La mejor carta de Cuba libro

20 Dec

The announcement this week that the Obama Administration’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba was,with the exception of the usual pathological reactions by the Know-Nothing party and its flying monkeys, greeted with jubilation and hosannahs. And a number commentators offered to catch up curious readers with lists of Cuban books. Thus, I feel compelled to offer my own primer on Cuban culture

John Williams, a New York Times writer put together a useful list which is a good place to start:

“Telex From Cuba” by Rachel Kushner
“Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba” by Tom Miller
“The Man Who Loved Dogs” by Leonardo Padura
“Dancing With Cuba” by Alma Guillermoprieto
“Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten
“Cobra” and “Maitreya” by Severo Sarduy
“Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire
“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
“Before Night Falls” by Reinaldo Arenas
“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina García
“Paradiso” by José Lezama Lima
“Explosion in a Cathedral”by Alejo Carpentier
“Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba: Or the Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas

This is the original seminal comprehensive survey of Cuban history from pre-Columbian innocence to Spanish conquest to American annexation to the revolutionary present.

Fidel By Tad Szluc

Fidel By Tad Szluc

Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Tad Szluc

Any book list would be incomplete with out a book on Fidel. Szluc’s biography is useful and unadorned and it only suffers from the burden that afflicts most stories of person’s life, there is too much information.

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes (a novel)

Journalist Fuentes was once a revolutionary and a member of Fidel’s inner circle. As such things happen, he came a persona non grata,fleeing from a death sentence. This fiction closely adheres to the facts but is presented in Castro’s bombastic, megalomaniacal style voice (familiar for his endless hours long orations)

Mea Cuba by  Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Guillermo Cabrera Infante exiled in 1965, an important figure in the cultural battles that took place under the Triumph of the Revolution,was the quintessential Cuban man of letters and his Mea Cuba, a collection of prose miscellany, showcases his wry wit, penchant for puns, and encyclopedic overview of Cuban literary culture.This anthology is rife with the narratives about those battles its belligerents told by a gifted storyteller.I interviewed him in 1995.Here’s a snippet of that chat:

RB: Why do you write?

GCI…I was a very keen reader which I’m not anymore. So there was a book called El Senor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias[Nobel Prize winner] a Guatemalan writer…it was all the rage in 1947. A friend of mine told me about it and there was an article in a magazine and there were excerpts from the book. And I saw them and I said to him, “If that’s writing I can do it.”

And he said to me, “I bet you can not.” I said, “yes, I’ll prove it to you.” So I wrote a short story which was just terrible. I’m not going to tell you the title because I want to forget all about it. And he read it and said why don’t you take it to Bohemia, which was the same magazine the magazine that published the article on Asturias. And I took it and I met there a man who was managing editor of Bohemia, who was in charge of all fiction, who was also a Spanish exile from Franco. He was a member of the Republic, very important in those years…I gave him the short story and he said come back next week and I thought, because he had a very thick Spanish, I mean, Northern Spanish accent, you wouldn’t believe it how fast they talk and how thick they are that they actually can be, I thought that he meant that the next week they were going to publish my story. So I went back and he was there. And, of course, they didn’t publish my story so soon. They waited for the next year— for 1948. But this man said why don’t you come to see me on Saturday afternoon and I’ll give you some books to read. And he gave me mostly books by Spanish authors which, for me at the time, didn’t mean anything. So Spanish writers were not my ideal of writers at all. And this man made me his private secretary. So, he published the short story. They gave me fifty dollars, which for me was, you know, like Ali Babba going into the cave. And I just wrote another short story. They published it and again another fifty dollars. So, I made a correlation between writing and getting money. And then it became a habit. And then it became something more serious, like an addiction. And that’s how everything started.

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love Oscar Hijuelos

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a vivid albeit melancholy portrayal of life in mid century Cuba and in the US for Cuban exiles/immigrants.

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Many writers have attempted to write the Cuban-American exile story; with Los Gusanos SP , worms), gringo John Sayles lays out a compelling tale as illuminating as any documentary on Cuban-American relations during Fidel’s tenure.

