Book review

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters (Laura Thompson)


This photo is the cover of The Six. I find it mesmerizing because — it’s been Photoshopped; here is the original photo, which appears on the inside back flap of the book cover:


The disparity between the two images (i.e., the erasure of brother Tom and the relocation and resizing of Unity) seems to me inordinately significant. It is the very craft of the biographer as metaphor: the obliteration of peripheral details and the elision and weighting of discrete components to present a clear, cohesive story of a person’s life.

It’s easier by far in Photoshop, but Laura Thompson has resoundingly succeeded here. Which is not to take anything away from Mary Lovell’s thoughtful The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family which I read in 2017 and which is a frequently cited source in The Six (and which makes for a useful complementary reading). Nor indeed from any other well-written, well-researched, well-organized biography. But Thompson’s success, in my mind, is of a different order of magnitude, steeped in a masterful blend of skill, knowledge, and assertive interpretation.

To start, she is a terrific writer, with never — never — an awkward or unclear  or uninteresting sentence. For a small example, look at this lovely extended metaphor:

The “creamy English charm” that Evelyn Waugh famously described in Brideshead Revisited poured its streams through society, soothing and poisoning as it went.

Thompson’s command of the subject — and I use that word “command” most deliberately — is beyond impressive, with her research of the sisters informed and enriched by a thorough critical grounding in the fiction produced by the eldest, Nancy Mitford, whom she wrote about in 2003 (Life in a Cold Climate), and whose most famous novels are in fact a mining and modeling of her siblings and family. Throughout The Six, Thompson maps Nancy’s fiction to the story she herself is assembling. Adding further credibility to her work is the fact that she personally interviewed both Diana and Deborah.

She does not spoon feed us their story. The book has no pithy, punny, earnest, or otherwise descriptive titles for its major or minor divisions, aside from that for the brief introductory essay, “The Mitford Phenomenon.” She assumes we are familiar with the subject matter, wryly noting,

One can chant the careers of the Mitford sisters in the manner of Henry VIII’s wives, thus: Writer; Countrywoman; Fascist; Nazi; Communist; Duchess.

She thus distills the obsessive appeal of these women who “came of age in a period of profound and, perhaps more importantly, highly dramatic change” — the 1920s to 1930s, when the siblings, who had more or less run wild during their idyllic childhood of secret games and languages and little formal education, took their place in and outside society as (largely) freethinking daughters of the privileged class.

Thompson swiftly and authoritatively takes us through the intertwined narratives of the Mitford family, organizing her material in four untitled parts that cover, respectively, their childhood and young womanhood, the happy part of their adulthood, the aftermath of the decisions they made during that happy part, and life lived in the shadows and realignment that followed the death of the first sibling (Tom) through the death of the mother (Sydney). An epilogue wraps up the sisters’ respective histories. Thompson never falters, the pacing never lags, and her crisp and colorful prose smoothly accretes details of time, place, and character.

But perhaps this is the key to Thompson’s successful engagement with her topic, and with the reader’s ability to successfully engage with the book: she does not shy from offering shrewd  judgments and opinions, often piercingly conveyed through a spot-on word choice or turn of phrase:

  • On Tom: “surrounded by so many girls…he could have gone down the Branwell Brontë route and decided to be overwhelmed.”
  • On Sydney: “Such a capable woman; rather wasted by that marriage to the odd, handsome David.”
  • On Diana, specifically her abortion after leaving Bryan Guinness to take up with the then-married Oswald Mosley: “The sordidness of the whole thing is overwhelming, so too the temptation to travel back in time and say to Diana, what in hell do you think you are doing?”
  • On Unity: “By 1939, the days in Germany, which had brought her the happiness she so clumsily craved, were coming to their conclusion.”
  • On Jessica: “Jessica’s extremism is more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.”

The result is you feel you really know and understand the girls as complicated individuals — or more precisely, feel that you’re at the same soirée as they with a particularly savvy and astute insider whispering in your ear as you watch them across the room.

She definitely has her favorites: the messy Nancy, the enigmatic Diana, the frank Deborah. She does not seem to like Jessica, and has particularly little use for Mosley, of whom she perceptively notes:

…Britain, for all its innate and healthy scepticism, has a weakness for people who spout solutions that they will never be called upon to enact: the mainstream is muddy with compromise, while those outside it can stand clean and clear, dangling the great glittering hypnotist’s tool that is “change”. This is the word that still holds its magic, and nobody promised it more than Mosley.

In well under four hundred pages including notes and index (and two slick inserts of black-and-white family photos), Thompson traces and assesses the complex on-again, off-again relationships and alliances among the sisters which, to a large degree, mirror and anticipate their stunning and frequently adjuring actions. And in her skillful opening essay, she attempts to explain both why we continue to be fascinated by the Mitfords (“one might call it a variant strain of Downton Abbey Syndrome, in which people seek comfort by retreating to an age of hierarchies, prejudices and certainties”) and how distinctively they were a product of their times:

This confidence of theirs — relaxed, diamond-hard — is fascinating[…] It is the confidence of the upper classes, embellished by femaleness: a kind of confidence that, for all their greater freedom, today’s women do not find it easy to possess[…] Should one make cupcakes or become CEO[…] should one be a domestic goddess, a yummy mummy, an alpha female, a pre-feminist, a post-feminist, a feminist, a feminist who nevertheless has a facelift… It is a shambolic state of affairs. There is only one answer to all of this, which is to be oneself, but it seems extraordinarily hard to be sure of what that is. Hence the fascination of the Mitfords, who always had the confidence of their own choices, however mad these frequently were.

As we browsed numerous indie bookstores earlier this week in the Hudson Valley, I was surprised by the number of Mitford-related books I stumbled on. Lauren Young’s 2022 Hitler’s Girl: The British Aristocracy and the Third Reich on the Eve of WWII. A 2004 biography of Diana Mosley by Anne de Courcy. Deborah Mitford’s 2010 memoirs. And a brand-new 2023 novel The Mitford Affair. When I encountered this last and its admiring cover blurbs (“Fast-paced and eye-opening.” “The most delicious story-telling.”) I scoffed, then a night’s reading from the end of The Six, “Sure, it’s easy when you don’t have to stick to facts” — a point hammered home by a review by Town & Country: “It might not be actual history, but we certainly don’t mind.”

Dear me: yes we do.

Ultimately, however well Thompson and other serious biographers bring a subject to life, their work is going to be grounded in conjecture and perception, and the best results can only be a plausible approximation of reality. We have to be able to trust that the author has made fair and accurate Photoshopping decisions. Laura Thompson has secured this trust, ironically in part through her fluency with Nancy Mitford’s fiction, and more conventionally through first-hand impressions and second-hand readings and viewings. She also gives us room to step away from her interpretations and judge them for ourselves through her copious citations and notes and by clearly signaling her opinions. The result, I think, is a rich and satisfying reading experience that attempts to take you out of your own head and into the minds and hearts of others — however distant and abstruse they might be.

Theatre review


We saw Aaron Sorkin’s newly rewritten Camelot in previews Wednesday — a very lucky happenstance, as neighbors whom we did not know had tickets they could not use and gave to us at our concierge’s suggestion. And we had just put a big deadline to rest the day before and so could wholeheartedly and gratefully welcome this unexpected Lincoln Center adventure. I wish the play had had the magic of the circumstances surrounding our attendance.

If I used titles for the posts in this blog instead of just the topic of the post, I would call this one “Camelot: Odd Choices, Weird Changes, and Missed Opportunities.”

The odd choices are evident from the beginning. The only piece of scenery on the set — a series of cathedral-like arches culminating at the front in abutments which block the view of I’d say a quarter of the audience in the loge on either side — is a tree. Obviously, this is the tree in which Arthur is hiding from his court and from which he will tumble to the runaway Guinevere’s feet. In fact, the show poster above telegraphs this: there is a figure in a tree. But… no, this tree is too stark and stylized a metal contraption; no one can be perched in it. Arthur is instead spotted by Merlin climbing the theater’s wall (literally), house left: a pretend tree. Which is so strange. And predictive of a host of disconnects to come, primarily stemming from misalignment of new vision with the original material.

