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

About Robert Birnbaum

6 Nov

Homepage image Ladybower Reservoir Derbyshire England [photo]

Our Man in Boston continues the musings and ruminations on books and assorted contiguous  subjects that I, Robert Birnbaum,began at The Morning News in 80 plus columns from May 2008  until September 2010 —which in turn was a  mutation  of the  weekly Book Digest that began on February 28 2006 http://birnbaum.themorningnews.org/100/ I wrote then and it still seems true now that: 1) There are far too many books and writers deserving of the meager attention doled our by America’s mainstream literary press; 2) I am not at all constrained by whatever Byzantine code or principles book editors use in their choices for review coverage; 3) So-called “book notices” are preferable to an excess of mucked-up verbiage and veiled tendentious agendas (either the reviewer’s or the editor’s); and finally, 4) The ever-growing population of readers and book lovers who deserve a wide snapshot of what’s available in print without having to resort to the expensive and sometimes stultifying study of book-industry trade magazines.

Robert Birnbaum (photo Lydia Panas)

Robert Birnbaum (photo Lydia Panas)

Here’s an “interview” with me.

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

The Reigning Queen Of Soul

6 Nov

That great musicians don’t necessarily have lives that can support full-bodied biographies should be obvious. And that being an admirer doesn’t qualify a writer for the arduous task of being a biographer. So it is, that though I love music of all sorts and stripes, I haven’t found many musicians’s biographies worth reading. There are a handful, Peter Guralnick’s Sam Cooke, David Hadju’s Billy Strayhorn, Leonard Cohen’s bio by Liel Leibovitz (more about that later),
Crystal Zevon’s oral biography of her ex-husband Warren Zevon, to mention a few of those few.

Aretha Franklin, in addition to being a magnificent talent, rose from a Detroit gospel world lorded over by her Baptist preacher father, C.L. Franklin(this at a time when being a preacher wielded significant influence) and found success with the expanding dominion of Atlantic records and the skillful hit-making producer Jerry Wexler. And for nearly fifty years
Aretha has made soulful music, won awards and prevailed over personal tragedy, alcoholism,depression and ill health.

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, is David Ritz’s ( ghostwriter for Hound Dog:The Leiber & Stoller, Autobiography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Smokey:Inside My Life)second attempt at telling Aretha’s story, having collaborated on her 1999 autobiography, From These Roots.That book left him unsatisfied, falling short of his usual criterion for emotional honesty. “I left her the way I found her,” he writes in the introduction to “Respect,” explaining his decision to retell Ms. Franklin’s story.Franklin as one might suspect In a recent New York Times piece Ritz observes, “I’ve had a number of books where I could not attain the intimacy that I needed and it showed in the book. All the good books are by people who open their hearts. Because, in turn, that touches the hearts of readers.”

While Ms Franklin who are given to understand is not particularly forthcoming, intimates such as her now disceased sisters Carolyn and Erma* booking agent, Ruth Bowen; her producers, Clyde Otis, Jerry Wexler and Luther Vandross and friends like Carmen McRae fill in Aretha’s story.

David Ritz, has also did helped with Wexler’s autobiography, Rhythm and The Blues, and as seen below, declaims a heartfelt eulogy at Jerry’s memorial in October 2009.

*Erma Franklin was first to record the song Piece of My Heart that 60′s icon Janis Joplin made a hit. I leave to you to judge which is better.

Currently reading Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosia (Tin House Books)

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