Driving Through Cuba by  Carlos Gebler

Driving Through Cuba by Carlos Gebler

Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution by Carlos Gebler

in 1988 Gebler, in an ailing Russian auto, travels the length of Cuba ostensibly in a hunt for a 1959 Coup de Ville Brougham),. encountering abandoned vintage cars, the propagandist museum of the Bay of Pugs, decaying architecture in Old Havana, and once famous beaches swamped with dead crabs.

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba
Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

I have written previously about this anthology Pardo Lazo characterizes the sum total of the eleven stories:

t is possible that this anthology is the portrait of a family that never was. The communicating vessels between these eleven stories are not bridges but circuits: affinities, violence, tensions between text and anti-text which coinciding in the same book, produce a collision that consumes its own meaning, generating light. A radiant, incandescent zero of patria-plasma

Cuba and Its Music  by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Texan musician Ned Sublette, founder of Qbadisc records, taps his unparalleled knowledge of Cuban culture and music to provide the informed and impassioned history Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press). P.S.: A second volume is forthcoming.

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball  by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

Among other things this tome dispenses with the myth that Castro was scouted by the U.S. major leagues and was signed…well, you can guess the rest. Echevarria also does well to restore dignity to Caribbean and Cuban beisbol that suffers at the hands of other nasty yanqui habits and attitudes.

Back Channel to Cuba by Willima Le Grande and Peter Kornbluth

Back Channel to Cuba by Willima Le Grande and Peter Kornbluth

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande , Peter Kornbluh

As has now become apparent Barack Obama’s promise of a “new approach” has come to fruition. This book, using hundreds of formerly secret U.S. documents and interviewing numerous negotiators, intermediaries, and policy makers presents the long untold history of efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.

 Cuba by Walker Evans

Cuba by Walker Evans

Cuba by Walker Evans

In the spring of that 1933, Evans was asked by publisher J. B. Lippincott to produce a body of work about Cuba to accompany a book, The Crime of Cuba,by journalist Carleton Beals. It was intended to be an expose of Cuban President Gerardo Machado,yet another corrupt and rapacious American puppet. When Evans arrived in May, as he later wrote, Cuba was “in the midst of a revolution” and these images are from the end of the Machado dictatorship, who was gone by August

Transcuba by

Transcuba by

Transcuba by Mariette Pathy Allen

New York-based photographer and painter Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide for more than 30 years. Apparently under the newest regime the transgender community of Cuba is gaining some measure of acceptance. This tome also includes interviews and and a note from Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Mariela Castro, who is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana (who happens to be Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter), and was instrumental in passage (2008)of the law to allowing transgender individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender.[ed note; this was taken from my September 9 book notice]

Cuba by David Alan Harvey

Cuba by David Alan Harvey

Cuba by David Allen Harvey

Magnum photographer Harvey’s collaboration National Geographic staff writer Elizabeth Newhouse is an excellent survey of life in contemporary Cuba. See gallery of photos here

Havana by Robert Polidori

Havana by Robert Polidori

Havana by Robert Polidori

Robert Polidori‘s frequent appearances in the New Yorker, should make his focus on human habitats and environments apparent as do his monographs on VErsailles, post Katrina New Orleans, Chernobyl, Beirut (Points Between…Up Till Now his latest tome includes samples of from those series).To quote his publisher

In this city the peddler lives where the countess once resided; children dance and tumble where merchants conducted their business. Each photograph is a discovery and a fragment of the city’s biography.

View some of the Havana photos here

Before Night Falls by Julian Schnabel

Shot in the Dominican, Schnabel manages to capture the feel of the Triumphant Revolution and its not-so-triumphant aftermath. Javier Badem won an Oscar for his portrayal of poet Reinaldo Arenas.

Our Man in Havana by Sir Carol Reed

Graham Greene’s lampoon of incompetent secret services and secret police (later artfully mimicked by John LeCarre in Our Tailor in Panama) was shot in Havana with a young Alec Guiness, Noel Coward and US funny man Ernie Kovacs) Reed did leave out the live sex show that was mentioned in the novel.

Currently reading There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little Brown)

Addendum (to Best Best Books 2014)

24 Nov

Ever wonder about the bench marks for making it on to lists that are part of the annual literary clusterfuck? I don’t—but as you may, have a look at LARGE HEARTED BOY’S good work in building a list of ‘Best Books’ lists to judge whether the clusterfuck rubric fits. I do think it might be worth while for one of those sabermetric types to see how many books on the list have been published before August of the current year.There in may lie the answer to why so many lists have the same seven titles.

