Tag Archives: David Thomson

Clear As Mud

20 Apr

Illustration featuring L Ron Hubbard [borrowed from the NYT]

Illustration featuring L Ron Hubbard [borrowed from the NYT]

Scientology has been in recent times, a maelstrom of controversy. Ace reporter Lawrence Wright fuels the fire with his expose GOING CLEAR Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Here’s the NY Times:

That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology. Every deceptive comparison with Mormonism and other religions is given a respectful hearing. Every ludicrous bit of church dogma is served up deadpan. This makes the book’s indictment that much more powerful. Open almost any page at random. That tape of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, that Wright quotes from? “It was a part of a lecture Hubbard gave in 1963, in which he talked about the between-lives period, when thetans are transported to Venus to have their memories erased.”

The ever clear-eyed David Thomson offers this

…In the popular estimate today, I think that Scientology is considered less as a way to better mental health than as a means of thought control, punishment and vindictive pursuit, founded and managed in fear, not hope. Wright points out that there are countries (Germany for one) where Scientology has come close to being outlawed.

So it’s a very American dream, and there is a natural affinity with Hollywood in that it preys on an idea of fantastic escape. But if you look again, it’s alarming to realise how thoroughly the legend of escape becomes a new kind of prison. Being Clear is an inducement to darkness and disarray. You may laugh at it at first, but get ready to weep.

Now comes Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, Going Clear, based in part on Wright’s research. If you thought you knew about Scientology, I would venture you were not prepared for such a frightening depiction of intimidation, mind control, and arcane theories, propagated first by an apparently loopy figure,L Ron Hubbard and continued by current Scientology leader David Miscavige (who is alleged to beat and demoralize his staff and additionally that physical violence by superiors towards staff is a commonplace occurrence).

I found the telling piece of evidence on Scientology in its skirmish with the all powerful Internal Revenue Service. While Scientology was raking in millions in book sales (Dianetics)and membership contributions, Hubbard apparently paid no taxes, claiming a religious exemption. When Hubbard died the IRS presented Scientology with a billion dollar plus tax bill. Now clearly the criteria for being a religion are not clear-cut but the IRS’s rule of thumb was to assess how a group used its monies to help its members. Scientology’s response was to file nearly 2000 law suits naming the IRS as defendant. And not surprisingly the IRS yielded, forgiving the tax bill and recognizing Scientology as a religion.

If you need further evidence of,uh,Scientology’s peculiarities have a look its most famous practitioner’s response

His Eyes Have It / David Thomson’s Ouevre

5 Feb

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

I assume David Thomson is most noted for his delightful and idiosyncratic (‘idiosyncratic’ standing for remarkable originality, not some perverse opaque criticism) Biographical Dictionary of Film and its five revised iterations—the most recent of which, the 6th edition was published last year. And his intelligent and buoyant film ‘reviews’, currently to be found in the benighted New Republic (until he was unceremoniously relieved of duties).

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

I am confident you get full value out of an acquaintance with Thomson even if you only have familiarity with the above mentioned tomes— I am here to tell you his bibliography is packed with a variety of gems worth your time.

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Silver Light

Silver Light


The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies


The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance



The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood



"Have You Seen . . . ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films


Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles


 Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick



Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts



America in the dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality

The  Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition Completely Updated and Expanded

Why Acting Matters

Why Acting Matters

Thomson’s new book Why Acting Matters(part of the Yale University Press series, Why ——Matters) may not seem like a book for none but the film /theater scholar and devotee but as is the case with David’s journalism his digressive manner of cogitating/meditating, produces not a narrow slice of film lore but a generous helping, fitting art into life. As the publisher asserts, “he argues that acting not only “matters” but is essential and inescapable, as well as dangerous, chronic, transformative, and exhilarating, be it on the theatrical stage, on the movie screen, or as part of our everyday lives.” Here’s a sample from Why Acting Matters:

…a mirror image of he regular dilemma in life between freshness and habit.