Sorkin’s new vision is predicated on Arthur being a real king of the Enlightenment, intent on bringing a new order of democracy for all. In his telling, Guinevere is a clever partner, quicker on the uptake than Arthur, wisecracking and sharp in the Sorkin style. Which is all fine and good, but then there’s a terrible muddle about who really is loving who “in silence,” as the song has it. (Spoiler: it’s Arthur and Guinevere.) Which convolutes a lot of the plot and demotivates a lot of songs. 

A prime example is “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” In the original (see below for a wonderful rendering by Julie Andrews and Richard Burton; the song begins at 5:40, but the preceding dialogue really points up the difference in the two versions), the song is essentially a shared grumble between two loving helpmeets, trying to lift the other’s burden a bit. It’s warm and caring and funny and a welcome relief as Arthur begins to grapple with the idea that the darkness his reign had hoped to alleviate is all too present all too closely all too pervasively.  In the new version, it was felt the song’s title would be perceived as classist by modern audiences. It is preceded by a dialogue between Arthur and Guinevere in which he calls her his business partner and she inwardly chafes at this; he then invokes his humble origins and she asks, almost sarcastically, yes, what do the simple folk do?  The attempt to de-classify it, along with Sorkin’s reconfigured love triangle,  results in the song losing any of its tension-breaking abilities, along with any charm.

A missed opportunity exists in the costumes, which are almost as spare and minimal as the sets. I’m not suggesting that the reimagined musical needed to reproduce the opulence and splendor of the original production; just that smart choices supporting the new vision be made. Everyone enters all in black and I figured that the designer was going to then signify the blossoming of Camelot by then preceding to bring life and bloom to the court. But except for Guinevere in red, and Lancelot in blue, and Arthur in mauve (I guess to show his affinity to both?) and everybody wearing kind of cheesy yellow capes for Lancelot’s knighting, color wasn’t well used. And frankly, if Arthur is in mauve to place him between the other two, then this reduces the musical to a personal problem, rather than symbolizing the Edenic expulsion of the earlier incarnation or the noble move toward progress of the current.

The insertion of the character of Morgan Le Fay — whom I understand Lerner cut out of many later productions of Camelot — is one of the weird choices. And her really long and, to my mind, pointless scene with Arthur has her recast from enchantress to self-professed scientist, a claim for which no evidence is given, other than a coldly detached demeanor. Her attitude is fatalistic: although noting that the coming new century will be one of science, she does not hold much faith in science to improve things, since anyone who chooses to do battle with human nature will lose.

This odd scene, which features the only lighting effect in the production — a shadow pattern of twining stems and branches on the floor, with branches and stems being sketched along the foremost arch, suggesting a suffocating entrapment that the scene does not embody — is intercut with both “Fie on Goodness!” (a comic number which really suffers from the interruption and from being made to serve as a major thematic statement) and with Guinevere and Lancelot’s consummation, which is less motivated by passion than inevitability and vengeance.

The intended cumulative effect of these simultaneous betrayals and cynical statements is lost since each is individually bewildering and distracting. (A small, but I think significant, nit contributing to my distraction: one of the solos in “Fie!” is sung by the actor who played Lancelot’s page in Act I, who still wears his page attire — notable because its weird headgear is an exact replica of Terry Gilliam’s in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — and is therefore not a knight with the same restless longings to return to the good old bad old days.) The perhaps most notable distraction is the realization that, if Guinevere loves Arthur and not Lancelot, then what exactly has everybody been picking up on and remarking on ad nauseam about her and Lance since he first came to court?

The script has to work so hard and devote so much time and effort to realign the trio and make Jenny and Arthur misbegotten lovers in the manner of say, Scarlett and Rhett, that the true tragedy of Camelot is completely overshadowed. This is the ultimate misalignment and the greatest missed opportunity. Although there are many fine speeches from Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot about progress and democracy, and lots of grumbling from the knights about the same, there is no sense that Arthur has ever achieved that halcyon “brief shining moment.”

Losing the magic was important to Sorkin, as he has explained in interviews. He feels this makes Camelot more relevant by making it more real. So: no wizards or nymphs or enchantresses; a quite pointed statement early on by Arthur that the laws of men and God are quite separate things; and a lot of denigration of both Lancelot’s bringing his opponent “back to life” (in this production, it’s Arthur who is the final challenger to Lance; another odd choice) and of Arthur’s securing of Excalibur (Jenny dryly suggests that the preceding contenders had loosened it for him). These aren’t miracles, but the gullible public will insist on their being so.

And maybe it’s this intrinsic dichotomy that is tripping up Sorkin’s Camelot. Arthur knights the child (Sir Tom) at the end and commands him to tell the story of Camelot and so inspire new generations who will build on and better this vision. (And I should mention, the reason the child is “Tom” is because this is an oblique reference to the fifteenth century Sir Thomas Malory, who first committed the Arthurian legends to print.) But as Arthur has shown he recognizes, the people need excitement, glamour, intrigue, spectacle, mystery. They need a good yarn. This Camelot may crackle with Sorkin wit and his brand of cynical optimism (or optimistic cynicism?), but once you remove the tragic triangle and flood the mists of time with the bright lights of enlightenment, where is the magic that will spark audiences to want to hear this story?

Movie review

2023 Oscar-Nominated Shorts



The 2023 shorts were the best I’ve seen in years, but you would not know that from the winners, so I felt I needed to weigh in and explain what the Academy overlooked.

First off, we were thrilled to get to see them in a real theater again. Second off, it was crazy hard to figure out how and where to see them so that we could do dinner afterwards; we eventually and delightedly took the day off and saw them with Sarah in Philly at the Landmark Ritz, which was wonderful on so many counts.

We saw the live action shorts first. For the last few years, this program has left me feeling drained, deadened, depressed, and utterly dejected. Guns. Drums. Toxic men. Wars. Barriers. Betrayals. Soldiers. Violence. Hatred. But not this year. This year, the films were…lighter somehow, softer, more humane, more affecting. That isn’t to say that they weren’t, several of them, quite sad. Two revolved around death, one around wartime deprivation. But a couple dipped into or ended up in cockeyed lunacy, and most ended on a hopeful note. All were about outsiders, and four were about girls or women.  Which made for a very very nice change after years of grim, grungy testosterone-fueled conflicts in these live short programs. (But trust the Academy to award the Oscar to the sole short featuring a male protagonist!).

All five shorts take their lead character on a journey to deeper understanding of themselves, their fellows, and their world. By the end of the harrowing, haunting The Red Suitcase, the heroine has lost everything that gave her identity; her first steps down this road were of her own volition: she removed her hajib. Will she continue to have agency? We care about her; she is a little girl in a frightening and unfamiliar land. When I first saw it, I worried for her; now, maybe I feel hope.

An Irish Goodbye leaves the viewer much less ambiguously hopeful. The mother is dead and the estranged stubborn brothers, one who has Downs Syndrome and the other who has left for a life in the city, have come together in meticulously carrying out a presumed bucket list in her honor. There is dark humor and whimsy, but it is a little too neat for my taste.

Far from neat and verging on downright weird is the Italian Disney film Le Pupille, which features scary strict nuns, a blowsy Italian voluptuary, girl orphans who pray for petitioners for a fee on Christmas morning while suspended in midair, and a cake made from seventy eggs at a point in World War II when I don’t think there were that many eggs in all of Italy.


A strange tale indeed! And totally inverted, with the pious denying and begrudging, the innocent decried as bad and selfish (Sarah astutely noted that the stubborn Serafina shares her ill-gotten slice with first the dogs and then the children, more like Christ than the calculating Mother Superior), and a flippant, irreverent, amoral Italian shrug of an ending with cake—albeit on the pavement—for all.

Night Ride is also a rollercoaster of tones and tempos, with its moods changing as the heroine, a little person who is early for the night train, accidentally at first, but then gradually less cautiously and more assuredly and more bravely and smartly, takes matters into her own hands. I won’t spoil it, as it’s available in full to watch.

