‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ offers confused, necessary myth making

Written during a period of personal tumult, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk dared to present a young American black couple in love — unusual in 1974 when colleagues Saul Bellow and John Updike avoided love stories, radical for a novelist watching the collapse of the bipartisan consensus over civil rights legislation and nothing with which to replace it. The black family in the Nixon era was on its own. Continue reading

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ celebrates, refreshingly, literary charlatans

I’ll say this for Can You Ever Forgive Me?: it gets a crucial part about writing correct, a part missed by so many pious films about writers. The lengths to which writers will go to avoid idleness. In director Marielle Heller’s telling, Lee Israel, a biographer of famous women who has lived long enough to see her Estée Lauder book get remaindered, is the most admirable fraud: committed to the scrupulous forgeries of letters written by Fannie Brice, Dorothy Parker, and Noel Coward. There is an art to this larceny, and I suspect Coward and probably Parker would have bought her another whiskey and soda, or at best not called the cops. Continue reading

‘…Everything/remains to create my alibi’

Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote a number of excellent sonnets. “Paris, October 1936” addresses my mood these days.

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.

Happy second week of October!

‘But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist…’

At times vaporous or prosaic, Louise Glück nevertheless remains among the best known of American poets. 1990’s Ararat is her strongest work, but the recently published Collected Poems is one of those bricks that anyone with an interest in poetry will display on a shelf. I selected “Visitors from Abroad” for this month’s poem.

Happy October.

Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.

I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
pained embarrassment.

When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?


My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.


The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.


Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.

I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.

I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.

Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.

Deborah Eisenberg: she’s back

The occasion of a new volume of Deborah Eisenberg stories is cause for huzzahs. Few volumes get consulted in my laird with the frequency of 2011’s Collected Stories. Her talent for the startling, apt metaphor (“The woman’s features were like a pile of root vegetables screening her expression”) dovetails with the hairpin turns of her plots.

In advance of the publication of Your Duck Is My Duck, Giles Harvey interviewed Eisenberg for the NYT. He offers an anecdote from the writer’s college years:

In 1963, the year of the Birmingham campaign and George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, she heard from a school friend about a racially integrated social-justice summer camp near the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It was a perfect opportunity to put some distance between herself and her mother, who seemed only too happy to let Eisenberg go. One night, the campsite was raided by local police officers. At first, Eisenberg recalled, the officers joked about shooting the camp leaders along with their young wards right there. Instead, they tried to make a legal example of them. Eisenberg was charged with “lewd behavior” — that is, interracial sex (“I can assure you I was having sex with no one,” she clarified) — and, after spending the night in jail, was sequestered for several days in the basement of a local church. Thanks to the efforts of a courageous local lawyer, Eisenberg and her fellow campers were released. The case eventually fell apart.

The greatest shock, however, came after she returned home. “No one said, ‘You’re lying!’ ” she explained. “It was just sort of: ‘Oh ha-ha, dear, of course! You’re a teenage hysteric!’ That was the subtext. And I was a teenage hysteric, but I knew what was happening.” The realization that, as she put it, “it’s very, very, very difficult for people, particularly people with a certain level of comfort or privilege, to take in the reality of a situation” was, in a sense, all she needed; artistically, she has been living off the interest of this insight ever since.

Included too are Eisenberg’s observations about what she saw in Central America during the grim 1980s, backdrops for and subjects of some of her most startling work. I was familiar with “Under the 82nd Airborne” but after reading this interview I returned to it; my chest seized up as Eisenberg in the last third cued the intimations of violence.

Bookchat 2018 #2

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958).

Mid twentieth century British literature boasts many figures who specialized in miniatures. Call it a response to postwar scarcity or an acknowledgment that their American cousins had the aptitude and patience for the Ike-era equivalent of the nineteenth century’s loose, baggy monsters, in Henry James’ curt dismissal. Continue reading

‘Vain are the thousand creeds/That move men’s hearts…’

I was the nerd who read Wuthering Heights in the summer of eighth grade, developing a serious crush on the palsied Linton Heathcliff. Although only a handful of her poems ranks beside that novel, Emily Brontë would insist, I’m sure, on “No coward soul is mine” as a complement. Happy June.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Philip Roth — RIP

His most infamous book paid for the adventures of ensuing decades, but it remains the book most recognized by the general public, and why not? Released during the same period as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckingridge and John Updike’s Couples, Philip Roth’s 1968 Portnoy’s Complaint marked a significant stylistic shift from the poised rhythms of his earlier prose, in part to match the shift in material: Roth replaced Henry James with Lenny Bruce as forebear. In the same way that bits of her Joan Crawford forever marked Faye Dunaway’s other roles, even forced audience to look for traces in earlier performances, traces of Portnoy‘s peepee jokes were never far from Roth’s subsequent fiction. Continue reading

Bookchat continues!

Weary of working the film and music reviewing salt mines, I turned to books in 2014. Then I got a steady freelance reviewing gig at The Miami Herald. When this ended after nine months, I saw little incentive to cobbling sentences for nine-hundred-word essays few people read. Thanks to my investigations of Tom Hull’s efforts, I’m gonna try to write monthly blurbs for books new to me regardless of publication year.