The long run. A Steetcar Named Desire ran for 855 performances on Broadway. Eight hundred fifty-five times to smash the tableware or scoop up the ruined Blanche as if you have just thought of it.Eight hundred fifty-five times to step forward for the ovation. Eight hundred fifty-five living in a drab, drab place in Elysian Fields. Brando had his own routine for getting through the grind:$550 dollars a week and several girls in the dressing room every evening> That was a life of abandon such as Stanley would never have dared> The actor missed a few performances when his face got battered in a fight and Anthony Quinn stepped in.Yet there are some actors who become as desperate as Barrymore with the repetition.They see the playmaking process as an arc: months of preparation, a few weeks of playing at their peak and then the long decline of hating yourself for doing the same thing every night until it seems stupid. Life knows that dismay. There are wives who come home after work and find the man waiting for dinner. They cook it and the men consume it in silence. And the one day, the wife never comes home. In his lifetime Yul Brenner played the King and I 4,625 times. He did other plays and movies. He was married four times. But if he ever walked into a room, the people there saw the King and they were dismayed if he had hair.

I’ve spoken with David Thomson a couple of times

RB: I have forgotten what it’s like to be in a large theater with an excited audience. Sometimes I see a movie where in the movie people are watching a movie with a large audience and it seems very strange…

DT: I know. It’s very difficult to convey to people, kids particularly nowadays, that feeling that I grew up with and I am sure you did that you really had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital. If I am teaching a subject, in film, you can’t teach now a days without using video, but if you wanted to say to people, “Look, this is a film where the sensory experience, the possibility for beauty should be there from the outset, in your mind, you’ve got to make them go and sit in front of a big screen.” They may be alone…this film, Far From Heaven, that is playing now. It’s made like a big-screen film. It’s as big as an oil tanker, if you know what I mean. It’s got these wonderful camera movements and color composition, all of which look a little overwrought on a small screen. See ‘em on a big screen and they look more natural. They are natural in terms of the big screen. It’s like big, epic painting. You can do things in big painting that you wouldn’t think of in a little water color landscape. But the young generation clearly thinks that the TV screen is the primary screen in their existence.

And later on for the publication of his seminal work The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood :

RB: You see the impulse to make money as being as legitimate and strong and intertwined with the need to tell stories and make art. You don’t take the stance, “Oh, those short-fingered vulgarians, they just want to make money!”

DT: Well, you’re dead right. This is a fascinating subject. There is another book here, which is—it would be something like, The Redemption of the Ethic of Making Money. We live in a society where so many of the worst and so many of the best things come out of that urge to build things, to make things, and to make fortunes is part of it. And you can’t build things without making a fortune. We’re talking in a city that is undergoing an urban transformation. You may not like every last detail of it, but great cities go through those great surges. And there’s got to be money. We know enough about local politics to know that not every dollar is achieved in the cleanest ways possible. One of the reasons I talk about Chinatown in the book is that the more I watch that film the more I like Noah Cross. You know there is that great moment when Gittes—and Gittes, he’s the hero but he is a rather sort of small-minded guy—and he says, “How much money do you have?” to Cross. And Cross says, “ Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” And Gittes says something like, “Well, why do you do it?” And Cross says, “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.” That’s an intensely American ideal. And I don’t see any reason to disparage people because they are in business. Our world is impossible to conceive without business.

RB: A qualifier here is—my sense is that much of the moneyed classes don’t have a sense of the future. That their visions have become shortened.

DT: Fair enough.

RB: We don’t have robber barons. We just have robbers. [laughs]

DT: All too true. Obviously that aspect of business is appalling and deserves our criticism but all I’m really saying is that I think that it’s very difficult for America to disassociate freedom from enterprise. It may be that this country is now on a path toward illness—fatal illness, even.

RB: Maybe? Here’s the money graf for me from The Whole Equation [page 370 in the book]:

“I regret the way America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much of that is being done for money. We have to find another way of measuring ourselves. And film is one of the few ways that might be done. Here and now, a twenty four hour period in which people of the Middle East and the people of the United States simply watched a television record of that day in another place—call it unmediated documentary—could be the most radical jolt to malice and political idiocy that we possess. So much in our films—American films now—supports the worst views held of us in other parts of the world: that we are combat-ready, aggressive, adolescent, greedy, sensationalist without humor, depth or imagination, rampant devotees of technology (as opposed to enlightenment).”
DT: I believe that totally. And I think it remains—that kind of possibility for film is more interesting that any fictional possibilities that you can think of for film.

In 2014 David Thomson received the Mel Novikoff Award (a beloved San Francisco film exhibitor) at the 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival.The festivities included a congenial and enlightening onstage conversation with Geoff Dyer— one hopes the video of which will be made publicly available.

Currently reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegal & Grau)

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.