The last of the five, Ivalu, set in Greenland, is about a little girl’s love for her missing older sister and her journey to discover what became of her. The answer to the mystery is not in any of the stark, pristine, forbidding but majestic mountains or caves or waters she encounters as she treks through the places where she and Ivalu played; the answer is at home where the dark deeds that led Ivalu to her eventual resting place occurred.

Interestingly, the Inuit tale of the sea goddess Sedna that underscores Ivalu was the subject of the best of the pieces at this year’s Puppet Slam at La MaMa, Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” retelling of this scary-sad-savage myth which, nonetheless, also ends on a note of hope: the angry Sedna and her stormy seas can be placated by combing her hair, smoothing out all the debris it has accumulated and making it, her, the sea, and the world calm again.


Now to the animations. Two are sublime, transcendent. One is wise and funny, sassy and brassy. One is quirky weird. And one is abysmal, wretchedly inauthentic, hackneyed, cloying, and pointless. That one won the award.

Since all of these are available to watch online, I will not belabor them; they all (except the repugnant The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse) should be seen and savored. Let me first dismiss the execrable entry. I understand that it is a children’s book, and I will do my damnedest to keep it out of the hands of any children I know. What struck me first on viewing The Boy… is how derivative it is. The animation style echoes E.H. Shepard’s Winnie-The-Pooh illustrations. The boy’s quest, to return home, echoes Dorothy’s. The rhythm of the noun-packed title echoes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The three magical friends (all male) mimic at least the outward composition of Dorothy’s own original confreres, but their needs are vaguer and more neurotic. And lastly, the closing tableau of the blond-haired boy and his three friends framed by a deep blue night sky shot with stars echoes Le Petit Prince. It is a charmless film made by clumsy cut-and-paste or soulless AI. In chopping up all the winner bits, it forgot to give it any heart. Instead, the long short is peppered with the most anodyne dialogue of the we-are-all-special variety: Sarah and I were dangerously close to a serious attack of the giggles and could not look at each other for much of the movie.

Washing the taste of all that treacle away was the frank, sly, funny My Year of Dicks. Sarah thinks this should be required viewing for all teenage girls, as it recounts the heroine’s quest to lose her virginity and her heart. She loses the latter at least, along with her head, in a very funny series of differently styled vignettes of romance and passion as filtered through a gawky adolescent’s imagination. It is charming.

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It is a highly meta short that reminded me of nothing so much as the odd half-world of Severance. A rather grim piece, when you think about it, saved from despair by its black humor.

Now to the pieces that soar: literally and figuratively. The Flying Sailor is nothing short of breathtaking. And, for the least grounded of the shorts, it is oddly the one based on fact. Apparently, in 1917 in Halifax Harbor, two ships bringing supplies to the war collided: one was loaded with munitions and the explosion was horrific. Thousands were killed or injured, but one sailor flew over a mile in the air and landed unharmed. This short traces his journey: it goes far far far more than a mile. Staggering and wordless and beautiful.

Ice Merchants is also wordless. A father and son live a precarious but happy life on the side of a mountain cliff. Something has gone from their lives and we know who she is and how she is missed by an exquisite use of color. Changing climate dooms their livelihood: there is no longer any ice to sell, and the foundations of their lives, already shaken, are rocked to the core. Watch.

Book review, Concert, Movie review, Theatre review, TV review

2022 Roundup

Books (me)

Several of these I have already discussed. As to the others, two — the tedious Drury Lane The Tragedy of Y and the Datlow anthology — were slight, the latter especially disappointingly so, with only the stories by (of course) Kelly Link, Benjamin Percy, and Stephen Graham Jones (whose contribution was very powerful and genuinely scary) truly capturing Jackson. Many of the tales in Edith Wharton’s Ghosts are deliciously spine tingling and creepy; quite the pleasure. I loved the first two-thirds of The Robber Bride, after which it kind of fizzled out, but until then I luxuriated in Atwood’s tightly, carefully structured book and its building of parallel rhythms like a incessant drumbeat: so taut, so smart. And the wonderful, damaged, strong-frail women who populate the book, all so worth getting to know. The satisfying fairy-tale framing and infusion. And the quirky, dead-on Atwood observations, like this one from Tony, a female professor of military history:

There’s an element of sheer mischief in history, thinks Tony. Perverse joy. Outrageousness for its own sake. What is an ambush, really, but a kind of military practical joke? Hiding yourself, then jumping out and yelling Surprise! But none of the historians ever mentions it, this quality of giddy hide-and-seek. They want the past to be serious. Dead serious. She muses over the phrase: if dead is serious, is alive then frivolous?

Nightmare Alley is also tightly organized, with each chapter title a Tarot card and the wheel of destiny moving inexorably from dust to dust. It is a pitch black, ice-cold noir, and it is easy to see why it appealed to Tyrone Power in the original and Guillermo del Toro in the remake; its protagonist is a nasty piece of work:

How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and writhed back again into the darkness of their blind groping.

As to Bader’s Marx Brothers bio, it is masterful and comprehensive and well researched and nicely written, and I appreciate that he wrote, as he says in the introduction, the book he wished he could find when trying to learn about their touring years. And I loved learning that the Marx Brothers first performed I’ll Say She Is! just down the street from where Sarah now lives, at the Walnut Street Theater. But I was a little sorry to learn stuff about the brothers that maybe I really didn’t need to know. I confess to being absolutely shocked to learn that their mother essentially pimped for them, maintaining a convenient stable of young girls rather than risk the boys loosed on unsuspecting small towns on the circuit. They were on the road in a rough-and-tumble business for a long, long time, and there were apparently a lot of unsavory doings; I’d much prefer to watch Animal Crackers and shut all that out.

Books (Steve)

  • The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz
  • Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead
  • They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Horace McCoy
  • Music of Chance, Paul Auster
  • Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
  • Martin Eden, Jack London
  • Heavenly Table, Donald Ray Pollock
  • The Misfits, Arthur Miller
  • Where Are You Going?, Joyce Carol Oates
  • Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin
  • Conversion of Jews, Philip Roth
  • Fever, Raymond Carver
  • The Accident, Chris Pavone
  • The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles
  • The Color of Light, William Goldman
  • The Natural, Bernard Malamud
  • Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos
  • The Red Notebook, Paul Auster
  • The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King

Steve was pleased to discover Walter Mosley and really enjoyed a lot of the noir short stories along with the twisty-turny Goldman. No clear favorite among the wide-ranging offerings emerged, although Jack London’s Martin Eden comes close to topping to the list. The small print and crammed pages of this out-of-copyright novel definitely detracted from the reading experience.


  • Lemon Girls or Art for the Artless (Talking Band, La MaMa)
  • Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca (The Joyce)
  • Suffs (The Public)
  • One-Act Play Festival 2022 (Sarah)
  • Death of a Salesman (Hudson Theatre)
  • Washington Square (Axis Company)
  • The Crooked Heart (staged reading of Susan Tepper play at Irish Rep)
  • Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre)
  • Ye Bear & Ye Cubb (Julie’s No.11 at 59 East 59th)


  • Alan Parsons Project Live (Wellmont Theater)
  • Taj Mahal (Union County PAC)
  • Itzhak Perlman and Friends (chamber music, Carnegie Hall)

A privilege relief pleasure and delight to go to the theater again, even if masked and frequently cramped (especially the wretchedly deplorable seats in the nosebleed section at Carnegie Hall which urged us out at intermission never to return). Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke were powerful and sad in Salesman, bringing an added, nuanced poignancy to Miller by being black. Clarke’s Linda was particularly revelatory; no passive enabler, but a forceful, strong woman desperately dependent on her husband’s dreams. And getting to experience the sinister magic of André de Shields after missing him in Hadestown last year was a real pleasure; he made Ben an irresistible force. Suffs  deserves a good run; hopefully that will happen. It’s not Hamilton, no, and it makes a serious misstep in its portrayal of Woodrow Wilson, but Phillipa Soo is incandescent and it is so much more meaningful for girls to see real heroines working and dreaming and compromising than the stunt gender reversal in the current production of 1776. Our indie experiences with Talking Band, Axis, and No.11 were all filled with heart and soul and sincerity; a joy. I wish I could have taken more from Leopoldstadt; it is beautiful Stoppard with his trademark ability to invoke and evoke humanity through the most abstruse, abstract concepts. I felt distanced from it I think because our immediate family did not suffer the Holocaust; but I certainly could feel the shocking, jaw-dropping casual cruelty of the gentile soldier toward the outwardly assimilated and well-connected Hermann — a 1900 foreshadowing of the difficulties to come a half century later.