John Banville – Mrs. Osmond (2017)

What’s this — a sequel to the nineteenth century’s most exquisitely calibrated novel written in English? The Portrait of a Lady, which I devoured in the summer before high school, is many readers’ favorite novel; Banville imagines an Isabel Archer, sullen but not embittered, returning to Gilbert Osmond after she has gone to England to keep a deathbed vigil for her beloved cousin Ralph Touchett. Structurally Banville mirrors late James — the Difficult Henry James of legend — and writes brief “scenic” chapters, which allows him to bring onstage Henrietta Stackpole, Mrs. Touchett, Ned Rosier, and other characters from the original novel for their Big Moment with Isabel. Yet consider: the schlock idea, worthy of slash fiction websites, loosens up the prose of one of the most ponderous of stylists.  Mrs. Osmond isn’t great, but wondering how long Banville can stick to the lineaments of James’ characterizations gives the novel a page-turning tension.

Jeffrey A. Engel – When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (2017).

Writing biographies about a president whose tenure as head of the CIA has swathed files in bureaucratic darkness is impossible, hence the resort to booklength Father’s Day cards like Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. To its credit, Jeffrey A. Engel’s book on the man whom referred to simply as George Bush concentrates on the president’s post-Cold War policy. We learn that “policy” is a kind word for the concentration of received thinking and presumptive solutions; few in the American elite were ready for so hasty a collapse of the Soviet Union. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft bumbled along for about a year after Ronald Reagan returned to California and obsolescence, still distrusting Mikhail Gorbachev because their DNA insisted on distrust. As a result, they almost failed to grasp how Gorbachev’s domestic popularity was inversely proportional to his overseas popularity. How Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand sanded down Margaret Thatcher’s chromosomal reluctance to see a united Germany dominates the book’s middle section, and Engel’s prose matches his reporting. The Gulf War, for which its coalition demonstrated Bush’s putative mastery of so-called soft power, failed to deepen the American public’s affections for a company man, the sort of apparatchik whom, to quote Richard Nixon, you appoint to things. On the other hand, Engel gives us a glimpse of a president guzzling two martinis on Air Force One in response to a kind of war-induced postpartum depression.

Alan Hollinghurst – The Sparsholt Affair (2018).

After peaking with 2004’s The Line of Beauty, a novel canonized on publication, Alan Hollinghurst’s verbal fluency has become the crutch on which his elongated and often hysterical plots lean. Like 2011’s The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s narrators span decades when minutes is all it takes to get the measure of the handsome nullity with whom they’re fascinated.

Michael Todd Landis – Northern Men with Southern Loyalties (2014).

Territorial expansion for the sake of carving new slave states served as lodest, ar for the Democratic Party in the era between Andrew Jackson and the Dred Scott case. Michael Todd Landis’ book waves aside the myths of the pre-Civil War Democrats as the People’s Party: it was the party of slaveholders and their Northern allies, called doughfaces, and The People got stump speeches to eat with their crumbs. Because American history is American political history, expect no changes to high school curricula. A strong AP course would use Landis and Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy as foundational texts.

Herman Melville – Redburn (1849)

Or, the straightforward version of Moby Dick. The closest Herman Melville approached the conventions of the page turner, Redburn looks forward to Joseph Conrad’s “Youth” and other tales of the high seas. This bildungsroman of a senator’s son joining a ship’s crew boasts two extraordinary passages: a chapter presaging the Nightown episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses but in a homosexual brothel; and the hero’s approvingly noting the casualness with which English women and black men walk arm in arm on Liverpool streets. Although it wasn’t the hit that Typee was, Redburn offers more digestible goods for modern times.

Kenneth Whyte – Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (2018).

As long as I’ve been alive, Hoover has been subject to revisionism. From Robert S. McElvaine to William Leuchtenberg, historians have brought shadings to the scarecrow against whom Democrats built winning campaigns for almost thirty years. to say that he stretched federal intervention as far as his nature and Congress allowed is boilerplate in 2018.Engineer, mining expert, food administrator for Belgium and later Europe, Herbert Hoover was the only person whose reputation survived the Great War intact. As commerce secretary for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he essentially created the position, which for the last time made its holder into what we’d call a business czar: every aspect of production from a federal standard for the girth of nails to public relations fell under Hoover’s purview, to Coolidge’s annoyance; he called him “Wonder Boy,” derisively.

But Hoover soon learnt that his triumphs had happened because he had never held elective office. Once he sailed to the Oval Office in one of the largest of popular and electoral landslides in history in a decade replete with them, he ran aground persuading Congress to enact tariff revision, the details of which Whyte is good at recounting. Before the income tax became a funding source and weapon, tariffs comprised among the most baffling points of debate in American political life. Then the Depression came. Surpassing predecessors in detailing what Hoover did to combat it, Whyte makes the classic biographer mistake of identifying too closely with his subject; by the last third, he intimates that the Depression would’ve have ended had Hoover been reelected, for, after all, Whyte argues, the FDR Brain Trust looked at or stole wholesale many of Hoover’s ideas. When Whyte acknowledges Roosevelt’s superior political skills, it’s like a mother in law acknowledging that her son’s wife at least picks up the kids on time.  The last thirty years of Wonder Boy’s life he spent writing orotund books in the seclusion of his Xanadu, the Waldorf in Manhattan (guzzling martinis — did Poppy Bush learn from the Master?), waiting for the GOP to come to its senses and nominate him for a third term.  To his delight, he saw the party that had uneasily accepted him as its head renounce, for the sake of electoral victory, the Progressivism it had disliked in him.