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)

Big Round Ball

11 Jun

You have probably noticed football aka soccer is much in the news. And will continue to be for the duration of the world wide tournament known as the World Cup. Personally. I don’t know what any true blue, red blooded nortamericano can find attractive about this sport.But that’s me.

Steve Fagin (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Steve Fagin (photo: Robert Birnbaum

On the other hand cultural polymath David Thomson seems to find beauty in the sport. And, one of my best friends, multi visual media artist Steve Fagin,also a lover of baseball, is a soccer zealot. And sage progressive writer and activist Eduardo Galeano has written brilliantly on the sport he so loves in “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” excepts pf whihc ypu may find at Mother Jones and Tom Englehardt’s web magazine TomDispatch.com Galeano explains about writing a book about soccer:

Eduardo Galeano (w dear, departed hound Rosie) (photo :Robert Birnbaum

Eduardo Galeano (w dear, departed hound Rosie) (photo :Robert Birnbaum

For years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of soccer, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet: irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.

From that challenge, and from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.

Soccer in the Sun  and Shadow by Eduardo  Galeano

Soccer in the Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Though I know virtually nothing about soccer (something that rarely restrains me from commentary and forming opinions) I note a handful of recent books on soccer that appear to rise above the level of fan’s notes. And my unscientific view is that soccer may challenge George Plimption’s Law of Inverse Proportionality (the smaller the ball the more books that have been written about the sport. Marbles? Billiards?)

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

In addition to the above mentioned classic by Eduardo Galeano, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs rates some attention as Buford gives a smart account of the sociopathic underclass that afflicts soccer (at least in England)Here’s some excerpts:

…the day had consisted of such a strange succes- sion of events that, by this point in the evening, it was the most natural thing in the world to be watching a football game surrounded by policemen: there was one on my left, another on my right, two directly behind me, and five in front. It didn’t bother me; it certainly didn’t bother the supporters, who, despite the distractions, were watching the match with complete attentive- ness. And when Manchester United tied, the goal was witnessed, as it unfolded, by everyone there (except me; I was looking over my shoulder for missiles), and jubilation shot through them, their cheers and songs suddenly tinny and small in that great cavity of the Juventus football ground, its sev- enty thousand Italians now comprehensively silent. The United supporters jumped up and down, fell over each other, embraced.

But the euphoria was brief. In the final two minutes Juventus scored again. The exhilaration felt but minutes before by that small band of United supporters was now felt-magnified many times~by the seventy thousand Italian fans who, previously humiliated, directed their powerful glee into our corner. The roar was deafening, invading the senses like a bomb.

And with that explosive roar, the mood changed…

There is a truism bandied about that more people like to read about baseball than watch it. Perhaps that’s true of soccer as well, especially as there are long stretches during matches when men in shorts are running willy nilly around a field.

Here some recent soccer books:

Why Soccer Matters by Pele

Why Soccer Matters by Pele

Why Soccer Matters by Pelé with Brian Winter(Celebra)

The Ted Williams of soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pelé, is certainly one to represent the sport—three World Cup championships and the all-time scoring record, with 1,283 goals in his twenty year career.

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer by Dave Goldblatt

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer by Dave Goldblatt

Futebol Nation:The Story of Brazil through Soccer by David Goldblatt (Nation Books)

The World Cup returns to Brazil for the first time in 60 years and historian Goldblatt( The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer) provides context for that nations singular contribution to the sport now known the world over as O Jogo Bonito—the Beautiful Game.

Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe

Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (Nation Books)

Yankees vs Red Sox? Lakers vs Celtics? Cubs vs Cardinals? If you think these are the greatest sports rivalries, guess again. Apparently, two Spanish soccer teams fall under that rubric.Spanish soccer expert and historian Lowe covers 100 years of that rivalry and as seems to obtain in most intense competitions, it is never about just the game.

The  Country of Football by Roger Kittleson

The Country of Football by Roger Kittleson

The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil by Roger Kittleson ( University of California Press)

Jacues Barzun might have transposed his observation about the United States and baseball—”Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball—to apply to Brazil and soccer. Roger Kittleson details the inextricable link between sport and history in this well researched account. And yet all the sports news about soccer is about the big money money franchises in Britain and Spain. Hmmm.

