Thomas Edward Lawrence or about the Middle East in general ever get around to doing this, but I’d bet it’s few, if any. In the midst of recounting Lawrence’s return to the Arabian desert and to camel-riding after two years behind a desk, Anderson mentions “the grinding physical discomfort” that the British officer had to endure. And then he elaborates: Since its pronounced and narrow spine lies just below the skin, riding a camel is a wholly different experience from riding a horse, more akin to sitting atop a swaying metal rod. Even the best Bedouin saddle – little more than […]
Robin Gibson’s book The Portrait Now was published in connection with an exhibition of the same name, organized by Gibson, on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London from November 19, 1993 to February, 6, 1994. It’s an elegantly produced, compact book that is itself a beautiful object, featuring images of 64 paintings, sculptures and other works with a modicum on useful, helpful commentary. Most of the artists are British, as are most of the subjects. That may be part of the reason many of the pieces here didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t know the backstory. Still, the impact of art shouldn’t depend on what a viewer “knows” about the subject and/or the artist. Another problem for me was the small, flat format which made the works all about the same size, far from how they would be experienced in a gallery — and made it especially hard to take in sculptures. Still, Gibson and the National Portrait Gallery went to great pains to present three-dimensional pieces well-lighted and –framed and all the art in rich, accurate color. No, my difficulties were more rooted in my inability or maybe laziness to decipher the messages or statements the artists […]
In Turner, his short biography of Joseph Mallard William Turner, Peter Ackroyd tells of a visit the 19th century British painter made to the estate of his patron and friend Walter Fawkes. Fawkes later recalled that he asked Turner to draw a man-of-war and he began by pouring wet paint till [the paper] was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos — but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutiae, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph. That, Ackroyd writes, was a fitting description of Turner’s method and talent: The emergence of form out of chaos, the man-of-war emerging mysteriously from a mist of color…He created a dynamic and fluid space in which to work, quite unlike the more rigidly defined ground of previous artists. His tactile sense of creating shape and form — scratching and scrubbing as if he were dealing with some recalcitrant material — gives his work a texture of inspired improvisation and magical creation.
Psychiatrist Irv Yalom is 83. I call him Irv because that’s what he asks his psychiatric patients to call him. I picture him as a sprightly firecracker of a guy, tooling around San Francisco on his bicycle, stopping into the City Lights bookstore near his office and trading deep and witty thoughts with 95-year-old poet-painter-activist Lawrence Ferlighetti. I also have the fantasy that, at some time, somewhere, Yalom ran into and became friendly with Sherwin B. Nuland before Nuland’s death last March at the age of 83. It’s a fanciful thought. These two great souls lived across the country from each other. Yet, they seem to have shared common interests. Nuland is best known for his 1993 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. It’s a transcendently life-affirming work that looks at the mechanics of the human body and the ways the body — our body — breaks down. Its message: Life has an end so live it to the full. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy sends the same message but from a different perspective. Whereas Nuland looked at physical things (blood, muscles, cancer, the heart and so on), Yalom deals […]
Sometimes, a piece of clothing or an aspect of fashion has a very specific meaning. In her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie notes that British officials, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, regarded green clothing as “a serious, even fatal, political act.” In fact, a popular song of the time mourned that they were “hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.” In Scotland, earlier in the 18th century, to don a clan tartan was to make a similar political statement, and the practice was banned by an Act of the British Parliament. Around the same time, a beauty patch was a clear signal of the party allegiance of an English lady (and her husband or father). If she were a Whig, she wore it on her right cheek. A Tory, on the left. A century earlier, the hair length of men had been the measure. Royalists wore their hair long, as in Catholic France. Puritans, by contrast, were closely cropped and were called Roundheads. Similarly, in 1960s America, the anti-Establishment young men let their hair grow and were called longhairs. Those backing the powers-that-be had crew cuts. Most often, though, the language of clothing […]