Given that by nature lists are exclusive, it would seem a natural consequence of making a list to mentally (as in one’s own mind )continue to enlarge past one’s public cutoff point.

So, is this a new list? A new and improved version of the initial list? Think it matters? Anyway. Here’s they are, more great books

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

McSweeney's Issue 46 - Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s Issue 46 – Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s Issue 46 Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America by Dave Eggers (Editor)

Shadow Government   by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

Shadow Government by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze

In Paradise  by Peter Matthiessen

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Dirty Wars  by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

The Divide by  Matt Tiabbi

The Divide by Matt Tiabbi

Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse

Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse

Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s:

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s:

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s: Fifty-Two Pickup / Swag / Unknown Man No. 89 / The Switch: (Library of America #255)by Elmore Leonard, Gregg Sutter (Editor)

Disclaimer

Billy WIlder's Headstone [photographer unknown]

Billy WIlder’s Headstone [photographer unknown]

Marginalia

23 Nov
Writers by  Goffredo Fofi

Writers by Goffredo Fofi

Oddly, when I come across a book of author portraits, I feel conflicted about its value. On the one hand, I do find any portraiture compelling and occasionally surprising. On the (other)limb, I wonder why a grouping of people who occupy themselves with the increasingly marginal profession of writing, would make for an interesting collection (to other than the vanishing American reader ) of pictures.

Writers: Literary Lives in Focus(Contrasto) edited by Italian cultural scholar Goffredo Fofi was originally published under another title (Portrait of the Writer: Literary Lives in Focus )(Thames & Hudson) with a different cover.The new iteration’s cover is adorned with a portrait of Truman Capote—an odd choice methinks (more on that below)This thick as a brick book includes 250 likenesses, out of the pantheon of literature to more currently celebrated writers— Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett to Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan.Rendered by equally masterful artistic titans—WH Auden by Richard Avedon, de Simone deBeauvoir by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marguarette Duras by Robert Doisneau, Marcel Proust by Man Ray, Aldous Huxley by Phillipe Halsman, Guillaume Apollinaire by Pablo Picasso, Arundhati Roy by Raghu Rai, Raymond Carver by Bob Adelman, and Zadie Smith by Eamonn McCabe. Each photo is accompanied by a concise and useful biography.

Sample  layout from Writers

Sample layout from Writers

It would seem that in the USA book publishers were not especially concerned with the aesthetics of author portraiture —mostly they were simply looking for serviceable dust jacket snap shots (for years a niche monopolized by photographer Jerry Bauer). And then for no reason that I could discern, I began to notice something different about writers’s portrayals. And when I examined the photo credit of those something different pictures, I found the name Marion Ettlinger.

Author Photo  by Marion Ettlinger

Author Photo by Marion Ettlinger

And to get directly to the point, I didn’t like what I saw. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one lacking in appreciation of the Ettlinger style. Dennis Loy Johnson said it well his July of 2000 Moby Lives column

…Being Ettlingered goes back to the ’80s, when working–class literary hero Raymond Carver had his photo taken by Marion Ettlinger for his book, “Where I’m Calling From.”
Carver died shortly thereafter and the image became one by which a lot of people remember him. That is a shame because it’s a really creepy photo. The famously unkempt Carver — reputed to have bought a Mercedes in his slippers — appears in a stylish leather coat, posed with his hands awkwardly crossed on the knee of his ironed chinos. And although the photo is washed in a deadening gray tint, Carver’s eyes have an eerie, otherworldly glow.
Well, creepy or not, it wasn’t long before everybody wanted their jacket photo taken by Ettlinger, and she quickly became the Photographer Who Proves You’re a Good Writer. Not just a good writer, in fact, but a writers’ writer, like Raymond Carver.
But since then Ettlinger’s style has gone from creepy to grotesque… It’s a mystery why anyone would want to look so ghoulish… In short, they all look hideous, not to mention ridiculous. Why would a bunch of intellectuals submit to being represented as the antithesis of intellectualism — i.e., as masochistic fashion victims?