Dance with the Devil- Dave Zirin

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil- Dave Zirin

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books)

Dave Zirin (People’s History of Sports in the United States, Welcome to the Terrordome)is an astute and dependable sports observer who can be counted on to provide an incisive critique to the world of sports and the blather and cliche that obscure the financial underpinnings of almost all organized sports. In his new opus, Zirin travels throughout Brazil shedding light on why ordinary Brazilians are holding the country’s biggest protest marches in decades about the proffered benefits of hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics

If you are interested in background on the world of soccer there are a trio of books that should be useful Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics by Jonathan Wilson (Nation Books) ,The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt (Riverhead ) and New Republic‘s editor Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (Harper Perennial)

Currently reading Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic

Wes Anderson’s Grand(iose) Budapest Hotel

7 Mar
The Wes Anderson Collection

The Wes Anderson Collection

Wes Anderson has made some about a half dozen films(Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) that have garnered good notices and him a devoted audience.His new film Grand Budapest Hotel judging from John Powers will not doubt do the same. Yet in his thoughts on Wes Anderson and the putative homage to the great and renascent Stefan Zweig that is tacked on this film ,David Thomson reminds me why his style of thought provocation is usually a fruitful ruminative effort. As Martin Amis points out quotes and citations make a review and Thomson no doubt unpopular assessment of Anderson is amply larded with shrewd and thoughtful observation:

So why is the name Zweig so startling at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel? To put it simply, because this film is the work of a talented and vacant young director whose “brilliance” (I’m sure the word will be used) should not conceal his indifference to the depth of experience that preoccupied Zweig


So Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft. It relates to the atmosphere and texture of Stefan Zweig like an achingly sweet pastry on a tin plate at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.

So we know that David Thomson is not a fan and that this film borders on sacrilege (allow the hyperbole) using Stefan Zweig. Thomson’s notice ends with quote from Zweig’s Beware of Pity which is illustrative of his refined sensitivity— his character comes upon a sleeping invalid

But I must not disturb this sleep, which kept her from herself, from the dread reality of her existence! It is a most wonderful thing to be close, to be near to the sick during their sleep, when all their feverish thoughts are held captive, when they are so completely oblivious of their infirmity that sometimes a smile lights upon their parted lips as a butterfly upon a delicate leaf, a smile foreign to them, a smile which does not belong to them, and which, moreover, is scared away on the very moment of awaking.

The WES ANDERSON COLLECTION by Matt Zoller Seitz (Harry N. Abrams)

Here’s a melange of previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera collected by Seitz including a lengthy conversation ( one reviewer noted, “The purpose of an interview is to allow an artist to illuminate his work. But the only thing illuminated by the conversations in this book is that Wes Anderson gives a terrible interview.) between Anderson and the book’s creator. And Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction. I can’t remember the last director whose art direction was codified in book form though Anderson’s work most certainly manifests countless interesting images and sets warranting this coffee table behemoth. Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction.

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Currently reading Ripper by Isabel Allende (Harpers)

A Mighty River to Cross

20 Jan

These occasional bibliographical reports of what publishers have seen fit to send my way are spurred by both a need to widen the scope of literary conversation and to make up for the narrowing coverage of literature (or at least book publishing part of it). Humble ambitions, I must acknowledge but fueled by my sense that I now read the few remaining newspaper book review pages to discover what is not being noticed more than to once again recognize that pretty much the same few books are being publicized.

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose by Robert Duncan , James Maynard (University of California Press)

The Hole  by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books)

Enchanted Lion Books are guided by a wonderful sensibility and I have all the titles I have had in my hands wonderful in everu way a book can be. The Hole is no exception.

Natural Takeover of Small Things  by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Things by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Thingsby Tim Z. Hernandez (University of Arizona Press)

Room 1219   by Greg Merritt

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt (Chicago Review Press)

The original Hollywood Scandal—surprising that there has been no movie version.


Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch (Little, Brown and Company)

Furious Cool   by David Henry  &   Joe Henry

Furious Cool by David Henry & Joe Henry

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry & Joe Henry (Algonquin Books)

Pound for pound Richard Pryor was the funniest man alive. I love his Mudball character an elderly black man who, in one routine intoned, “There are no old fools. You don’t grow old bein’ a fool.” Which, if understood correctly is a statement about survival.

