Tag Archives: Books

Eastern European Cold War film ‘Isaac’ as precise and mysterious as poetry

Few Americans get to watch films set in the Baltic states over which the West and the former Soviet Union haggled for decades. On that basis alone Isaac is worth watching. It’s also an ambitious piece of work: as precise and mysterious as poetry. The young Lithuanian writer-director Jurgis Matulevicius took his film to Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival two years ago in 2019; it streams now as part of Miami Jewish Film Festival’s excellent lineup. Confident and dialectical, Isaac deserves a wide audience who warmed to, say, Toni Erdmann and The Square and especially the inferior Cold War. Continue reading

Reading Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’

“Nearly all of Butler’s protagonists face the accusation that their survival is a form of complicity,” writes Julian Lucas in a review of the Library of America edition of Octavia Butler’s fiction. I circled the volume when I spotted it last month at the bookstore, but it took a friend’s self-portrait reading Kindred that persuaded me to check out a library copy. I’m glad I did: I inhaled the book so quickly and thoroughly I got lightheaded, needed to slow down. Continue reading

Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway’ concentrates on the writer as much as the myth

Hemingway concentrates on writing and a writer. The order matters. Most documentaries will have feasted on lives as libidinous as dear Ernest’s; Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s work, airing on PBS, does too, let me be clear, but how Hemingway fashioned a world-historic prose style consumes most of the first third. This is a plus. The second plus is a shrewd political choice. By recruiting Edna O’Brien as a talking head to praise Hemingway’s short stories for their uncommon sympathy toward their female characters, Burns and Novick placate critics who for decades recoiled from the fiction’s brawnier exertions; and before feminists get the blame, remember Zelda Fitzgerald, herself a pretty good writer, came up with the sharpest career-encompassing zinger: “Bull fighting, bull slinging, and bullshit.”
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‘Let me rise/as larks, harmoniously…’

Often formatted sideways like an ancient Greek shape poem, “Easter Wings” memorializes the sacrifice of Christ without getting flossy about it. In the twentieth century Frank O’Hara, May Swenson, and James Merrill tried shape poems. The lightness of Herbert’s touch makes his attempts unique. Note how the structure mirrors the speaker’s description of a descent into an internal Gethsemane, contracting syllables until the recovery.

Easter wings.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Happy Easter.

‘First — Poets’: a Good Friday post

Once, this was a day of dedication. First the ritual, then the silence. The Catholic Church specialized in filling our imaginative and sacral crannies with noise: hymns, communal prayer, homilies, the clacking of plastic rosary beads. Good Friday service ends with the priest stripping the altar of its cloths: a symbol of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. No Mass until Easter Sunday. Continue reading

‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’

Not as recognized as obvious hams like Keats and Shelley, John Clare was the charmer among the English Romantics, the sharpest observer of nature and second to Byron as the dirtiest minded. I discovered him last month after reading Tom Paulinn’s lovely meditation in his collection Minotaur (1992). The approachability of Clare’s verse — the lack of density — does not mitigate the concentration he trains on badgers, woodchucks, and, alas, his own disturbed self. Suffering from what we might call depression now, Clare was in and out of asylums; in 1841 he walked out of High Beech and didn’t stop until he got home four days later. His wife couldn’t deal with it: she sent him back, where he died a few months later.

This month’s poem, “I Am,” is affirmative and clear-eyed.

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

Happy April.

The hunting of the snark; or, how to embarrass yourself as a political reporter

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Congrats to Michael Kruse for publishing the year’s most imbecilic reportage. Turgid, arch, as cute as a kitten in a carriage, this magazine essay about Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ handling of COVID-19 is one of those embarrassments of tone and intention so complete that I hope it gets Pulitzer attention. He may have included a few quotes from Nikki Fried and other helpless Florida Dems, but they act as insulation: they conceal the lack of investigative reporting into Tallahassee’s covering up of deaths and the governor’s contempt for local virus control measures for starters. Kruse might point out, “Well, that wasn’t my job; we’ve already done that reporting already.” Exactly. His job was to write fan fiction masquerading as speculative journalism.

The following paragraph is the only example of cogent analysis:

For somebody with his manifest electoral potential, it amounts to an unusual, even unique mixture of natural talents and glaring liabilities—qualities that typically would be political kryptonite. DeSantis used the rise of the Tea Party to get elected to Congress. He used the rise of Trump to get to the governor’s mansion. And he has managed that vital alliance, say Trump and GOP insiders, arguably better than any other high-profile Republican—accruing the benefits while for the most part evading the frequent, familiar nicks and complications. Most nonpartisan observers have had to grant that DeSantis is not so much a Trump toady as he is perhaps a Trump trade-up—similarly transactional but significantly less bombastic, more ideologically coherent and much more disciplined and strategic.