Nonetheless, you may want to know that Author Photo, her anthology includes about 200 photographs with her famous Raymond Carver portrait and Francine Prose, Walter Mosley, Mary Karr, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Highsmith, Ken Kesey, Edwidge Danticat, and Jeffrey Eugenides. And if you can believe book’s publisher Author Photo is, “…A photographic paean to the literary spirit, …opens a rare and revealing window onto the timelessness of creativity.”

Truman Capote by Irving Penn

Truman Capote by Irving Penn

It seems to be something of a coincidence that Truman Capote’s image adorns the covers of these two collections, not withstanding that a review of Capote’s history brings one to Irving Penn’s evocative representation.

The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz

The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz

In addition to a fascination with with the visages of the barely acknowledged writing wretches of the world some photographers have found the homes and work areas of literary scribes of interest. Jill Krementz (who happened to be Kurt Vonnegut’s spouse) selected 58 black and white images running the gamut from Eudora Welty,Tennessee Williams Amy Tan, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates to Archibald MacLeish, Dorothy West, John Updike and Ralph Ellison. A nice feature of the this collection is that each entry includes a short description by the subject telling about their creative process.

Cosby,Cosby, Cosby ad infinitum

22 Nov
Billy WIlder's Headstone [photographer unknown]

Billy WIlder’s Headstone [photographer unknown]

Personally I’d rather hear news about David Crosby or Bing Crosby or Milton Cosby than this perpetual motion news engine propelled by the Bill Cosby mess. One would hope that with all the opinion-offering and herd bellowing that some original ideas might be bandied about. As I see it the root problem is that the micro view of this episode yields fruitless results (though I would be curious to know what would be considered a just solution under present law). I stand with George Scialabba (expressed in a recent chat)and others in viewing the problem as systemic— with all our lesser angels courted by a corrupt and degraded political and economic system.

Sexual abuse,domestic violence and animal cruelty (out if a long list of abominations) abounds in the greatest country in history. And a quick survey of the preoccupations of the American citizenry beholds some really vile and banal shit— I expect you would have no problem finding things to put under those rubric.

A minor notion but the only thoughts have given to this current cultural imbroglio is to wonder what Camille Cosby must be thinking and feeling.

For those people interested in an original take on the Man/ Woman abyss have a peek at Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books). In fact, I would further recommend her Paradise Built iN Hell as an eye opening account of human kindnesses and community.

THE BEST BEST BOOKS LIST -2014*

21 Nov
The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

After I'm Gone by  Laura  Lippman

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito  Gadzano

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by

ou

Everything I Never Told by Celeste Ng

I'll Take You  There by Greg Kot

I’ll Take You There by

The Exile's Return by Elizabeth de Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth de Waal

\

Fourth  of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

We Are Not  Ourselves by  Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Euphoria by Lily KIng

Euphoria by Lily King

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

The Narrow Road to  The Deep  North By Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to The Deep North By Richard Flanagan

The Next Life Might  B e  Kinder by  Howard Norman

The Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

Men Explain Things to Me by  Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Something Rich and Strange by  Ron Rash

Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash

The Violence of  Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

*Because I say so?

The Year That was: The Best American Annuals

19 Nov
Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915 1965 edited by Martha Foley

Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915 1965 edited by Martha Foley

Since 1915 Houghton Mifflin (et al) has maintained the tradition of publishing a yearly anthology of short fiction (ably assembled, for many years, by Martha Foley) entitled not surprisingly Best American Short Stories. Leaving aside the unfortunate American overuse of superlatives, this annual collection is high quality rivaled only by the yearly O Henry Prize stories compendium. Each year a guest editor is presented with about a 100 stories, drawn from a very broad and diverse mix of publications and culled from a much larger group by the current series editor.

As is the practice of Best American annuals, novelist Jennifer Eagan guest edited 2014’s volume. Among the contributors are, CHARLES BAXTER, ANN BEATTIE, T.C. BOYLE, PETER CAMERON, JOSHUA FERRIS, NELL FREUDENBERGER, DAVID GATES, LAUREN GROFF, BENJAMIN NUGENT,JOYCE CAROL OATES, KAREN RUSSELL and Laura Van Den Berg. Worthy reading.

