2016 Round-Up

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Books (me)

  • What You Make It: A Book of Short Stories, Michael Marshall Smith
  • Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Dave Itzkoff
  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us About Ourselves, Leonard Mlodinow
  • Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg
  • Inspector Queen’s Own Case, Ellery Queen
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • Mrs. McThing: A Play, Mary Chase
  • Max Perkins Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg
  • Control, William Goldman
  • The Making of Donald Trump, David Ray Johnston
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Leonard Mlodinow
  • The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, Kliph Nesteroff

A fair balance of old and new, fiction and non, escapist and serious. The short works from Smith and Jackson were almost uniformly excellent, and lingered deliciously. The du Maurier, Ellery Queen, and Goldman were not up to their usual standards, but still quite readable. Of the nonfiction, the science works by Mlodinow were standouts—he is an optimist and sees an upside in the fact of a large percentage of our brain and its workings remaining inaccessible to our conscious mind. Like Oliver Sacks, his humanity shines through. Aside from the Trump, which was useful and depressing, the biographies were delightful: the Perkins I have written about previously, the Cleese was surprisingly modest and friendly, Sacks’s was so lovely and poignant, and Aronson’s breezy treatment of Victoria’s children and grandchildren was an enduring pleasure. The two other nonfiction works were much less successful, with both Itzkoff’s take on Chayevsky’s masterpiece and Nesteroff’s panorama of 20th century comedy essentially striking me as wasted efforts. Neither ultimately makes an important point, and Nesteroff in particular had no intention of killing his darlings in order to make a coherent narrative. Colum McCann’s book was excellent, and it was fun to read the source novel for  Angel Heart.

Books (Steve)

  • The Teammates, David Halberstam
  • Indignation, Philip Roth
  • Town and City, Jack Kerouac
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Looking for Chet Baker, Bill Moody
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • Thoughts without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelo
  • Don Quixote, Cervantes
  • Heart of Crow Country, Joe Medicine Crow
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo

Steve’s favorite was Don Quixote, which he had wanted to read for years. He greatly enjoyed the Hijuelo book; that author died this past year. Roth and Kerouac are favorite authors of Steve’s, and they did not disappoint. His summer beach book was Heart of Crow Country; he has always had an affinity for Native Americans, since his days on the reservation with Waho—a long story.

Books (Martin)

My brother wanted to contribute his lists to our annual round-up; I think just to show us up with his prolific readings.

  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • A Play of Isaac, Margaret Frazer
  • A Play of Dux Maraud, Margaret Frazer
  • The Novice’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • The Fleet Street Murders, Charles Finch
  • Arsenic and Old Books, Miranda James
  • Where Shadows Dance, C.S. Harris
  • Arlene Francis, Arlene Francis
  • A Stranger in Mayfair, Charles Finch
  • The Abbot’s Agreement, Mel Starr
  • Christmas Crimes, Anne Perry
  • The Servant’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • The Wars of the Roses, Dan Jones
  • Pythagoras’ Revenge, Arturo Sangalli
  • Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • A Burial at Sea, Charles Finch
  • The Probability of Murder, Ada Madison
  • Shooting for the Stars, R.G. Belsky
  • A Play of Knaves, Margaret Frazer
  • Death of a Stranger, Anne Perry
  • A Play of Lords, Margaret Frazer
  • The Case of the Haunted Husband, Erle Stanley Gardner
  • Divine Inspiration, Jane Langton
  • Digging Up the Dirt, Miranda James
  • The Thief of Venice, Jane Langton
  • The Paris Librarian, Mark Pryor
  • The Angel Court Affair, Anne Perry
  • Cruel is the Grave, Sharon Kay Penman
  • The Whole Cat and Caboodle, Sofie Ryan
  • Presidents of America, Jon Roper
  • The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
  • A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
  • Murder in the White House, Margaret Truman
  • I Loved Her in the Movies, Robert Wagner
  • Murder in the Ball Park, Robert Goldsborough
  • Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Queen’s Head, Edward Marston
  • Buy a Whisker, Sofie Ryan