Reread the last sentence, though, and the rot will singe the nostrils. “Nonpartisan observers” are as mythical as the minotaur. They don’t exist. “A Trump trade-up” as description suggests a concession: Trump was “bombastic,” ideologically incoherent, undisciplined, and not strategic.” Failing to identify the former president as the culmination of fifty years of conservative hatred against science, elites, balancing budgets, and the voters who chose other candidates is a classic Beltway fallacy; to identify an endpoint demands the incineration of received thinking.

These are merely my philosophical objections; by employing the first-person POV but using weasel word like “appeared to” (“From Ocean Reef to Lakewood Ranch to The Villages, they say, he’s appeared to prioritize the vaccinations of rich Republican donors…”), Kruse wants it both ways to cover his ass. This margarine greases the way for passages like this:

After Yale, DeSantis went to Harvard Law. His college baseball coach, who wrote him a letter of recommendation, when we talked last year remembered being taken aback by his immaculate transcript.

“He’s a fucking computer,” a senior DeSantis official told me. This is a person whom I consider to be intelligent, cleareyed, not a sycophant. During one of our conversations, this person texted me a clip from YouTube from the 1986 movie “Short Circuit.” The main character is a robot. Johnny 5, as the machine is known, takes in information at comical speeds while calling for more. “Input! More input!”

“That,” said this DeSantis official, “is him.”

Masochists may want to save the last third of Kruse’s essay — an epithalamion to wife Casey DeSantis — for when they need an emetic.

February reading

(Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

I reread no books this month, a rarity. I returned to Muriel Spark, whose The Comforters (1957) mixes the spiritual and the profane with astonishing confidence for a debut novel. And I took up Karl Ove Knausgaard after a four-year separation.

Apt, I thought. I want to discuss two biographies that examine  like Knausgaard in My Struggle the cost of the construction of an identity. Hilary Holladay’s biography of Adrienne Rich, the first major one on the poet, re-freshened my own conclusions of a figure who pissed off white guys of all ages when I took college English courses two decades ago. Thanks to an early and now mortifying crush on Harold Bloom, I condescended to Rich too, preferring the tensions of the earlier volumes before, like many poets coming of aesthetic age in the 1960s, the putative maturation. I wish Holladay had explained what made Dream of a Common Language and Diving in the Wreck the metrical breakthroughs they remain: how did this formidable student of verse metrics break the vessels of her style? On Rich’s lesbianism, fraught relationship with her autocratic father, alcoholism, and impressive fecundity Holladay more than does her subject justice, if hamhandedly on occasion. About Anthony Burgess “and his brethren,” she speculates, they “wanted Rich to vanish into thin air and take everything ever uttered about female empowerment with her.” And she writes gaucheries such as: “Had she asked a judge or committee for the moon in those days, who knows but she wouldn’t have come home to find a cratered chunk of it glowing on the street in front of her apartment.” But her exegeses on seminal feminist criticism collected in On Lies, Secrets and Silence and the booklength Of Woman Born (which I’m reading now) demonstrate Rich’s historical consciousness: she was immune to the era’s solipsism. Rather, she understood how the construction of a self is a communal experience, requiring mentees, sympathetic and hostile colleagues, and lovers.

Ignoring the gushing, first-name ersatz intimacy, and the year-by-year grind more obsessed with accuracy than truth, Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is the best sustained analysis on this most elusive of Hollywood stars because, the author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend argues, to be a star is to sustain elusiveness; and The Cary Grant Project, which entered its final act when he retired in 1965, sustained its superficially superficial veneer until his death in 1986. A childhood resentment toward his mother became acute as the man from Bristol born Archie Leach realized he might assuage the pain of abandonment in the bifurcation of his selves. Many stars created new identities; the wonder of Leach was his self-awareness and the degree to which he believed in his persona, even at the risk of psychological ruin. Contemporaries marveled at his sangfroid, shook their heads when he succumbed to what they deemed faddism. George Sanders, as acerbic offscreen as the desiccated wits he played onscreen, once said about him: “witty, sophisticated and debonair on screen; in life prey to theosophical charlatans, socially insecure and inclined to isolation.”