The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Eagan

The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Eagan

 

Sometime in the 1980’s Best American Essays  (and Best American Mystery Stories )was added to the soon to be burgeoning Best American brand under the direction of Robert Atwan. This year’s essays anthology is guest-edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, he of the celebrated essay collection Pulphead.  Even if you are not familiar with this  all-star cast of writers such as DAVE EGGERS, EMILY FOX GORDON, MARY GORDON, VIVIAN GORNICK, LESLIE JAMISON, ARIEL LEVY, YIYUN LI, BARRY LOPEZ, CHRIS OFFUTT, ZADIE SMITH, ELIZABETH TALLENT,WELLS TOWER, PAUL WEST and JAMES WOOD, be assured that the topics chosen range far and wide with refreshingly original explications.

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Baltimore’s talented crime story novelist Laura Lippman hosts this year’s Best American Mystery Stories 2014 and consciously avoids drawing from the usual suspects thus including surprising names for the genre— MEGAN ABBOTT, DANIEL ALARCÓN, RUSSELL BANKS ,JAMES LEE BURKE ,PATRICIA ENGEL, ERNEST FINNEY, ROXANE GAY, CHARLAINE HARRIS,JOSEPH HELLER, ANNIE PROULX and LAURA VAN DEN BERG.

Best American Mystery Stories edited by Laura Lippman

Best American Mystery Stories edited by Laura Lippman

Sometime around the turn of the century, someone over at Houghton Mifflin with a some marketing savvy added all manner of categories to the Best American brand which currently includes—Travel Writing, Science and Nature Writing, American Comics, American Infographics and Non-Required Reading.

Not to draw to fine a point but I am still troubled by the insistence on literary journalists and other wise thoughtful folks can not shed themselves of mania for superlatives. The Best American Stories don’t have to carry that name for me to be interested reading them.

Begone Gone Girl

19 Nov
Zoe Heller [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Zoe Heller [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Having read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl ,which I found to be a serviceable crime story, I saw no need to see the film. But also having been aware of Zoe Heller’s (via a long ago conversation) delightful and sharp tongued explications of the things that continue to float down the roaring cultural shit stream (reinforced in her cameo in The Fifty Year Argument), I read her NYRB’s vivisection of the David Flincher helmed cinematic offering of Gone Girl.

It did not disappoint. Here’s MS Zeller’s conclusion, rendered with Samurai precision:

But a person would have to be in an unusual state of cultural innocence to find any of the film’s ideas remotely startling. The tropes in which it deals—marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy, love is the tender trap, and so on—will be wearily familiar to anyone who has ever seen Married…with Children or heard a Henny Youngman joke.

Here’s a sample from my early 2000’s chat with Zoe Heller about her then recent novel
What Was She Thinking? :

ZH… I thought I was doing something rather daring—

RB: [laughs]

ZH:—and interesting and that would freak people out. No one has been remotely freaked. In fact, obviously my readership is a great deal more sophisticated and relaxed about these things than I thought.

RB: What is daring about it, do you think?

ZH: I’m being slightly facetious. I thought when I finished the book, “Oh dear, particularly in America it will immediately be seized upon.” Let’s get this in proportion. I didn’t think it would be some huge cultural phenomenon. But to the extent that it was seized upon at all, that people would think it was some kind of apologia for sex with little boys. And clearly I hadn’t intended it to be that. I remember watching an old Oprah, with Bernhard Schlink, who wrote The Reader, which is not a book I liked very much but the really interesting thing about this program was that he was confronted with this great army of women who only wanted to talk about the fact of this older woman having sex with a young boy and whether that was legitimate or not. And he was very confused. He had toured across Europe having conversations about this allegory he had written about Nazi Germany and never before encountered people who were just fixated on the moral or ethical question of whether you could have sex with younger people. So I thought that people would think it [my book] too soft in understanding a boy and a kind of hazy area of being 15 and sexually active. Certainly this country does have a kind of—and not just this country, my own country—the West has a history of both exploiting junior sexuality and at the same time being fantastically puritanical and mimsy about it.