Concert

Our only concert this year was seeing Donovan at Peekskill’s Paramount Theater. It was the most low-key, friendly, cozy concert imaginable. He sat cross-legged on rugs piled up on a little platform on the stage. There were no lighting effects, no other musicians, no props. Just Donovan telling stories and singing songs and weaving a quietly magical spell of peace. So nice.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • Mathilda (Broadway)
  • Burnished by Grief (Talking Band)
  • You Better Werk (Sarah)
  • City of Glass (based on Paul Auster story)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare in the Park)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (Robert Wilson)
  • Twyla Tharp and Three Dances
  • Hamlet (Public Theater Mobile Unit)
  • Puppet Slam (La MaMa)
  • Carnival of the Animals (Columbia)
  • A Christmas Carol (No. 11)
  • The Front Page (Broadway)

Of course, the best was Julie’s A Christmas Carol and Sarah’s You Better Werk. Both productions were refreshing in their sincerity and essential optimism. As to the rest, the two Public productions were Steve’s first professionally staged Shakespeare plays, and he found them to be accessible, rousing, and absorbing. I particularly liked how the director set the mood for Hamlet, as she did as the show toured the boroughs of New York, reaching diverse audiences throughout the city, drawing everyone in with its universalities. Mathilda was very strong, with interesting and at times subtle staging and an uplifting, moral message of individuality and intellectuality; and of course, in all of these, the diction was perfect (all, of course, due to Julie—and what fun to see her listed in a Broadway Playbill!). Our two La MaMa shows were suitably offbeat and arresting. We always love seeing the Talking Band’s work, even when we don’t entirely get it, and it was such a treat for the annual Puppet Slam (short puppet pieces of varying tone and texture) to be held on a weekend, so we could finally go. The standout of that evening was a touching and simple piece, created by the puppeteer’s father: the little marionette learned to roller skate, and it was sheer joy. Not as successful for us were Krapp’s Last Tape, which completely eluded (and frankly, bored) both of us; and the Twyla Tharp, which just didn’t move us as she has in the past. I reviewed City of Glass earlier this year. As for The Front Page, it was great to see up close and personal some truly outstanding talent, notably Robert Morse and Nathan Lane. But in general, I found the director’s choices and presentation to be rather flat: the delivery and pacing never crackled and you never really got the nostalgia inherent in the piece—a rueful appreciation of a time and a species now long vanished. Plus the costumer design was not good; no sense of the era, and a very silly joke for Holland Taylor’s hat and coat.

And we also started the year with a play in our bathtub, which was tremendous fun and caused quite the stir here! The wildest part was that it was advertised in the NY Times, which brought a couple here who already had connections to us and the piece but didn’t know it till they arrived: he is a local poet whom I have worked with in past Gargoyles and she was the playwright’s babysitter a decade ago!

Movies

  • Anomalisa
  • 2016 Live Action Shorts and 2016 Animated Shorts
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Brooklyn
  • The Hateful 8
  • Lady in the Van
  • Experimenter
  • 45 Years
  • Hello, My Name Is Doris
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity
  • A Bigger Splash
  • Citizen Four
  • The Lobster
  • Maggie’s Plan
  • The New Girlfriend
  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • Genius
  • Cafe Society
  • The Dressmaker
  • Sully
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Indignation
  • Equity
  • Eight Days a Week
  • Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
  • 99 Homes
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album
  • Nocturnal Animals
  • Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