Unfathomable City  by Rebecca Solnit  &  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker (University of California Press)

If you are not aware of Rebecca Solnit and her expansive ouevre now is the time to correct that deficiency.I was enthralled by A Paradise Built in Hell. And her righteouness was wonderfully expressed at the notion that Haitians, after another devastating natural disaster were described as “looters” as they were on the cusp of starvation and malnutrition. A rich sampling of her poltical essays can be found at Tom Dispatch

George Orwell  by Robert Colls

George Orwell by Robert Colls

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls (Oxford University Press)

A paradigm of journalistic integrity, George Orwell continues to fascinate biographers. Robert Colls is latest and one review points out

Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell’s early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an “authentic” working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.

David Aaronovitch credits Colls with pointing out

George Orwell was…“deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.

Mira Corpora   by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio)

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggleby Martin A. Berger(University of California Press)

Not quite forgotten as many people never paid attention to the Movement at the time. It’s doubtful whether public school systems have history texts with images of people being lambasted with water cannons or attacked by snarling German Shepards which makes this tome doubly
useful It is a hopeful sign that in recent years the photos of Charles Moore and Ernest Withers have landed in mainstream public view.

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs  by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel, Susan Ehrens, Julian Cox (Introduction) (Prestel)

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence, David Gonzalez (Foreword)(Prestel)

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability  by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin (Princeton University Press)

Dickens and the Workhouse    by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (Oxford University Press)

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka,

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,

The MetamorphosisbyFranz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (Translator)(Modern Library)

The Metamorphosis: A New Translation by Franz Kafka, Susan Bernofsky (Translator), David Cronenberg (Introduction)( W. W. Norton)

Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka by Jay Cantor (Knopf)

Two new edition’s of Kafka’s most well known story—one a new translation which is only noteworthy because of a new tome by Jay Cantor which fictionalizes four people who were close to Franz Kafka. Is this effort Kafkaesque?

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%by Kari Lydersen (Haymarket Books)

The feisty (or as some have said, profane)former chief of staff of the Obama White House carries on the tradition of craven power occupying the mayoral swat of the great city of Chicago. Mike Royko’s Boss is a wonderful background for this unsparing portrait of Rahm Emmanual

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez , Daniela Maria Ugaz (Translator) , John Washington (Translator) , Francisco Goldman (Introduction) (Verso)

The Taste of America   by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon Press)

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)

Moments That Made the Movies  by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)

David Thomson is the gold standard of film historians and scholars.Which plays out in his sure handed grasp of cultural history of the last hundred years or so. i spoken with him a few times here and here.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press)

I was surprised that I found this conversation with Susan Sontag, a reigning intellectual diva of the fin de siecle western culture, the likes of which we may never see again, boring and jejune.

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas (Oxford University Press)

My favorite annual is the Oxford University Press’s Atlas of the world and this volume as it states is a concise version of the majestic complete edition

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World: The Atlas for Today by Andrew Losowsky (Editor) , S. Ehmann (Editor) , R. Klanten (Editor)( Gestalten)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood   by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud , Michel Hazanavicius (Foreword)(Flammarion)

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf ( by , Bryan Karetnyk (Translator) (Pushkin Press)

 The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book: Volumes One and Two [Facsimile] W by Eugene Smith, John Berger, William S. Johnson (Introduction), Katharine Martinez (Foreword) (University of Texas Press)

Eugene Smith was a master photographer during a period when photography was more thoughtful and deliberate.

a href=”https://ourmaninboston.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/628×471.jpg”>628x471

em>The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

I don’t quite see the point of this iteration of Ambrose Bierce’s magnum opus. Its a lackluster paperback with not even the basic gestures of a dictionary. You’d be better served by looking at Library of America’s Bierce volume.

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon ((Bloomsbury USA)

I am a fan of musical history books and biography that contexualize the music—Nick Tosches,Peter Guralnick and Arthur Kempton being writers particularly adept at cultural commentary. Last year Mark Kurlansky’s Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead) showcased Berry Gordy’s Motown plantation and now Robert Gordon’s new opus surveys the Memphis based Stax record label and the diverse characters that contributed to its success. Now that two major centers of late 20th century race music Detroit and Memphis have been spotlighted its time that Chicago’s rich scene have its day.