Currently reading The Bg Seven by Jim Harrison (Grove/Atlantic)

What You Missed

18 Nov

It had to happen—for years I have been railing against the lazy journalism that relies on lists to provide serviceable information and now I am about to offer a list of my own. In the spirit of the devil quoting scripture for his own purpose, I recall that poet Paul Zimmer’s reading of his “Zimmer Imagines Heaven” legitimizes lists. And, of course, garrulous Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists exhibits the possibility of something original attaching to list making. But I digress…

Netflix is, of course, a boon to cinema lovers, procrastinators and agoraphobics. Not to mention the ostensive evidence of how many wonderful films apparently are not (so it is alleged) sufficiently commercially viable to make it to the limited number of screens in the USA. And thus go unheeded by film audiences. Needless to say (but it must be repeated)the juncture of art and commerce is a tough enterprise and in the show business commerce regularly trumps everything.

Blackthorn

A great vehicle for the non-pareil Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy who survived the ambush portrayed in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fine performances by Eduardo Noriega and Stephen Rea and additionally vivid Bolivian locations make a eye catching background

Perfect Sense

A chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) meet against the backdrop of a worldwide epidemic of the loss of the sense of taste. And more.

Night Catches Us

1976, Philadelphia. A former Black Panther (Anthony Mackie) returns to his boyhood home and takes up with his martyred dead brother’s widow (Kerry Washington). He’s been labeled a snitch and additionally his hood is still a volatile battleground policed by racist honkie pigs.Great newsreel footage of real Panther activities. Images of murdered Chicago Panther Fred Hampton may bring tears to those who remember him.

United States of Amnesia

The inimitable Gore Vidal shines in an informative survey of his accomplished life—his famous tiffs with crypto fascist William Buckley and pugnacious Norman Mailer, his political campaigns and clear eyed commentary from both friends and foes.

The Conspirator

Robert Redford film depicts the woman Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) tried by a military kangaroo court in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.The film is a plausible depiction of the state of the union in the tense post assassination period that feels much like the post 9/11 period.

Killing Emmett Young

A young Philadelphia homicide detective(Scott Wolf)is in pursuit of a serial murderer—when he learns that he is terminally ill. He arranges to have himself killed at a time unknown to him. He then finds out that there has been a medical test mixup and he is not dying. He plods on working the murder cases His problem: how does he call off his imminent assassination? And can he solve his big case? Gabriel Byrne and Tim Roth are the bad guys and smooth-as-silk Khandi Alexander is Wolf’s partner.

Night Train To Lisbon

A professorial type finds an odd clue in an old Portuguese memoir and leaves his responsibilities and takes a train to Lisbon to track down the mysterious circumstances of people depicted in their lives under the dictator Salazar. Jeremy Irons’s restrained portrayal makes solving the mystery both a historical and personal triumph.

Unfinished Sky

A widowed Australian farmer finds a distressed vagabond woman who speaks no English on his land. He discovers she is a Afghan refugee employed as a sex slave by the local thugs. She has come to Australia to find her child. Does she avoid recapture by the thugs from whom she has escaped? Does she find her child? I won’t tell.

Berlin Job

Also entitled St George’s Day. Who doesn’t love a good criminal enterprise? Two highly successful London gangsters lose a $50 million shipment of a ruthless Russian Mafioso’s cocaine— he once shot a man to see if his gun worked.Needless to say, mayhem and foxfire ensue. Smart, funny and honest thieves— they scheme a job in Berlin to earn the money to honor their debt to the Rusky.

Just a Sigh

A British man (Gabriel Byrne) takes a train to Paris for a funeral; Emmanuelle Devos plays an actress also on the train to Paris. An improbable love story (maybe they all are) follows.Well nuanced with hearty rending performances by fine actors.You’ll cry and you may laugh.

Layer Cake

Perhaps every smart crook understands their criminality has a shelf life and thus they ruminate on an exit plan. Coke dealer Daniel Craig (who sees himself as a businessman) is looking for that last deal to take him out of the game. But he has to answer to the volatile and hinky Jimmy Price. And then the even more ruthless Eddie Temple (Micheal Gambon).On the other end he has to deal with some really stupid crooks and an intractable Serbian assassin. Colm Meaney is turning into an Irish Robert Duval and some unknowns (at the time)— Sienna Miller, Tom Hardy Ben Whishaw show their thespian chops.