Both the Alan Parsons and Taj Mahal concerts very much harked back to the pandemic: the former because Parsons was so obviously, almost giddily, happy to be in concert (and Alan Parsons is, as I have noted before, a most formidable, imposing presence); and the latter because in the intervening years of pandemic people (well, some people) have completely forgotten how to behave in public. We had the most bizarre woman in the front row drawing all kinds of attention to herself dancing, as the saying goes, as if no one was watching. But they were. And I fault both her for loony behavior and the surrounding patrons for not taking the matter to authorities who could have resolved the situation.


According to my Letterboxd list, we watched (gulp) around two hundred movies this year, not including rewatches. We saw these in actual theaters:

  • The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
  • Nope
  • Moonage Daydream
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • 2022 Oscar-Nominated Shorts
  • Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
  • Triangle of Sadness

My hands-down favorite of these was Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which is sweet, a bit sad, extremely profound, and funny as hell. But it vies with the Nicolas Cage craziness that is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which is also funny as hell. I also liked Everything, but it was self-indulgently overlong and there were a couple of missed opportunities overlooked in the filmmakers’ desire for another martial arts scene. We didn’t understand Nope; Moonage Daydream should not have been as linear as it ended up being and certainly — like Bowie himself and his art — never repetitious. Triangle of Sadness was delicious, horrifyingly wicked satire.

We stumbled on some rather wonderful pictures at home; these are the top faves, in no particular order and crossing all kinds of genres and decades:

  • Antonia’s Line (Marleen Gorris, 1995)
  • Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)
  • Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011)
  • Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)
  • Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019)
  • Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
  • The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger, 1949)
  • Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
  • Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
  • Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)
  • Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)
  • Wah-Wah (Richard E. Grant, 2005)
  • This Happy Breed (David Lean, 1944)
  • Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)

Inside Man and Headhunters are deliciously twisty thrillers, and unlike all too many (I’m thinking of you, The Outfit), every twist and turn is true to the characters and the situation and not manipulated for the sake of a cheap surprise. Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon, Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, and David Lean’s This Happy Breed are classic films from another century — and yet live and breath and tell enduring truths about men and women, war, and family. Polley’s Take This Waltz and Grant’s Wah-Wah are tales of dysfunctional people and relationships, impressively and heartbreakingly conveyed. We watched the Haneke and von Trier films on subsequent days; each is so powerful and unrelenting, we felt elevated to a better, wiser place, better able to see and feel human passions and frailties. Then there is the still quiet of Columbus, an achingly beautiful tale of detachment and engagement, of a man and a woman of disparate lives, cultures, and backgrounds touching, connecting; and it’s not a romance. The film Martin Eden spurred Steve on to read the original novel — but the movie has only the barest outlines, although the beating heart, of the Jack London source material. It has been transplanted to Italy, and spins a wild, passionate, utterly engaging. narrative. Neither Steve nor I can figure out how we missed the Scorsese-directed, Nicolas Cage-starring Bringing Out the Dead on its original release, but boy were we glad to chance on it now. It creates a world of suffering and exhilaration and chaos and despair all hung on that wild man Cage as a New York City paramedic riding through hell over forty-eight hours. Moving from hell to heaven, and tied for top place on my list of best movies seen this year, is Wings of Desire. This soaring, majestic, humane, glorious film features angels and acrobats, and the best work Peter Falk ever did. Tied for first place is the magical realist, modern-day I Remember Mama–like Antonia’s Line, which won that year’s best foreign film Oscar, and tells the story of four generations of dauntless, defiant, delightful Dutch women (five if you count Antonia’s fearsome mother). These two are wondrously affirming films; beacons in a dark world.

Probably the best documentary we saw this year was Mark Cousins’s The Eyes of Orson Welles, which takes a personal, painterly look at Welles and his works, and was written as if Cousins is addressing the man himself, wistfully, slyly, in a sadly lilting Irish accent. The Real Charlie Chaplin inspired us to seek out more of his works, including Limelight, and left us with a much deeper appreciation and understanding of Chaplin. We also greatly liked the honest appraisal and frank bewilderment of W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby.

Best comedy (aside from The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent) was John Hamm’s Confess, Fletch, and I hope there are many more sequels. This was a nice old-fashioned screwball comedy, and a genuine easy pleasure.

Best horror suspense was Last Night in Soho, which is quite stylish as well and has some wonderful retro choreography, particularly in the opening sequence.

A rewatch treat: after years of patient searching and waiting, we found Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles on YouTube. It haunts me still, and I can’t say why. Other notable revisits were The Innocents, which haunts in a different way; and a magnificent television version (deplorable quality) of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, starring Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris, also courtesy of YouTube. This brings up another thought: despite all the many platforms, so many wonderful films are lost or missing due to copyright, distribution quirks, or indifference.

We watched numerous films, primarily suspense/thrillers, from the sixties and seventies and found that while many of them did not stand up at all (notably the barely watchable The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, whose appeal I continue not to understand, and Gorky Park), others are startlingly crisp, taut, and insightful (notably Three Days of the Condor and Preminger’s The Human Factor).

Other intriguing/uplifting films from the year:

  • Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1996; wildly funny and haphazard)
  • Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
  • The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
  • A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm, 2015)
  • Anxious People (Felix Herngren, 2021)
  • The Lady in the Car with Glasses and Gun (Joann Sfar, 2015)
  • Algiers (John Cromwell, 2938)
  • Snake Eyes (Brian De Palma, 1998)
  • Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
  • The End of Violence (Wim Wenders, 1997)
  • The Americanization of Emily (Arthur Hiller, 1964)
  • Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020)
  • Thirst Street (Nathan Silver, 2017)
  • Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
  • Faraway, So Close! (Wim Wenders, 1993)
  • The Luzhin Defence (Marleen Gorris, 2000)
  • Changing Lanes (Roger Michell, 2002)
  • Racing with the Moon (Richard Benjamin, 1984)
  • State of Grace (Phil Joanou, 1990)
  • The Man in the Hat (Stephen Warbeck, John-Paul Davidson, 2020)
  • Eternal Beauty (Craig Roberts, 2019)
  • A Short Film About Killing (Krysztof Kieslowski, 1988)


  • The best, hands down: Godless (wept both times we watched this)
  • Pretentious, vapid, and ridiculous: The Gilded Age
  • Not as good as we’d hoped: Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (with the exception of the eighth installment, “The Murmuring,” which was superlative); We Own This City (but even lesser David Simon is still David Simon, smart, biting, and incisive)
  • Gripping, absorbing, cool, and taut, until it wasn’t: Stranger Things, Shining Girls
  • Lived up to the hype: Severance; Unbelievable; Russian Doll, Season 2
  • Did not live up to the hype: 1899, Super Pumped
  • Unexpectedly arresting and smart: Two Summers (haunting), Bodyguard, Kleo (move over Lisbeth Salander), The Twelve, Criminal (UK, not so much Germany, France, or Spain), The Enfield Haunting
  • Fun: Loot, Our Flag Means Death (plus so nice to see Matt Maher, whose The Race of the Ark Tattoo we saw over twenty years ago)
  • A surprising abundance of slick, glossy David E. Kelley, best in small doses: Anatomy of a Scandal, The Lincoln Lawyer, Goliath (which turned into an unwatchable mess by Season 2), The Undoing — great coats for Nicole Kidman, though)
  • Well conceived and solidly delivered: The Staircase; The Minions of Midas; The Last Movie Stars; The Flight Attendant; Irma Vep; Gentleman Jack, Season 2; Better Call Saul; Longmire (Steve)