Currently reading Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (FSG)


11 Dec


Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self centeredness by the admission that,as Van Morrison croons in The Meaning of Loneliness, “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus the one is beset with constant instances of self doubt and self interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily—”Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,” says —— ———-. They should read Kael, not Derrida….” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at faculty meeting or party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ok, for the longest time I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand I can see some creative usefulness in lists— Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem Zimmer Imagines Heaven where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) I created. I thought to offer reasons for my choices but I decidedto rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity. Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind( they are pretty much reprinted as I received them). Onward:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

 Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown


Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane


Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos


Morning by Walt Wetherall

Morning by Walt Wetherall


Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Once Upon The River by Bonnie Campbell

Once  Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Redemption Falls by Joseph O Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor

The Dog of War by Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog by Don WInslow

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal  Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Elizabeth Cox</strong> novelist, Night Talk (Random House)

 One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone. My husband  (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story…

The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone

The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone

David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster)

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

 Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Robert Stone, novelist, The Death of the Black Haired Girl(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

     Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in  Maine published some years ago, called HARBOR LIGHTS. It was reviewed in IN BRIEF in the NY Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel…

HARBOR LIGHTS  By Theodore Weesner.

By Theodore Weesner.

Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG)

So, I don’t know about “tragically,” and by “overlooked” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of these–and they are all A+:
“20,000 Streets Under the Sun” – Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy – Roy Heath
“in Hazard” – Richard Hughes
“The Golovlyov Family” – Shchedrin

 20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

Richard Russo,award winning novelist Elsewhere (Knopf), screenwriter (Ice Harvest)

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift . You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Ron Rash , novelist, The Cove (ECCO)

With by Donald Harington –Harington is America’s Chaucer.

With by Donald Harington

With by Donald Harington

Edwidge Danticat novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters.Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, “Erasure”–a parody of the African-American urban novel, offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeon hole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: ThemPEN Center USA Award for Fiction, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Pasos Prize.

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure by Percival Everett

Joseph O’Connor ,overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker)

Tragically Overlooked Novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But: do you mean Tragically Overlooked Novels from 2013 or in general? …In my view, DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coatzee and Faulkner but a mesmerizing smolder all its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.



Stuart Dybek ,author, Northwestern University mentor,(forthcoming)Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG)

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is but i saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on & i don’t think there’s been a change since.

 Far Tortuga  by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia,author
Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson)

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked then The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

Darin Strauss ,author,Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor

i don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. THE FIXER, by–which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? MOMENTO MORI, which I just read, and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it—will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe THE STATEMENT by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

 THE FIXER  by Bernard Malamud

THE FIXER by Bernard Malamud

All of the above?

BRIAN DOYLE ,novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press) editor of Portland magazine

Hmmm. Maybe THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: LITTLE BIG MAN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, LORD OF THE RINGS, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, maybe THE ENGLISH PATIENT, maybe MASTER AND COMMANDER.


Daniel OLIVAS, novelist The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press)

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

The Old Man's Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

Micheal ORTHOFER ,editor, eminence gris The Complete Review

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: “Where Tigers are at Home” by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review- and little reader-attention). Runner-up: “Tirza” by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year-contender) — perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) “The Dinner”.Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

 Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

BEN FOUNTAIN, award winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)

…Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called tragically overlooked, given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late 60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the great American novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about 7-8 years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62….

"We Agreed to Meet Just Here" by Scott Blackwood

“We Agreed to Meet Just Here” by Scott Blackwood

Robert Mccrum , editor, The Observer, author, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (WW Norton)

Hadrian the seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

ALLAN Gurganus ,novella-ist, Local Souls

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards—this is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of Folk Art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page   By G.B. Edwards

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards

Gary Fisketjon ,veteran editor at Knopf

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution – to quit smoking – always fails to get any real traction. …

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

Billy Giraldi ,novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton) critic , essayist, long form journalist editor, Agni

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense both of them. Divinely written.

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Hari Kunzru ,novelist, Men Without Gods (Knopf)

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful, poised. As if Richard Yates wrote SF.

The Man Who Fell To Earth  by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

Joseph Epstein ,short fiction writer,The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH), essayist, former editor, American Scholar

1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard 2. Sandor Marai’s Embers. I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well known, but both are swell novels.

 Embers by Sandor Marai

Embers by Sandor Marai

Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington),

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper Lars Gustafsson

I'm Not Stiller  by  Max Frisch

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch

Tom Piazza ,novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco) screenwriter (Treme), musical connosieur

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th-Century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th-Century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th Century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by  Kirsten Bakis

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Susan Bergholz, non-pareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano et al)

Here you go; can’t do just one!LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage/dead now, extraordinary workAN IMAGINARY LIFE by David Malouf–a pitch perfect novel, except for the Afterword.THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, ORFEO/stunning!!!