For the North, the goal of the Civil War was to reunite the nation. That’s how Abraham Lincoln defined it and why the northern states rallied behind the effort. Yet, the question of abolishing slavery was always somewhere in the discussion. Many northerners saw it as another, even more important goal of the conflict. Others, though, because of racism or fear of labor competition from free blacks, wanted nothing to do with abolition. Although personally long opposed to slavery, Lincoln knew as a politician that he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Eventually, he was able to sell abolition to the North as a weapon to cripple the war-making ability of the Confederacy. The result was the Emancipation Proclamation. To get to this point, though, Lincoln had to do what American leaders have always had to do, i.e., shape and shift public opinion step by subtle step. A key moment in that sales job came in August, 1862, when, in a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the President wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I […]
Many of the books of the Bible are like Hollywood musicals. In Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, the narrative unfolds as characters interact, and, every once in a while, someone breaks into song, such as Tevye with “If I Were a Rich Man.” The same sort of thing happens in the Bible. The author of, say, Judith or Daniel or the Book of Revelations uses prose to tell stories or transmit teachings. But, at various points, the exposition is interrupted as one character or a bunch of people launch forth in a poetic prayer, called a canticle. Many of canticles were originally hymns. On the page in the Bible, they became poems. And, frequently, these poems have been turned back into hymns for use in religious services. That’s one of the purposes of this translation of 55 of the Bible’s many canticles, published in 1996 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, as well as a similar edition of the Psalms, issued in 1995. The translators wanted to find words and phrases that accurately reflected the original text and were easy to sing. They also wanted to make the language as inclusive as possible. For instance, they […]
On the cover of the University of Texas Press edition of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel The Gay Place is a blurb by David Halberstam: There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King’s Men…..the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson. That’s high praise, especially coming from the author of The Best and the Brightest and nearly two dozen other widely respected books. I can’t agree.
In Terry Pratchett’s 2011 Discworld novel Snuff, Young Sam Vimes has become very interested in poo. Mainly, this is because Young Sam is six. It’s also because the only son of Sam Vimes, the commander of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, is on a visit to his parents’ country home where, throughout the grounds and nearby fields, interesting varieties of excrement abound. And because, each night, his father (grudgingly) reads to him from a book by Young Sam’s favorite writer, Miss Felicity Beedle, called The World of Poo. (Vimes doesn’t find all the verbal mucking about very enjoyable, but parenthood requires some sacrifices.) Young Sam and his family live on the Discworld, the subject of 40 novels by Pratchett as well as ancillary works produced with the help of collaborators The Discworld, where technology has reached the equivalent of Victorian times on Earth, isn’t a ball, like Earth. But a flat disc — like a huge DVD — covered with mountains, rivers, plains, oceans, six-year-olds and poo, among other items, resting atop the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on the back of Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle,…and flying through space. Pratchett has used Discworld as a vehicle to wittily […]
In Sicily in the late 19th century, the Socialists who went out into the rural areas to organize the peasants were hard-headed men. Their aims were economic, and their demands were very specific. Not so for the peasants. In rebelling against the oppression of landowners and the government, they were millennial in approach. Their hope was for a just and perfect world, a sort of heaven on earth. Their aims, as summarized by Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, were simple: All should work. There should be neither rich nor poor. All should be equal. There should be no need to divide estates and houses. All should be put in common and the income should be justly distributed. This would not give rise to quarrels or selfishness because there would be brotherhood…and those who broke brotherhood would be punished. These peasants, like most of the “primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s book, were pre-political. Their world was changing and had changed, but they didn’t have the intellectual framework with which to understand that change and respond to it. They had been living an essentially medieval life, centered on their village, with rights, responsibilities and power dynamics that […]