Field Trips

  • Coney Island Aquarium with Sarah
  • Whale watching on the Belmar Princess in the New York Harbor
  • Mutter Museum with Tracey, Guy, and Sarah
  • Abraham Path Initiative lecture (here in the building, organized by our neighbor: fascinating!)
  • Farmers markets at Newtown (meh), Rittenhouse Square, and Union Square (multiple times)
  • Sandy Hook pedestrian bridge (at long last)
  • Reading Terminal (after waaay too long)
  • Chelsea Market (still a madhouse)
  • Furniture shopping in Paramus (lovely Italian leather couch and snappy recliner/ottoman for Steve)
  • Cherry Hill food outing with Sarah
  • Richmond with Sarah to see new baby Alice and two-year-old Ollie and Danny and Emily

Food and Restaurants

  • New nice (indoor at last!) lunch find: Elli’s Backyard (Red Bank)
  • Major-cut-above Chinese carryout: Hot Sichuan (we’ve gone much further for far worse over the years in non-ethnic-food-loving Central Jersey)
  • Beyond-wonderful sandwiches: Talercio’s, Patisto’s, Long Branch Gourmet (an embarrassment of picnic riches)
  • Highlight outdoor dining: Le Gigot in the Village (until the sun went down); Patrizia’s (so graciously accommodating our large party); Prime 13; Fitzwater Café (Philadelphia); always the Shrimp Box and Klein’s; pretty much any tiny Greek place in New York (uptown, downtown, or Queens) where we can round up all three girls
  • Highlight at-home dining: multiple multiday multihour two-person crab feasts featuring old movies synchronized between the TV (Steve’s line of sight) and the iPad (me) (it’s almost as much fun synching the two devices as picking the crab — almost); numerous Saturday runs to the Belmar pier Lobster Brothers for crazy-fresh shrimp, scallops, and (of course) lobster; the bountiful reinstated Feast of the Seven Fishes with company and at least 10 kinds of fish; swordfish chops from Lusty Lobster
  • New bakery finds in New York: Donut Pub, Breads Bakery, and Fabrique Bakery
  • Local losses we will greatly miss: Cheese Cave, Tumi Peruvian

Doris Grumbach


My first mentor, the professor who taught me to write and think, died Friday at age a hundred and four. Doris Grumbach was smart and scary and fierce and formidable and intelligent and imposing — and a great writer. To her, every word, every mark of punctuation, mattered, and she instilled that in her students. We learned to be careful writers, to build a sentence with thought, a paragraph with logic, and an essay with coherence and dispassion. We killed darlings, polished prose, and said what we meant. As readers, we learned to give the author his donné, respect for his right to tackle his chosen subject, and to bring our best tools to assess the results.

I passed these tools and respect on to my brother, who applied them to every review he wrote on his now-defunct website,, and then instructed his reviewing team to approach each play they saw with the understanding that “they didn’t put it up just to annoy you.” The playwright’s donné, you see.

I am astonished at how much I remember about Mrs. Grumbach (she was ALWAYS Mrs. Grumbach to me, never Doris, but also curiously never Professor Grumbach, at least not to me), how much she impressed me. I was assigned to her Honors English class at American University in 1976. The syllabus was (mostly) modern (mostly) American lit. I’m doing this from memory forty-six years later, so it must have stuck: a book of short stories by Hemingway (my first real exposure to him and I really now can’t see him without seeing Mrs. Grumbach sort of melded there too), a set of three early plays by Eugene O’Neill (whose short work I did not know), Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge (a wonderful title), George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (which I can still remember), economist E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (which I cannot remember at all and wonder if we ever got to this one),  Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (which I remember very well and aspire to daily), and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the first named review of which, on the very first page of the paperback I still own, is by Doris Grumbach.

The second week or so of class we were assigned our first essays. When she came to hand them back to us, she said bluntly that they weren’t much good, except for one student’s and, with the permission of the author, she would like to read that essay aloud to the class, and would that be all right, Miss Denton? Well, I was Miss Denton then, and yes — oh yes indeedy — it was all right.

I promptly signed up for an independent study with Mrs. Grumbach. I’m not even sure what our topic was, but I know our purposes. For me, I went where I was welcomed, plus four courses didn’t keep me sufficiently busy and challenged. For her part, she explained that her four daughters had attended Vassar, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Barnard, at all of which institutions “they were made to work their fool asses off. You, Nita, chose to come to American University. I will make you work your fool ass off.”

And she did.

She had me keep a journal and she read it weekly. She would speed read moving her finger diagonally down a page. One week I had read her biography of Mary McCarthy and noted with the astute sophistication of a freshman that I felt she rather longed to be McCarthy. That observation got a tart response, and I blushed a thousand shades of scarlet; I hadn’t until that point really believed she could speed read.

She was a reviewer and received books in galley form before their publication. She let me read and review some. I’d never seen galleys. I remember feeling so important, so privileged, reading Peter Taylor’s Summons to Memphis in galleys over dinner at the Mary Graydon Center. What a book! What a writer! I also read Lore Segal’s Lucinella, which didn’t impress me that much. There were others, and I never got over the thrill of reading those oversized proofs, tucking the edge under my dinner plate to make it lay flatter, glorying in being in the know, of seeing something before it was given to the rest of world.

In all, I took two independent studies and two formal classes with her. She casually, effortlessly commanded a classroom — any room in fact. Her handsome, imposing face, stern-featured, thick graying hair, huge, piercing intelligent eyes, with just a hint of sadness — or was it just experience?— in them, eyes that missed nothing. She wore no makeup, and I think I only saw her in a skirt once in all the time I knew her, which extended a bit beyond my undergraduate years. I remember her most typically in a vaguely nautical dark-blue-horizontal-striped, three-quarter-length-sleeve top, with a zipper up to the neck. Dark pants. Dressed for comfort; jaunty. A world away from the tweeds and patches and dowdiness of academe, she looked like she’d be more at home as first mate on a ship. So comfortable in her skin, in her being. Perched or sprawled or with leg tucked up in her chair, she dispensed sage observations, pragmatic guidance, dry, wry anecdotes, and stern injunctions to respect the work, the author, the written word. She would laugh occasionally, smile sometimes, look pleased or satisfied at a student’s observation or — more likely — something she’d read. And here are some of the things she shared:

  • On the occasion of our first blue book exam, she admonished us to think first, then write. She told us of a student she had had in a previous year who sat and sat and sat in front of her blank blue book, not writing, just sitting, staring, until after more than half the period had passed, at which point she began to write. Fluidly, confidently, in well-formulated sentences and paragraphs with nary a cross-out. I am not sure if that tale is apocryphal — much like the nihilist student my philosophy professor, Harold Durfee, described at the beginning of his Intro to Philosophy seminar, the student who said all year, “Nothing matters, Professor Durfee, nothing matters or has meaning,” until the final exam when the student’s A-quality work was accorded an F by Professor Durfee and when the student protested, Professor Durfee mildly remarked, “But if nothing matters…” — but it sure gave me motivation to write well under pressure.
  • I can’t remember the context, but in one class, she told us funny stories of her early jobs. One in Hollywood where she provided the French translation to be affixed as the caption for a Jean Harlow bathtub scene and she, being prudish, translated the dialogue literally, jamming text all the way up Harlow’s decolletage. There is another version of this story by Mrs. Grumbach herself in a 2016 memoir published in The American Scholar. I can’t tell you whose memory is faulty, but I would guess mine. And another where she wrote lingerie copy and was fired when she penned, “Ladies, this girdle will make you look positively uncanny!” (That story too appears in her memoir; we’re both more or less in sync on this one.)
  • I remember her taking me for a tour of the AU Literature Department as it existed in 1976. She introduced me to visiting scholar I.F. Stone, who was so kind and unprepossessing, and I had no idea at the time who he was, and she told me later confidentially, and not the least bit arrogantly, just matter-of-factly, that she and Izzie were the stars of the department.
  • I worked as a receptionist in the Lit Department, and I remember her resume: it was three-quarters of a page long. Compared to Henry Taylor’s forty-page CV, which listed every poem he had ever had published anywhere.
  • She taught me to read my prose aloud when writing and rewriting and re-rewriting — which one should always do — explaining that the ear would catch errors that the eye glossed over. (Particularly a speed-reading eye, I would think.) This advice has stood me in good stead to this day. I ALWAYS read aloud as I edit, and I always read my own writing aloud.
  • Mrs. Grumbach much admired Henry James, and she instilled in me an admiration for his intricate yet unerringly accurate construction. She introduced me to the delight of untangling a complex, tightly woven, multiline sentence — and to the despair of untwisting a carelessly fabricated one. The theme here is that she showed me why good writing is a pleasure, how it can be a sensual experience — meaning a gratification to the senses — to come across an elegant sentence, an evocative statement, and not to fall under its spell, no, no, not to be intoxicated by it, but to cogently, gravely, parse, savor, and appreciate it.
  • She emphasized the supremacy of the writer. If Herman Melville chose to write over 200,000 words about a great white whale, that is his choice, his business, his concern, his problem. The reviewer’s work is to determine how well he did what he set out to do: were those 200,000 words well contrived? The reviewer must never set him or herself above the author by judging the relevance or importance of the topic; the reviewer must never use the author’s work as a cudgel or as a platform for displaying his or her own cleverness. That’s not how the hierarchy works; that’s not how good faith reviewing works.