These are the movies we either saw in movie theaters or could have seen at the movies, but we missed them and caught them soon thereafter on Netflix or, in one case, PBS. A few were stunningly innovative: Anomalisa, the wistful tone of which I can still summon up after almost a year; the grand and glorious and gleeful The Hateful 8; the baffling The Lobster; the sleek Nocturnal Animals, whose style unfortunately outran its substance, but still, what images!; and Experimenter, a thoroughly riveting account of the work and life of Stanley Milgram, so absorbingly and interestingly told. Perhaps the one we liked best of all, though, was the documentary Eight Days a Week. This clean, sincere, and utterly heartfelt depiction of the Beatles’s touring years was moving and sweet. What came through so clearly was that these four were a team, a partnership. No scandals, no snark, just appreciation. And, together with another documentary we saw later in the year, Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album, so educational and enriching. A few of our choices didn’t live up to our expectations, notably Cafe Society, which was simply terrible; Equity, which had all the right ingredients for twisty, but just didn’t do it; Indignation, which missed the scope of the book, focusing too narrowly on the love story; and Hello, My Name Is Doris, which fell into all the traps of movies made for and about women of a certain age: an assumption that they have the same needs and desires as women of the director’s age. Also terrible was the Norman Lear documentary. The remainder were largely enjoyable, and a few contained real pearls: The Dressmaker had a wonderful conceit—why can’t there be beauty in the middle of nowhere for no good reason—but unfortunately left this rather lovely point behind in an increasingly senseless yet ostensibly comic violent third act. And Florence Foster Jenkins contained the most wonderful acting I have ever seen by Hugh Grant.

As with other years, we saw seemingly jillions of other movies online via streaming, Netflix, HBO, and YouTube, among others. We mention a few standouts here: The Big Short; which was superlative; CBGB, an unexpected pleasure with Alan Rickman; a somber and uplifting The Railway Man; Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, which turned out to be frothy and delightful and charming; and the oddly stirring and evocative old Michael Powell movie, I Know Where I’m Going!, with Wendy Hiller and amazing cliffs of Scotland. We also revisited several old favorites, including Barton Fink, The Usual Suspects, Quiz Show, and The Sound of Music—which was actually a first time viewing for Steve.

I should also mention a few outstanding documentaries, all of which were tremendously insightful and thought provoking: Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, which really shone a light on his brilliance; The Day Kennedy Died, which pieced together a cohesive narrative to a story we are so used to hearing in bits and fragments; Women He’s Undressed, an innovative and entertaining take on the life of Orry-Kelly; Boom Bust Boom, another innovative effort, this one from Terry Jones on economic cycles; (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, my favorite science documentary of the year; and the excellent Muscle Shoals, All Things Must Pass, and Spymasters.

In TV, we continued our fascination with Mad Men, stubbornly not ending it just shy of the last episode; and became entranced with both Stranger Things and Insecurity.

Food

Standout new find was right here in Asbury: Capitoline, a fun cheap eats joint. Speakeatery became the year’s favorite for subs, and Pacini’s in Red Bank for pizza. Miss Saigon in Freehold supplied sorely missed authentic Vietnamese food. And a visit to Central Michel Richard in D.C.—what a nice restaurant and another sad and untimely death.

Recipe-wise, Steve perfected chowder, making both corn and New England clam varieties. And an impromptu application of Julia Child’s lamb/chicken mustard coating to pork tenderloin yielded terrific results. Also some very satisfying variants on blackened and Cajun chicken and pork bites. And a very nice chopped scallop ramekin treat.

Field trips

Northern trips to Peekskill, Montclair, Paramus, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn—this last through Staten Island, a new adventure. A lovely trip with Sarah to the Philadelphia Zoo, which, although not as vast a zoo as we had hoped—although with an unforgettable view of great cats overhead—yielded a food treasure: John’s roast pork, well worth the wait. A quick trip to Buck’s County to get out the vote, as disappointing as the results. A quick and delightful visit to Arlington for Rick Peabody’s birthday. Two quick day trips to Virginia to visit Steve’s mother in the nursing home: first, for her birthday in January, was a disaster, as we got caught in the freak ice storm and had to spend the night in Oxon Hill; the second, last month, much nicer with side visits to Dr. Witter and Ikea (who would think a trip to a dentist and to, God help us, Potomac Mills, could be fun? but they were!). And both trips featured dinner with old friends Jen and Bob.

We also had a nice share of friends coming to visit us this year: Georgiana and Rick, Rick Peabody, Susan and Mark, Chris and Aimee. All of these visits were a delight, the opportunity to see Asbury through fresh eyes.