I forgot one very impt novel: CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS by Mayra Montero
And: AND THEIR DOGS CAME WITH THEM by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Ok–I’ll stop now!!!!!!!



href=”http://www.identitytheory.com/blake-bailey/”&gt;,literary biographer Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf)

THE LOST WEEKEND, of course, and Anthony Powell’s first novel, AFTERNOON MEN<a.

THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles Jackson

A Tale of Two Brothers

11 Nov

In recent days, since the baseball season is ostensibly over, my attentions have turned to the movies. In quick succession I viewed Captain Phillips, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine and the Counselor. HBO was kind enough to send me the James Toback documentary that David Thomson has aptly called a “cinematic romp”,Seduced and Abandoned and additionally, though I own a copy of the DVD, I watched Tony Scott’s non-pareil Man On Fire, 2 days running on cable.

Man on Fire is the only film that I have watched more than 3 times (actually, I have lost count). Scott and Brian Helgeland (42,LA Confidential) adapted A. J. Quinnell’s (WM Morrow)novel, originally set in Naples,now Mexico City, featuring near burned out and alcoholic Creasy/Denzel Washington (a mercenary in the novel) a counter terrorism operative who is persuaded by a friend /Christopher Walken to become a bodyguard. Anti-social and aloof, Creasy takes on the guarding of 11 year old Lupita Ramos /Dakota Fanning. Precocious and adorable, Lupita overcomes Creasy defenses and he becomes deeply attached to her.

She is kidnapped (an ordinary occurrence in modern Mexico, hence the need for bodyguards)and Creasy is grievously injured.An attempt to pay a $10 million dollar ransom goes bad. The kidnapper known as the Voice tells Lupita’s parents, Samuel Ramos Marc/ Anthony and Lisa Ramos/Radha Mitchell that their child is dead. Barely recovering from his injuries, Creasy promises Lisa Ramos he will kill anyone who had anything to do with Lupita’s kidnapping.

Havoc ensues as Creasy makes good on his word. He is aided by newspaper reporter Mariana Garcia Guerrero/ Rachel Ticotin who is committed to rooting out corruption.She relies on her friendship with ex-Interpol director Miguel Manzano/Giancarlo Giannini to secure license plate numbers and banking information. Eventually Creasy finds out Lupita is alive and tracks down the Voice to make a deal for her safe return.

On the making of Man on Fire

The Counselor: A Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (Vintage International)

Here’s how you get a movie made: (watch Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned if you doubt me). Get a Oscar winning director (Ridley Scott), a Pulitzer Prize winning author/screenwriter (Cormac McCarthy)and a bankable star (Brad Pitt),a beautiful co-star ( Penelope Cruz) and a stellar supporting cast, Javiar Badem, Cameron Diaz, Michael Fassbinder, pepper it with some compelling cameos ( Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, John Leguzma and Bruno Ganz).

Now you have the money, time to make a great film.

Micheal Fassbinder, the never-named Counselor, has a stylishly appointed abode(with a color palette lacking in any color—various shades of gray and white), drives a high strung white foreign job and a beautiful girlfriend Laura/ Penelope Cruz. Apparently, he either needs or craves more money. His night club owning pal Reiner/Javier Badem (who has a Jackson Pollack flag painting in one of his ostentatiously furnished rooms puts him on to lucrative drug deal, all the while loquaciously expounding on the dangers involved. Makina /Cameron Diaz, Reiner’s consort, broadcasts malice and danger such that even Reiner is afraid of her, describing vividly to the Counselor an instance of auto eroticism heretofore unimaginable or at least unimagined. The deal goes south and the $20 million drug shipment, concealed in a sewage tanker truck—well, this is the tricky part. In any case ,the Counselor is —use your own word to fill in a condition of extreme risk— I think fucked does nicely. And it is situation from which he cannot extract either Laura or himself. Mayhem follows with three of principals meeting disagreeable ends, one that had been explicitly foreshadowed earlier.

My problem with the Counselor began with the opening, a tender love scene with the Counselor and Laura, shot beneath white linen sheets and appearing above the opening titles.I found it distracting and suspect. And though the cast was peopled with a high concentration of actors that one is compelled to watch, the serial monologues/soliloquies border on and often trip into silliness. My go-to-film guy David Thomson offers some astute observations:

…For reasons that may never be explained, you have consented to let the novelist Cormac McCarthy do the screenplay, his first. McCarthy is a mighty novelist who has evolved a way in which his book characters say very little and speak out of brutal, movie-like necessity. But you might have surmised that McCarthy would lunge towards literary respectability in doing a movie and so churn out yards and miles of banal aphoristic chat about violence, danger and what men will do, and what women will do. You can imagine the actors sighing: We have to live in El Paso and say these endless lines?..