She asked me to help her and Sybil, her partner, pack up books in preparation for a move. I can’t remember when or where, just that I was very young and I helped and that my father came to pick me up, and that he and Mrs. Grumbach spoke and quite enjoyed each other. I think. I like to think. I know he much admired her and her writing, was hooked on Ragtime when I brought it home, and went on to read all of Doctorow, and to read and greatly appreciate — far more than I, but I was so young, how could I understand her subject matter yet? — Mrs. Grumbach’s novels and memoirs.

I know I went to a reading, at Lambda Books, maybe, when her novel Chamber Music came out. And she signed a copy of the book, and I’m pretty sure it was a gratis copy. And I still cringe inwardly at the inscription: “For Nina — in Friendship — Doris Grumbach. 1 May 1979.” It took my ego a few decades to process that teachers don’t remember students as well as students remember their teachers. And they really don’t need to. The spark has been lit, the influence internalized. And in Mrs. Grumbach’s case, by me, via family and colleagues, spread wide and far. She was an influencer.

I think I did tell her at some point past graduation how much her teaching had resonated with me, stuck with me, informed my career and perspectives. I think I did. I like to think I did. And probably I did, because I have another book with an inscription. For Coming Into the End Zone, she wrote to me and my then-husband, “For Nita and Roger in memory of an older time — Doris Grumbach.”

Perhaps an older time. Perhaps just a memory. But Doris Grumbach’s teachings and values resonate in me to this day.

Movie review

The Innocents


How is it that a movie set largely in daytime and featuring a most domestic set of characters — governess, housekeeper, adorable children — and adopting a steadfastly rational Victorian sensibility is so ineffably, utterly creepy and disturbing?


I hadn’t seen The Innocents in decades, and Steve had never seen it. It holds up, and it holds much power. Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the ScrewThe Innocents is about a first-time governess at a remote country home who comes to believe that her two young charges are being corrupted by the malevolent spirits of the household’s dead valet and former governess — whose respective deaths the children witnessed.  The film — and the story — can be seen as ambiguous or skewed; a straight-out ghost story or a tale of dangerous obsession and madness. On previous viewings, I was very much in the ambiguity camp; this time, I saw the scary tale of demonic possession from beyond the grave as being entirely imposed by the highly susceptible, highly suggestible governess.

And it is all so careful; of course it is, it’s written by Henry James and Truman Capote. Its first line of dialogue is Miss Giddens’s future employer asking her if she has an imagination. She will need one, he feels, to manage his household; he already has a staid, commonsensical housekeeper who does not entertain the unseen or unforeseen. And of course Miss Giddens has, and not only an imagination but a lively imagination — a romantic imagination. What she doesn’t have is experience to counterbalance and reign in that imagination. She is the innocent; a country parson’s daughter brought up to see the world in dualities of black and white, good and evil. And she is a sponge, soaking up first her employer’s words about loving children (which she is parroting in her prayers that open the film and presumably postscript its actions) and then every tidbit, scrap, and snippet of Mrs. Grose’s increasingly salacious gossip about the household and its previous occupants. She then stitches these together into a titillating bodice ripper that both thrills and repels her, and narrates her embroidered tale back to Mrs. Grose, the two mutually reinforcing their shared delusion as keenly as any Salem goodwife. It’s mass hysteria in the making; and it made me wonder how exactly people — women especially — in isolated conditions with too much time and too little outlets have coped throughout history.

The governess in the novella (and in other filmed versions of the tale) is quite young, which makes her delusions perhaps more understandable. Deborah Kerr is no naive child; nor is she dull-witted or dim. The keen intelligence in her face, her confident conviction, cannot be disguised and is instead put in service of this high-strung, thrummingly neurotic character. Miss Giddens, like the children she is tasked with tending, yearns for love and approbation. And like the children, her natural longings are frustrated and thwarted by her circumstances.

Going beyond their calm, creepy English children facades, Miles and Flora are incredibly sympathetic and sad characters. Their parents are dead, their uncle is utterly disinterested in them and has made very little effort to disguise his feelings, they are stuck on a vast estate with no playmates or peers, and fully a third of their household staff — their only full-time companions — has died violently, suddenly, and inexplicably within the last year. They very much want to love Miss Giddens. Look how that works out.

I am suddenly struck by the fact that only one character in the film has both a first and a surname: the valet Peter Quint, but this is generally spat out as a single word. As for the rest, they have either a title and a last name, like Miss Giddens or Mrs. Grose, or only a first name, like the children, or no name at all — that’s the uncle. This symbolizes, I think, the unequal power and class relationships that prevent anyone from truly getting close to anyone else, truly penetrating and sharing another’s reality. It creates the aching loneliness and isolation that underlies this very claustrophobic, interior story.

Resulting in the shattering disintegration of home, psyche, and family that is the end of The Innocents.

Book review

The Color of Light (William Goldman)

It was definitely a pleasure (and something of a relief) to plunge quickly, painlessly, and absorbedly into a Good Read. And curiously, to find that I had quite unawares chosen a book with a familiar theme.

Just as some classic rock musicians ruefully explore the hazards and hardships of life on the road (e.g., Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out”), some successful authors ruefully (and bitterly and bitingly and bitchily) explore the hazards and hardships of being a writer. I have previously written about two such books: William Golding’s scathing The Paper Men and Frederic Raphael’s disingenuous Fame and Fortune. Both of these reveal the cold-blooded, nasty practice that they see is an author’s wont: to ransack the lives of friends, lovers, foes, and strangers in pursuit of fresh Material. They can’t help themselves; this is who they are: ghouls.

I had no idea when I picked it up that The Color of Light shares this premise. But it is also quite distinctly a William Goldman book, so the undercurrent of supercilious loathing that courses through both Golding and Raphael is missing here — although it is at times just as cynical. Goldman’s protagonist is Charles “Chub” Fuller, a wunderkind who is published well before graduating Oberlin and of whom great things are expected. His best friend, the freakish, brilliant Stanley “Two-Brew” Kitchel, son of an established New York publishing house, vows to be Max Perkins to this rising star. And Chub, damaged son of damaged parents, spins literary gold out of the dross of his confreres’ lives, threading their missteps and miscalculations into the tapestry he weaves in an effort to understand his own life.

And it all works.

Until it doesn’t.