We are getting quite adept at navigating the city and successfully (usually) avoiding bad tunnel traffic and snatching up good parking spaces in the East Village. A favorite field trip we’ve done a few times now: Union Square/East Village/Cooper’s Union for brunch/books/movie/farmers market and then home with carryout from Han Dynasty and a shopping trip to Westside Market. In that vein, a very nice movie experience with Sarah at the East Village Cinema to see The Eightful 8, in an old-time theater with balconies and curtains: a lush experience.

The year’s only museum visit was to the Neue Galerie to see a Munch exhibition. A privilege to be in the same room with these paintings.

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Of Bridges, Filters, and Focus

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The concept of bridging divides has been much in my mind since the recent election. And yesterday, after the lengthiest exercise I have yet engaged in in trying to bridge divides — specifically, asking my brother- and sister-in-law why they voted as they did and being completely bewildered, bemused, and befuddled by their responses, based as they were in misinformation and utter conviction — I pessimistically decided that the divides are too vast: there are no bridges that can be built and we must just coexist, as Somerset Maugham wrote:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.

But then I had the strangest dream last night. The telephone rang, and it was Ron Bernier, my old friend from college. Ron’s voice was faint but warm, and he had much to tell me. Since Ron has been dead for eight years, this was not surprising: we were trying to bridge the greatest divide there is.

I had trouble understanding what he was saying, but then we realized the problem. All his words contained my conversation in them. So we had to fix a template of these and subtract out my words: what was left was what he was trying to say.

We are pasting up a lot of French and Spanish documents these past several days, using the English as the base and then overlaying with the new language. Sometimes there are parts left over that don’t match up. So I get what reality underlies the dream. And I guess I could chalk up the dream to work overload and the generation of too many instances of using the document compare feature in Word.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s actually quite a profound message. Maybe we need to stop listening to our own thoughts in the echo chambers of our news streams, our chats with friends; stop assuming we know what is being said to us because it matches up so precisely with the words in our head. Maybe we need to really listen hard, as I had to with Ron, really focus.

Will it help? I don’t know. But it’s all I have right now, so I intend to try to truly listen and to hear, filtering out my own prejudices and seeing what is left…

Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson)

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I have had the most pleasant voice in my head for the past couple of weeks — the great writer Shirley Jackson has been spinning tales, doling out advice, and wryly commenting on waffle irons plotting against toasters.

I have loved Shirley Jackson since reading her fantastic story “The Witch” in my childhood, on my father’s advice. I remember that the bio at the top of the story noted that of all the writers featured in this particular horror story anthology, she was the only one who professed to being a practicing witch. That was irresistible enough, but the story — the writing — was staggering. I have written elsewhere of Jackson’s unerring and inimitable ability to shift mood on a dime; that story demonstrates this gift in a single savage sentence.

While Let Me Tell You features no such singular story (which might not be the collection’s fault, so much as the intervening near fifty years on the part of the reader), it leaves an eminently satisfying cumulative effect as the force of its fifty-six essays, lectures, reviews, and short stories sink in, revealing a prodigious and profound talent. In these writings, her wit (“…she got on a commuter train every morning before the weather had rightly settled itself for the day…”) and whimsy (“The green glasses from the five-and-ten love their bath; they roll luxuriously in the soapy water and seem almost to stretch”) are displayed alongside her merciless and unflinching ability to expose and lacerate the pompous, the petty, the predictable:

an inexpensive black pen-and-pencil set, which…had been awarded to Cheryl…by members of her class, whom, as class president, she had inspired to be exactly the same as every other class graduated from that academy.

Taken together, the various pieces form a clear and cohesive whole, both showing and explicating how her keen observational skills were tempered and complemented by her free-flowing imagination.

And there are very strong works in the book, both fiction and nonfiction. These include the very funny “Company for Dinner”; the puckish “The New Maid,” with its whiff of Mary Poppins magic; the plaintively unsettling “Showdown”; the portentous “The Man in the Woods”; the passionate defense of Samuel Richardson in “Notes on an Unfashionable Novelist” (the fulsome opening rhetorical paragraph of which is so brilliantly undercut by the first sentence of the next: a triumph of literary writing); and, my favorite, the nonfiction “Good Old House,” with its uniquely Jacksonian blend of domesticity and implicit dread as she describes life in her haunted house:

Laurie went off pleasantly from the house to nursery school, where he played happily in the yard and through the attics, but there was a corner of the hall where a wolf lived, and he would not go near it alone.