Thus, the years of experimenting with LSD, here examined by Eyman with a meticulousness and an admirable lack of tut-tutting. Alert to the nuances in Grant’s performances, however, Eyman abjures what Orson Welles would’ve called dollar book Freud.

Grant’s genius was to be simultaneously amused and amusing. The world, he implied, is hopelessly variegated, not to mention bizarre, and imagination is every bit as vital as a flush bank account.

The triumph of his performances in The Philadelphia Story and late-career delights like North by Northwest and Charade rests on his original pivoting between subject and object; playing the center of attention and whirling like the intensest of dervishes gives him the chance to observe the action. When he looks at a character, particularly a woman, he gives him and her his full attention, yet a passing rain cloud of reluctance and even disdain briefly rumbles in those hooded dark eyes: it’s noticeable in Only Angels Have Wings (1940) when he and Jean Arthur horse around, in Notorious (1946) even as Ingrid Bergman ravishes him over chicken, the sea-kissed night air hovering like a perfume.

Subject as object. Speculation about Grant’s sexuality persists, of which I’m guilty and why not? What Eyman calls “his strange mixture of entirely sincere courtesy and oblivious narcissism” is often the provenance of queer folk. Eyman treats Grant and readers like adults: he takes him at his word. During his retirement, in a confession to a devoted secretary, Grant admits to being gay as a young man, bisexual in his early Hollywood years, and straight thereafter. Sexual politics in the twenty-first century often amounts to a sexual monoculture, scornful about ambiguity when not a way station to a fixed state; to Grant’s credit he didn’t hide in plain sight so much as let others, with his usual elegant passivity, categorize in hindsight. The persona Archie Leach had created in Cary Grant reveled in surface. Audiences, to quote Pauline Kael, did not want depth from him. They didn’t forgive him the four divorces; no forgiveness is possible when no blame is cast. Sharing a home with Randolph Scott in the 1930s and going public about it — there was no disguising what happened between them — might’ve been the supreme test for a star of his rank. Nothing stuck to him: the Teflon star.

The moviegoing audience, then and now, was not stupid. His public was as sophisticated as Grant taught them to be. A ferocious head for business (after his RKO years Grant was one of the first stars to function untethered from studios, and he parsed contracts like John Adams did Locke) and an instinct for self-preservation that he raised to a spiritual power led Grant to divorce four women after the inevitable emotional withdrawals, but he never lost interest in children of his own: indeed, interviews with surviving stepchildren and the young stars with whom he co-starred adduce Grant’s genuine affection and often decades-long curiosity about their lives. Perhaps too curious. The birth of Jennifer when Grant was in his sixth decade brought him new peace but gave him something else to fuss over; he adored her, but adoration can be smothering. Grant, who basked in adoration like plants did sunlight, understood.

Written in jargon-free prose and not above tart asides, A Brilliant Disguise shames most film biographies. Eyman’s own adoration isn’t slavish. His evaluations are fresh. He doesn’t think Only Angels Have Wings and I Was a Female War Bride (1949) are all that, dedicates a scant couple paragraphs to Grant’s early peak Holiday (1938), and pays a compliment too many to the inert Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home (1948), screened by yours truly last weekend at Eyman’s insistence. Based on eager testimony, he joins the swollen ranks of those who thought the multimillionaire a cheapskate. This may surprise readers, as well they should. To have been Cary Grant is to have incarnated the audience’s most generous estimations about poise, finesse, and dwelling comfortably in the world. Mythmaking was his specialty. He once remarked, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Many of us could stand to make it a nightly prayer.

February’s list:

Muriel Spark – The Bachelors
Hilary Holladay – The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography
Ali Smith – Spring
Wallace Shawn – The Designated Mourner
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle: Book Four
Lewis L. Gould – The First Modern Clash over Federal Power: Wilson versus Hughes in the Presidential Election of 1916
Naguib Mahfouz – The Thief and the Dogs
Scott Eyman – Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Melissa Maerz – Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused
Elizabeth Bowen – Friends and Relations
Craig Fehrman – Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote

‘No need to be coy…’

Specializing in mordant takes on sexual politics, Erin Belieu is funnier than the competition. She attracted my attention last month after Dan Chiasson reviewed her latest collection for The New Yorker. “In Ecstasy” relies on the reader’s awareness of Bernini’s famous Baroque sculpture in which Teresa of Avila experiences a spiritual rapture akin to a rape or getting stuck with arrows.