No one short of Job’s Jehovah can rain down afflictions and mortifications on an undeserving schnook more pitilessly than William Goldman. His characters struggle out from under mountains of abuse heaped on them generally by those charged with protecting or at least purportedly loving them. I have quickly returned a couple of Goldmans to the shelf from whence they came when I could not stomach the too-easy, too blasé, too gleeful, cruelty. Or at least when that cruelty was not sufficiently balanced with at least one arresting, multifaceted character struggling to come through that abuse. You must hold firm to your conviction to leave, because Goldman will wilily trap you. He is a consummate dictator of rapid page turning, ending paragraphs with head-spinning contradictions, ending sections and chapters with nail-biting cliffhangers.

And then there is the rapid-fire, smart, savage dialogue. And the arresting opening statements to chapters. And the tight, clear, vivid descriptions. No darlings here. This guy can write.

He can also create. Chub — and by extension, Goldman — is bursting over with tales to tell; stories, plots, characters, scenarios effortlessly, continuously spill out of him. That these inexorably become ground and wound into his own backstory is the grim flip side of Chub’s gift.

I am not sure that other than his absolute devotion to the written word, to the tale told, that Chub is an entirely coherent, understandable character; his motivations are oblique even to himself. To a certain extent, and like Christopher Isherwood, Goldman’s Wilfred Barclay, and Raphael’s Adam Morris, he is a camera, not living a life so much as capturing Material.

Book review

Antkind (Charlie Kaufman)


When I started chapter 42 of Antkind, I told Steve that I was now about halfway through the book — and still had no idea what it was about.


In attempting to convey what I do know, I turn to Escher, whose impossible solipsism is kindred artistic expression.


Like an archetypal Escher, Antkind features symmetry, endless iteration, paradoxically perspectived terrains — and ultimately no sane way out.

I can say this: Antkind bore into my unconscious far more successfully than into my rational mind, leading me to several nights of dreams of uncertain certainty, of distorted clarity, of clear distortion, of cosmic revelation as profound and Pyrrhic as Trillian’s epiphany in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about the solution to all the world’s problems right as the Earth is destroyed.

Which is all exceedingly cool and somewhat counterintuitive for a book to do. And while I think Kaufman would appreciate all that, I’m sure he’d wish I could have retained more than a vague sense of the plot and the characters not only now, a few days after finishing, but also as I was actually reading it.

Nimbler, younger minds will get heaps out of this, I am sure. And perhaps I would have too had I read this on an electronic device (shudder) where I could instantly zip back to recurrent names and locales and thereby capture the nuanced differences in the recurrences rather than dimly recall “didn’t that already happen?” and vainly try to track it across seven hundred pages and ninety untitled chapters.

But reading is a cumulative process, and I think that’s part of the point of this book.

Here’s what it’s about: the narrator, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg — whose consciousness we never leave  and who writes in the present tense (itself an Escheresque paradox as he travels through time always and never in the present) — is a passionate but failed film critic who by chance stumbles on a staggering unknown cinematic masterwork. And maybe none or all of that is true. The film is a stop-motion history of everything cinematic and takes three months to watch. B. vows to bring this art to the world; it promptly is incinerated with only a single frame remaining, and after emerging from a months’-long coma, B. spends the rest of the book trying to remember the film. This becomes a perhaps cumulative, definitely iterative, process of accretion, distortion, fabrication, and despair. We cross the continent and millennia and yet never get it right.

The book’s major theme (or at least the one I grokked the best) seems to be the unknowability of objective reality or of art (specifically cinema), filtered as it is through our laughably limited senses, distorted by our alarmingly inaccurate memories, and oftentimes completely ignored by our preferences. But, as the novel plays out (mostly) during the Trump administration (rendered Trunk here, and the monologues in Trunk’s head are dead-on chillingly hilarious), there is the concomitant consideration of whether that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Because our narrator is such a pompous, conceited, insecure mess (B. is told by one character that he is “this bizarre combination of obsequious and blowhard”), we can never trust the sincerity of revelations like this:

The only way to be in relation to the world is to be in opposition to it, to stand firm, majestic, unbreakable… Otherwise a person is nothing but weather, at the mercy of the breeze, the wind, the tides, the ideas of others.

What can be trusted is the humor, which is sharp, irreverent, steeped in arcane and pop references, sometimes just plain fun and silly, but more generally absurd. For instance:

Look at this, I said to Murray, opening up my dog-eared copy [of a fictional obscure philosophic treatise on time] to the funniest passage I had ever read in any book, ever. But Murray just threw the book across the room again, this time hitting his cat Schrodinger and perhaps killing him.

There is a super-funny extended interaction with B.’s Orthodox Jewish doppelganger, who invokes “G-d” in conversation and eats Kosher Charms (pink dreidels, yellow matzohs, orange yarmulkes, green mezuzahs).

A running joke is that our film critic protagonist loathes Charlie Kaufman’s work but finds Judd Apatow’s to be the apotheosis of Western cinema. Another loopy running joke is the Mason City Orphanage of the Performing Arts, where several vaudevillian-styled characters were raised, leading one to lament that it was a shame the Perforphanage didn’t offer a more generalized curriculum, and the other to remark that he hadn’t even taken a math class. The first speaker then notes that he had taken math for entertainers, but his partner reminds him “But that was just learning to act like you’re doing math.” 

Puns, parodies, malapropisms, and incongruities abound. B. thumbtacks film clips on “the walls of the Sylvia Plath Memorial Indoor Running Track in the third subbasement of New York’s famed Barbizon Hotel for Women”; muses about “the blind filmmaker Kertes Onegin, who astonishingly acts as his own cinematographer…(his films are all in extreme close-up and include his hand in every shot)”; and walks down “New York’s famed Film Criticism District (7th between 25th and the middle of the block, facing uptown, east side of the street)”; and adheres to a seven-step method of watching a film, one step of which consists of watching “with the monitor upside down, which forces me to not take gravity for granted as a force in the film” and the last step of which is not to watch it. Crazy funny.

But the madeleine/macguffin driving the novel is retrieval of the lost masterpiece. Despite the huge canvas of time, space, and characters the filmmaker, Ingo Cutbirth, has covered — not just those Seen, but also the over six thousand Unseen puppets he built, posed, and did not film — B. loops back to a scant few pairs of characters, primarily increasingly faint and contorted variations on Abbott and Costello. Which is fitting, if obscure, as a throughline of the book is slapstick. B. is forever falling down manholes (“personholes,” as he terms them, in his self-righteous assays at gender neutrality), and haplessly subverted in innumerable fiendish ways throughout his quest. In fact, B. came to remind me of no character so much as Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones’s brilliantly wicked Duck Amuck, particularly as he becomes increasingly convinced/aware that he is himself a creation being tormented by an unseen creator:” data-wplink-url-error=”true”>http://

Which is funny as hell.

Overall, I don’t regret reading Antkind — and I don’t mean to thereby damn it with faint praise. It’s an exhilarating ride of language and allusion and illusion but ultimately offers little emotional connection (or at least for me), making it seem at times a bit bloated and self-indulgent and obtuse. Everyman Daffy Duck is in many ways a more sympathetic companion in confronting the Escherian existential void.

Theatre review

Pat Carroll, Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein, and the Specters of One-Man Shows


To me:

Pat Carroll always was always will be Gertrude Stein. And Gertrude Stein always now will be Pat Carroll. Sort of like when Gertrude Stein, on seeing her portrait by Picasso, said that she looked nothing like the painting and Picasso said she would. And she did and she does. And they are gone now, all of them, but the portrait remains and it is always was always will be Gertrude Stein and Pat Carroll will always be always was Gertrude Stein too.

Martin and I saw Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein forty-two years ago. I had seen other biographical one-man shows and would see several others in the intervening years. And some of them, like the best, most soaring, most searing, drama, took me to catharsis. And some faded almost as soon as I had seen them. My first, which I saw all by myself — a unique experience in itself, as I never go to the theater alone — was James Earl Jones in 1978 as Paul Robeson.