She then tells a tale (true? I hope so) of an old lady who comes to visit one afternoon. It is, like the best Jackson, set firmly on the border between disturbing and reassuring. A similarly off-kilter occurrence is described in “The Ghosts of Loiret,” where Jackson details the postcards of various homes her husband has bought her, and remarks on the people on the balcony of one, who aren’t there the next day. A similar chill goes up the spine in “How I Write,” where she explains just how she got the name for her secondary female character in The Haunting of Hill House.

Delightful as many of the stories were, what I loved best was sharing with her what she loved: books, words, writing. And I loved hearing her talk about these, as here, when she discusses cleaning off her children’s bookshelves of the

adventures of numerous bluebirds, airplanes, toy engines, clowns, rabbits, and walking-talking dolls, all of whom got into trouble by not obeying, or not conforming, or not going to bed on time.

After this purge, “The real books remained, the ones that packed a sense of excitement and enchantment, that were read rather than skimmed…”

Jackson thrived on writing, telling herself stories throughout the day as she cared for house, home, and family — well, in a fashion: “…trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it…” But all, all, was fodder for the tales she told, for

a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees; always noticing…and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

And thank heaven she did not. She is a master, and this book a treasure.

Summer Highlight—Genius and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

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Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

About two months ago, we saw Genius, the biopic based on A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Maxwell Perkins, editor of—among others—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.

As soon as I saw the preview, I knew I would love the movie. I mean, we’ve all seen WRITER movies, where typewriters are feverishly pecked or quill pens are meditatively dipped or cursors implacably blink as authors struggle to get the thoughts out and down. But here, here is richness, soul satisfying to the intermediary who stands between author and reader: a movie about an EDITOR. What exquisite joy to see a film where a key action is the cool and deliberative striking out of a line of text. Where a pivotal montage focuses on cutting a book’s length.

Cops and spies and action heroes get to see movies about themselves all the time. And there are any number of films about artists and dreamers and creators. But name a movie focused on a facilitator—as Perkins himself phrased his ambition, “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone’s noticing”—someone who helps realize the vision of another. (And noble self-sacrificing spouse movies like A Star Is Born don’t count. This is about a professional relationship.) My brother suggested The Miracle Worker, and that’s a good thought, but Annie Sullivan overcame so many of her own handicaps to become Teacher that she does not seamlessly fade into the background. And an editor, a good editor, does.

The real Maxwell Perkins

The real Maxwell Perkins

And Maxwell Perkins was a good editor; a great editor. Which the book not surprisingly clarifies much more than does the movie, which focuses on a single relationship—that of Perkins and Thomas Wolfe—and grays out the rest. And even with this narrow focus, the movie often distorts more than it illuminates, substituting melodrama for nuance, especially with regard to Wolfe’s love interest, Aline Bernstein, whose haplessness has been ratcheted up to showy histrionics. Which is all too bad, but is easily remedied by reading the Berg book.

However, the movie contains at least one scene that is truer than truth, and definitively captures Perkins’s genius. Tom Wolfe has written a dense, evocative, detailed passage where his protagonist falls in love. Patiently and methodically, Perkins asks him if various metaphors and similes and tangents are strictly necessary, and he slowly obtains assent for various deletions. But there’s more. Because he asks Tom what it was like for him when he fell in love, and Tom responds that it was like a lightning bolt, illuminating everything before and after. And then we realize what Perkins is doing: he is leading Tom to create a lightning bolt using style and tone and contrast. And Tom suddenly gets it; he understands that this text must stand out from all the other dense evocative detailed passages in the book. And he cuts the multipage passage to a powerful paragraph.

I loved that scene; it is so smart and so cognizant of what a good editor does and how.