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Though I rarely read reviews of anything (unless I enjoy a writer’s style and point of view expressed in other genre—essays, poems, novels) but obviously many people do. David Thomson, who happens to be an astute film scholar and historian,
(and shares my appreciation for Nicole Kidman) is the kind of writer I refer to above and amongst his prolific output are 3 editions of the quintessential A Biographical Dictionary of Film ,his illuminating The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and his very useful and insight laden “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films . I am pleased to have spoken to David a number of times. Here and here.

Currently reading Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books)

The Four Most Beautiful Words

10 Nov

The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

Noticing that there was much consternation and despair afoot in the land before,during, and after the midterm elections, I sought refuge in a review of my long que of films at Netflix. And to my great anticipated pleasure I came across the 2013 documentary The United States of Amnesia, which is an engrossing and concise documentary on the life and times of the inimitable novelist /screenwriter /playwright/truth-teller Gore Vidal (who passed in 2012).

Australian director Nicholas Wrathall’s survey of Vidal’s rich and eventful life is a useful survey of one of the last American literary lions. Vidal’s upper crust genealogy provides some clues especially since he makes quite much of it throughout his life, pointing out the access it had given him to the wealthy and powerful. His grandfather was was Thomas Pryor Gore, a US Senator from Oklahoma (reportedly the only senator from that oil rich state to die poor) who because he was blind brought his grandson to the floor of the Senate. The preternaturally attentive young Vidal (he changed his name from Eugene Louis so he could be a Gore) no doubt gained a rich education from that experience.

Vidal wrote over twenty novels, over a dozen screenplays (Ben Hur) and countless book reviews and essays for the major journals of his time. But it is his sure-handed “Narratives of Empire”, a seven-book series ( Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C.,The Golden Age ) though nominally fiction which presented a vivid and accurate sense of American history (borrowing from primary sources)providing a clearer and more accurate insight into the American political system and its cast than put forth in public school history courses.Among others, Harold Bloom extolled these historical novels, “Vidal’s imagination of American politics . . . is so powerful as to compel awe.” Thus along with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History a more accurate vision of American reality and mythology is accessible

Vidal’s essay anthologyUnited States: Essays 1952–1992 won the National Book Award in 1993 and gives ample example of his unblinking view of the degraded state of the American Republic.Another collection followedThe Last Empire: essays 1992–2000 capped off with the Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia entitled as such because Vidal understood Americans failure to understand recall their own history.

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.Gore Vidal

The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return. Gore Vidal

One associate has described Vidal as a “nasty, witty, shrewd, contemptible fellow,” and by other acquaintances viewed him as as a warm, personable, caring gentleman,‚both sides of which are on display in an earlier biographical documentary, Education of Gore Vidal (2003). What is apparent after dipping into this and other accounts, Vidal is that he occupies a significant space in the mid century and beyond american culture and no matter one’s politics, Vidal’s pronouncements and charisma was wholly engaging.

We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic. Gore Vidal

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent. Gore vidal

Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either. Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

Here’s a conversation Gore Vidal had with his literary executor Jay Parini

Reading and reviewing Gore Vidal’s scrutiny of American history up to its imperial present one wonders what it might take to wake up the great number of Americans who are being denied the fruits of what is promised in the founding documents of the Republic. Clear sighted commentators from Noam Chomskyand Tom Englehardt to Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank are marginalized by Murdoch’s howling, flying monkeys and the like.And media sentinels (like Media Matters) waste their time listing the lies and distortions of Fox and the Koch funded Super Pacs to the minority of Americans who already recognize the political shell game.

So what has to happen? The post WWII generation has blown it and maybe the following generation has also. My teenage son’s peers, whose overwhelmingly ambitions are careers in finance, will be disappointed when they discover the reality of that world when its clear that only a very few prosper. Will that disappointment lead to real change? To quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never know, do one?”

Currently reading The Last Empire by Gore Vidal (Knopf)

Thought for Food

8 Nov

Beny [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Beny [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

If you would,please keep in mind that my modest efforts at observation and ideation come to you at no monetary cost (to you). That being the case, I will not regale you with pitiful pleas for money to enable me to feed my poor dog or for the vital dental work I have been unable to obtain. No, if you feel the slightest twinge of obligation to compensate this (virtual) ink stained scribbler, a (thoughtful) comment left in the appropriate place in this outpost of distraction will suffice. Thank you.

Free Huey

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