As I wrote in Sunday’s Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune, psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death. In ten short chapters, each of which, for the most part, deals with a single client, the fear of the end of life is often hidden in seemingly unrelated behaviors and thoughts. It’s Yalom’s skill as a therapist as well as the hard work and vulnerability of his patients that gets beyond those initial symptoms to the deeper causes of personal unrest and unhappiness. In Creatures of a Day, Irvin D. Yalom is up-front about many of his techniques as a psychotherapist. This is likely to be of great help to other therapists, particularly those new to the field. Even more, these methods can be used by people in therapy and those who are simply trying to examine and improve their lives. They’re various strategies for going deeper and facing essential truths and challenges. Here are some: • Being there: “The most valuable thing I have to offer is my sheer […]
Back in 1905, Albert Einstein promulgated his relativity theory. One wrinkle had to do with how time would be experienced by someone on Earth as compared with someone else traveling in a rocket ship at near the speed of light. Twins, say. I can’t claim to understand the mathematics or physics, but the idea is that time would be slowed down for the one in a rocket ship — to the extent that, on his return to Earth, he would find his twin much, much older than himself. In his 1956 book Time for the Stars, Robert A. Heinlein took that theory and ran with it. And ran with a lot of other stuff as well, including telepathy, the search for Earth-like planets, the strategies of family dynamics, psychosomatic injuries, the psychology of siblings, the nature of life on other worlds and the meaning of “alien.” “How does it feel to be a little green man in a flying saucer,” says one character as a ship from Earth prepares to land on a newfound world. “What?” “An oofoe. We’re an oofoe, do you realize that?” “I suppose we are a U.F.O, sort of.” No “sort of” about it. Heinlein understood […]
There are travel books, and then there are travel books. One sort, such as Fodor’s, is jammed with facts about hotels, trains, battlefields, subways, mileage, restaurants, museums, exchange rates, airports, safety tips, trails, cathedrals, stadiums, cruises, tours, shopping…. You use this sort when you are going to a place as a tourist, and it functions as a handy, cleverly packaged, compact database to help you maneuver around. The other type of travel book — such as Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island — isn’t about taking a journey yourself. It’s about going along for the ride without ever leaving home. And what’s really curious is that it really isn’t so much about the place that’s being visited. It’s about hanging out with someone who is interesting, thoughtful, funny and alert. That’s Bryson. Cringe-producing moments Certainly, no travel companion is perfect, and Bryson is smart enough as a writer to include a few cringe-producing moments like those that happen on any trip. In Edinburgh, for instance, a “spotty young man” behind the counter at McDonald’s takes his order and then asks, “Do you want an apple turnover with that?” Bryson, who describes himself at this point as “fractious and […]
Jim Crace has said that his 2013 book Harvest will be his last novel. It’s not that he’s going to stop writing. He promises more books of other sorts but not another novel. We’ll see. It would be a loss for readers. No novelist creates a world with quite the same intensity and tangibility as Crace does. The forces of Nature and their impact on human beings are always at the heart of his fiction. And so it is with Harvest. It is set in an obscure corner of England in the 17th century — on the Jordan Estate, also called the Property of Edmund Jordan, a manor house, a barn, a dovecote and a cluster of cottages amid farm fields, hills and a forest. The place has no name as Walter Thirsk tells a visitor: “It’s just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.” Walt, the narrator of this tale, is a middle man, as even his name suggests. (One loutish character giggles with great glee when he realizes that Walt’s name sounds like “Water” and “Thirst.” Ha, ha.) Walt was born in a town and grew up with Master Charles Kent as his boyhood playmate. Indeed, they […]
The five blind men and women lived in the attic room in a rundown tenement in New York City in the late 1800s, and Jacob A. Riis was there to take their photograph. But Riis was clumsy, and the technique of flash-lit photography was new and still imperfect. And he ended up setting the paper and rags hanging on one wall ablaze. It was a tragedy in the making. Not only were the other five people in the room blind, but so was nearly everyone else living in the building. “The thought: How were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall,” Riis later wrote, “and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help.” Instead, with great effort, he was able to smother the fire himself. Afterward, when I came down to the street, I told a policeman of my trouble. For some reason he thought it rather a good joke and laughed immoderately at my concern lest even then sparks should be burrowing in the rotten wall that might yet break out in flame and destroy the house with all that were […]