If a cinema masterpiece is in part defined by how many times one can view it, than I would offer that Tony Scott’s Man on Fire is such. Ten years later it remains visually fresh and narratively compelling. And Denzel has rarely been more convincing.Dakota Fanning is pitch perfect and Christopher Walken acts like a friend that everyone should have. I have always had a fondness for Rachel Ticotin and her supporting role as the muckraking reporter is well-nuanced. My only regret is that for some inexplicable reason there is no soundtrack available

Currently reading Spying on Democracy by Heidi Boghosian (City Lights)

Bye, Bye, Tinseltown

1 Mar

The allure of the Academy Awards ceremony (and the premise of the awards putts me off) escapes me. Having watched a fair number of these ceremonies dating back to a time when there were actually legitimate stars of the silver screen (Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman anyone?)I have long since given up surrendering a Sunday evening to what has become a trite annual event.

This year the Oscars outdid themselves on the mediocrity scale (no small accomplishment) though none of the show’s failures have anything to do with the array of fine films in contention for various honors. Additionally, there are now a gaggle of award shows leading up to the penultimate film academy accolades which pretty much chew up and regurgitate the same material and banalities and red carpet piffle.

Just about the only saving grace notes accompanying the awards season are some smart commentaries by the likes of film historians like David Thomson
wherein he concludes his discussion of the Best Picture contest with this gem:

Little distresses the rest of the world more about Americans than their hysterical triumph and self-congratulation in success. It’s a dismay creeping into more and more smart Americans, too. That is why The King’s Speech will win Best Picture. Is it a good film? It doesn’t matter.

Of course the post show conversations include weighing in on various elements of the show such as the performance of the host(s). In this year’s edition the Academy’s producers offered author James Franco (Palo Alto: Stories) and anorexic android Ann Hathaway who’s grating faux laugh at the decidedly unfunny James Franco in Marilyn drag bit pretty much epitomized her tinny brittleness.

In fact, lets forget about the Oscars and watch Franco’s cameo in his writing mentor Gary Steyngart’s book trailer. Here’s three minutes of entertainment that delivers more of everything than the three hours of the Oscar Show.

And, as long as I am at it, Alan Arkin, no stranger to the writer’s craft has written a memoir The Improvised Life (Da Capo) newly published. The accompanying book trailer is a comedic gem.

Did I mention that the latest Academy Awards show was forgettable? And hopefully Ann Hathaway won’t be writing a memoir anytime soon.


10 Feb

Pioneering entertainer Cab Calloway may be known to recent generations from appearances in cultural high water marks such as Sesame Street or the Blues Brothers movie. His stature as a musician attaches to his being Duke Ellington’s replacement at the legendary Harlem hot spot, The Cotton Club and for surrounding himself with up and coming talent such as Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jonah Jones. Now comes jazz scholar Alyn Shipton’s Hi-de-ho The Life of Cab Calloway (Oxford University Press) a comprehensive and diligently researched biography of the great jazz singer and bandleader (it apparently is also the first). Shipton follows Calloway’s life from his upbringing in Rochester New York, his career beginnings in Baltimore and his catapult to fame at the Cotton Club. Its a wonderful portrayal of the white tie and tail clad Calloway who fixed the Hi-de-ho” chorus of “Minnie the Moocher” in the American Songbook and much more.

I have occasionally wondered (usually upon the publication of a new edition) why no one has followed the lead of gloriously inventive writer and a singular film scholar David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (now in its fifth edition). I suppose 35 years is not too long for a good idea to marinate in the juices of contemporary culture. At last comes Will Friedwald’s A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon) which strolls a lengthy stretch of the waterfront with snapshots of the lives of three hundred singers— Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland to Jeri Southern, George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, Joe Mooney, Ivie Anderson,Billie Holiday, Perry Como,Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé —you get the idea, right? Included as well, in this survey of 20th century American singers, is Friedwald’s idiosyncratic take on the evanescent American Songbook—that is, the songs these singers sing.

A fun read and serious albeit opinionated scholarship— that makes for a good package.