I must say I had forgotten there was an accompanist on stage. Because in my mind’s eye, summoning up this performance all these decades later, what I see is the person Jones conjured on the stage. Not Robeson, no. In the second act, I think, he talks of meeting a little girl, and Jones bent down to speak to this little girl so tenderly, so gently: I saw her. He brought her to life and I saw her there on the stage beside him. I never felt quite that sensation with any other actor except Pat Carroll — more about that later — and when Kevin Augustine’s puppet play Animal ended and I waited for Eugene the puppet to come out for his bow. Something not there had been put there, lived there, a sorcery that can only occur in live theater.

(In this context, I note a related observation, resorting to the lazy parenthetical aside invoked by too many reviewers/bloggers, but this observation is of a magical moment I have not previously recorded and long to set down — not for fear of losing it, no, it’s embedded in me — but to share and marvel at anew. In David Henry Hwang’s original production of Golden Child, I saw theater magic of a level that made me gasp aloud. In this ornate, lush staging, it was the simplest of gestures that touched me. An old lady harangues her grandson, admonishing him to recognize who he is and where he came from. And in one fluid movement, she straightens her arthritic spine, unties her kerchief and — she is twelve years old, the apple of her powerful Chinese father’s eye. How did the actor take us from here to there, from now to then, with such breathtaking ease? Magic. No other word for it.)

In those college and just post-college years, my brother and I also saw Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde at Ford’s Theater. I remember nothing of this performance, not even a sense of sharing a space with the legendary Vincent Price — and certainly not a sense of sharing it with the celebrated Oscar Wilde. I have a mental sense of being behind a pole, my view obstructed. Whether this was objectively or subjectively true, I cannot say. But it signifies something to sense the space rather than the subject.

Other incarnations that similarly left me untouched were Kathleen Turner as Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Morse as Truman Capote. And, more regretfully, Ben Gazzarra as Yogi Berra.

Just like James O’Neill, father of Eugene, would take the Count of Monte Cristo out of mothballs and Sarah Bernhardt would trot out the consumptive La Dame aux Camélias, Marguerite Gautier, and stage another Farewell to America Tour (she apparently did five) whenever the lack of money or other opportunities spurred the need for new audiences, so too have actors turned to the biographical one-man show to reset, recharge, reinvent — and/or recapitalize. As a struggling young actor in the ’50s, Hal Holbrooke famously conceived his Mark Twain one-man show and rode it from school performances to a Tony, ultimately performing Mark Twain Tonight! over two thousand times (one of which Steve and I saw) across sixty years and patently substantiating his acting bona fides. Pat Carroll sought out young playwright Marty Martin to commission a one-man show on Gertrude Stein to exorcise the twin ghosts of recent divorce and a stalled career. These two were glorious, genius match-ups of artist and subject, a pioneering template on which lesser efforts, sometimes verging on stunt casting, were based.

Turner and Morse’s shows are quite definitively in the faint carbon copy category. Their source material was unmemorable, their lock on the character’s essence — particularly Kathleen Turner’s — tenuous, the overall result disappointing. And after both I sensed — again totally subjectively — neediness, a desperate desire to pull this off. I have a dim memory of Turner incessantly on the phone, and an even vaguer sense of Morse with pillows on a couch. No people were conjured; I took away only inanimate objects.

I took still less away from Steve and my time with Ben Gazzara/Yogi Berra. As with Vincent Price/Oscar Wilde, there was no there there. But the tone was more in keeping with time spent with James Earl Jones or James Whitmore: the sense of being in a room with a confident master. Perhaps what was missing was the ineffable link between interpreter and muse. I don’t know. There are also some insanely talented actors I know primarily from the screen who simply don’t register for me on stage. Put on this list, with much regret, Dustin Hoffman (Death of a Salesman), Al Pacino (Hughie), Gabriel Byrne (Moon for the Misbegotten), and Kevin Spacey (The Iceman Cometh).

Another confident pro was Frank Gorshin, possibly the most skillful impressionist of all time (for proof, see the clip below for a “straight” impression, no jokes, of Gorshin channeling Richard Burton in Camelot). It was an entertaining, if perhaps odd, experience seeing Frank Gorshin in Say Goodnight Gracie: The Love, Laughter and Life of George Burns. It was like seeing a double image: the incomparable George Burns superimposed on the magnificent Frank Gorshin — or maybe the other way around? Whichever, it kept me from totally entrusting myself to the character and staying warily more on the surface while completely appreciating the humor and the pathos Gorshin skillfully evoked.

I might have seen James Whitmore as Will Rogers with my brother in the ’70s, but I definitely know I saw him with Steve on his final run with the character at Ford’s Theater some thirty years later. And this characterization must be ranked with that of Hal Holbrooke as Twain. These actors inhabited the very souls of their subjects, living in their skins, becoming one with them as  inevitably, inextricably, and seamlessly as Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Both actors played their respective roles over multiple decades, constantly adapting, adjusting, refashioning, and refreshing their performances by revisiting the source material to make the character and his observations as timely and telling as possible. This is a luxury not many can afford, but it sure makes for a lived-in, utterly believable character. That was not James Whitmore or Hal Holbrooke; they were completely erased, in service and in thrall to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. 

Stepping back a bit, I must confess that I have rarely seen a colder performer than Holbrooke. I cannot explain or account for that, but I know my brother felt it too when he had seen Mark Twain Tonight! A curious dispassion. But not at all withstanding, a wonderful performance.

Which brings me, at last and ultimately, to Pat Carroll. But first a brief lament as to the present lack of access to her Gertrude Stein. James Whitmore’s Will Rogers is captured on film and tape, including an hour-long C-SPAN production as part of the 1997 Clinton inaugural festival. Hal Holbrooke’s Mark Twain is all over YouTube. But Pat Carroll’s Gertrude Stein is not readily found; the play is available but not her performance. After poring over the Internet, I only came up with this two-minute audio clip, preserved by the Queer Music Heritage website on its Gertrude Stein & Alice B Toklas page. There was a documentary made of her tour with the play; this is only available through the Paley Center for Media. There is some contemporary talk show footage of her discussing the play and the character and her art, which is lovely, but so incomplete. (This longish clip with Merv Griffin is fun, however.)

There was also, as Merv notes, an audio recording made; as of this writing, one vinyl disc is available on Amazon. And I can’t decide if I want to buy it or not. Because theater lives. It is nice, often very nice, to have a record or recording of that experience. It can evoke, provoke, invoke; but it’s never quite the same and so is ultimately sad and hollow. (Which probably explains my antipathy to photographs.) And nothing is ever again the moment in which you first experienced it. Which as a sentiment sounds so Gertrude Stein. And as a conceit brings me back to Pat Carroll and the night (day?) Martin and I saw her and Gertrude Stein. And waited for Alice, who was upstairs, asleep, waiting for Gertrude to awaken her. I was so firmly convinced that Alice would come down those stairs, because Pat Carroll had made this invisible person concrete, just as had James Earl Jones. Think of that: not just manifesting a personality you know through a body you see with makeup and costumes and props. But summoning up an entirely unseen and more shadowy creature. 

And Alice was not the only person Pat Carroll brought to life. Gertrude Stein as interpreted by Carroll was exuberant, vivacious, curious, humorous, irresistible, and unquenchable. She had life force enough for dozens and she brought forth multitudes. I will never forget her brother Leo Stein, the quattrocento art enthusiast, the period-denoting adjective of whose enthusiasm Miss Carroll enthusiastically and savoringly enunciated over a thrilling span of several seconds. Likewise, of course, Isadora Duncan, whose sad end Gertrude Stein wistfully recounted, only to be greeted by — shockingly to me and Martin — a guffaw that night from the balcony, to which Pat Carroll turned her face up sideways and said semi-reprovingly, “It’s tragic, you know.” And the magnificent second act set piece of the Banquet for Rousseau, every participant at which —  including Picasso and his then-mistress Fernande Olivier, the artist Marie Laurencin, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Alice B. Toklas — I can to this day see so clearly as they assemble. Any difficulty I have in visualizing the scene is only because I was laughing so hard as Pat Carroll/Gertrude Stein narrated it.

And so Pat Carroll became the portrait. And I love Gertrude Stein to this day because of her. And, like Miss Furr and Miss Skeene, we were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.