There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book. In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary. If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends. The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options. But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty. Common humanity How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His […]
Westerns move toward the mythic, but they end up simply formulaic unless they’re peopled by living, breathing characters. Initially, the mythic underpinning of western films and books was good guys versus bad guys — white hats versus black hats, Us versus Them, Good versus Evil. Then, starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the trend was toward a muddier moral landscape. We’re as bad as them. The good guys were as bad as the bad guys — or, as in the Wild Bunch, they were the bad guys, just bad guys who weren’t as bad as the really bad guys. Related to this shift was another trend. It arose during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, when men and women on the margins — African-Americans, Hispanics, prostitutes, for instance — took center stage. These movies bet that mainstream audiences, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, could identify with such heroes, and, generally, they did. (After all, Native American boys had long identified with the cowboys in movie westerns.) The story of Valdez in movie and book brought these trends together, and populated the mythic structure with real people.
A character in Elmore Leonard’s 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room is wondering when he should draw a handgun, hidden in the cushions of a sofa, and shoot it out with this guy pointing a burp gun at him. His inner dialogue goes this way: All right, when? When you’re positive he’s gonna shoot. You’re serious? This guy put on his best dress and makeup and brings along a machine gun and you aren’t sure he wants to kill you? This scene comes very late in the novel, and the reader, by then, knows why the guy holding the burp gun is in a dress and why he’s pointing it at two men and a woman (the titular Honey) sitting cheek to jowl, so to speak, on a coach in her fourth-floor apartment (the titular room). And why those three are nude. And who that other woman is, the one standing off to the side with a Luger in her hand. Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, produced 48 novels in his long career, many of them great. Up in Honey’s Room, his 45th, isn’t great. Leonard was in his early 80s when he wrote it, […]
Nearly half a century ago, The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester was published to several decidedly negative reviews. The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wasn’t sure, after going through the book’s 833 pages of text, whether Manchester saw the Krupp family as fierce patriots or whores in their service to the Fatherland over two centuries of armament development and sales. The writing, according to the review, was, at times, leaden and, at other times, afflicted with pedantry. Historian Alistair Horne complained in the New York Times that the book had many inaccuracies and was tainted by Manchester’s “visceral, anti-Germanism” as well as his “passion and prejudice.” Horne was unclear if the author believed that the final “sole proprietor” of the Krupp firm, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was really guilty of war crimes. Was Alfried responsible for the Krupp firm’s brutal use of 100,000 slave laborers from the conquered eastern nations and from the Third Reich’s concentration camps for Jews? Was he guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of those people and even their babies? Horne wasn’t sure where Manchester stood. In another New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserted: There are three basic kinds of […]
Sometimes, when he was younger, Robert A. Heinlein would speculate in his stories and novels about the science of space travel, and that could get a bit wonky. Sometimes, when he was older and had had wide success, he would fill his fiction with bombast about how humans should live, and that could get tedious. In The Green Hills of Earth, Heinlein does what he does best — writes about that endlessly mysterious and endlessly curious thing called human nature. The Green Hills of Earth is a 1951 collection of nine short stories and a novella, originally published during the previous decade. Here, there’s not much discussion of space hardware or theoretical physics. People are people, albeit in alien settings or in exotic circumstances. “Nothing new” The novella “The Logic of Empire” is set mainly on the harsh landscape of Venus (which seems very much like equatorial Earth, except hotter and muggier), but the subject is one that has been an aspect of human society from the beginning — slavery. Through a series of unexpected events, lawyer Humphrey Wingate finds himself as a labor client on the second planet from the sun, which is to say that, since there […]