No need to be coy—
you know what
she’s doing

And so did Bernini,
when he found Teresa
in the full-throttle of
her divine vision,
caught her at it,

carving this surrender
so fluidly you expect
the impossible:

for her tang to swell up, ripe
as seafoam, from the gulf
of her flushed and falling
figure. Perhaps this is how

God comes to us,
or should come to us, all:

the bluntly and
beautifully corporeal at

prayers in the Sunday
school of pleasure. Why

shouldn’t He come to us
as He did to Teresa? A saint

on her back—
a girl tearing open
the gift He gave her?

Happy March.

‘The token of the word unheard, unspoken’: Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

–T.S. Eliot

The sacral attributes of incense mattered less than the aphrodisiacal. Friday afternoons in high school through junior year I reserved for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a brief service in which the unleavened flat toasty bread known to Catholics as a Communion wafer is the subject of prayers and veneration. Clothed in a red chasuble, the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in the transparent center of the monstrance, itself positioned on the altar facing the celebrants. My task as sacristan was to light the coals on which the priest would sprinkle the incense. Mom knew the days of the week by how I smelled: I returned to the house those afternoons stinking like a burning Christmas tree.

Convinced I could will myself to believe by steeping myself in ritual, I realized much later that this is precisely what distinguishes the Church from other Christian sects. To believe and to observe the sacraments amount to the same thing. If a Catholic is overcome by awe, credit the sheer weight of tradition and the enthusiasm with which its servants teach a tradition they are only too pleased to embody. My holy orders were to serve literature, a duty which, like the addled and dying servant in Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” who confuses her dead parrot with the coming of the Holy Spirit, I had confused with the worship of the Divine.

So moved was I at twelve by a children’s Bible account of the Taking of Enoch, read while waiting for a haircut, that I vowed to be taken too. The terse rhythms of the King James version were more chilling: Enoch “walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him.” My parents, decent if inconsistent Catholics, didn’t hide their confusion but okayed my going to Mass. A lot. To be taken meant I had to do the work. Later I became aware of the sexual undertones of the King James translation; the passivity of worship links Christianity and Islam, the latter meaning, of course, submission to Allah. For the moment, though, I understood this much: Catholicism required me as an object. The sensations produced by responding to the children’s Bible, flinching from the watery grainy texture of the ashes rubbed on my forehead, and the inhaling of incense a year later functioned as synesthetic pleasures. Whether the Church had this in mind I don’t know, and from my experience with priests their sensitivity towards the numinous dissipates when the robes are off and they’re stuck in US-1 traffic. The ritual gave me pleasure; my pleasure may have pleased God; and finding the profane in the sacred may have exceeded the fondest hopes of the St. Brendan’s clergy.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

By eleventh grade I had abruptly and to the distress of our chaplain rather rudely renounced my Catholicism, never to return. Before the pandemic family functions brought me to churches a couple times a year, and I’d read the psalms and excerpts from the Old Testament and the Gospels in the seasonal missalette, still hypnotized by the rhythm of the sentences, their ability to form a union of parrot and spirit — the “function” of literature insofar as it needs one. The words survive the soundest blows. More than a decade after my Ash Wednesday epiphany, the body of St. Brendan’s pastor was found dead in a Bahamas hotel room months after two former altar boys accused him of sexual abuse.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

My favorite debut novels

Creating this list, I considered the arc of a novelist’s career: is the debut self-sufficient enough to be fully representative of his or her career? Hence the omission of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Also, did they only write one novel? Hence the omissions of The Bell Jar and Wuthering Heights. Others, like Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Namesake and John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, don’t match the concentration of the writers’ short stories.

1. Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim
2. Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
3. Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
4. Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming-Pool Library
5. Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
6. Philip Larkin – Jill
7. Saul Bellow – Dangling Man
8. Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
9. Zadie Smith – White Teeth
10. Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
11. Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
12. James Baldwin – Go Tell It on the Mountain
13. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
14. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
15. E.M. Forster – Where Angels Fear to Tread
16. Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
17. Monica Ali – Brick Lane
18. Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You
19. Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
20. Michael Chabon – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
21. George Eliot – Adam Bede
22. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Golden Child
23. Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
24. Truman Capote – Other Voices, Other Rooms
25. Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen
26. David Foster Wallace – The Broom of the System
27. Ann Beattie – Chilly Scenes of Winter
28. Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall
29. Iris Murdoch – Under the Net
30. James Wilcox – Modern Baptists