The Maxwell Perkins Berg reveals in his understated and well-constructed biography is a man of “keen intelligence and uncompromising standards” dedicated, as a contemporary described, to “the development of American talent and literature.” Notes Berg, “Max had an artistic flair but New England common sense.” Taken altogether, this made for a tireless, powerful engine driving artists to achieve their best work. Perkins maintained that “An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.”

Perkins used many and varied tools in this task. He certainly honed and polished, as in helping S.S. Van Dine perfect detective Philo Vance and in guiding the acid-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth into producing a “more relaxed and revealing” memoir. Of this latter effort, he noted “We made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with Alice Longworth’s book—or she did…Now it’s a good book. It might have been a splendid one. But we had to build up from worse than nothing.”

He advised. Berg explains, “In detailed letters, Perkins gave his reasons. He reminded the author, for example, that his first responsibility was to tell a story and that the reader ‘cannot bear to be too much interrupted.'”

And he certainly cut and chopped. The original Wolfe manuscript of Of Time and the River was a cool million words. Moreover, Wolfe’s resistance to editing was monumental. Notes Berg, “Every time he slashed a page from corner to corner, Perkins could see that Tom’s eye was following his hand. Wolfe winced with pain…”

In truth, the kind of editing that Perkins performed on Wolfe’s books—his shaping and condensing of overly long material—was but the literal manifestation of his greatest gift as an editor. What Perkins could do was see the book inside an author before it was even written. Thus, he advised Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to write a boys’ book:

She also kept harking back to the letters he had written her in 1933, especially the one in which he said: ‘A book about a boy and the life of the scrub is the thing we want.—It is those wonderful river trips and the hunting and the dogs and guns and the companionship of simple people who care about the same things…

Which culminated in her life’s masterpiece, The Yearling.

Similarly, Perkins tells Taylor Caldwell, “What you have chiefly is the superb talent for telling a story on a grand scale. It is a mighty rare talent.” Berg notes, “With his simple intuition that Taylor Caldwell should write historical novels, Perkins had founded one of the most enduring and profitable careers in the history of book publishing.”

Another powerful arrow in his editorial quiver was Perkins’s ability to create community among his authors. He was forever writing to one about the other, visiting one with another, introducing this one to that one. In the safety of this community, supportive mentoring relationships formed, allowing Fitzgerald to reach out to Wolfe at a lunch with Perkins in Baltimore. As Berg writes, “Fitzgerald tried to console Wolfe about the truncating of his manuscript by saying, ‘You never cut anything out of a book that you regret later.'” And when Fitzgerald suffers a health crisis, Perkins suggests Marjorie Rawlings visit him as a way of “sending in some reserves to boost his spirits.”

Perkins also ran interference and created continuity between and among difficult, high-strung personalities, desperately needing interaction but not always capable of making connection on their own. Thus, “Until Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Max’s office would be the clearinghouse for much of the emotion going back and forth between the two men [Fitzgerald and Hemingway], particularly when they wanted to communicate without risking a confrontation.”

This ability—compulsion?—to create community among the isolated particularly resonates for me as an editorial tool. Regardless of whether the subject matter is artlifeandtheuniverse or fiscal decentralization, poetry or pedantry, the author is putting part of him- or herself out there, inviting criticism or neglect. Knowing others—or even just knowing OF others—in the same position is endlessly reassuring. Perkins obviously understood this and sought to bridge the various divides, gulfs, and voids between and within his frequently troubled flock.

Berg paints a detailed and compelling portrait of a distinctive yet retiring subject. He brings the modest, matter-of-fact Max Perkins very much to life through careful, but unobtrusive, scholarship and keen insight:

Max’s comments were effective almost subliminally; he had a way of gently tossing them out as one would pebbles into a pond, making rings of meaning which enlarged until they touched the author’s consciousness.

Like Max, Berg keeps himself very much in the background. You are not aware of the skill and effort being exerted to tell the story; there is nothing showy or dramatic in the presentation. On the other hand, the book is neither dry nor humorless, but instead filled with wry observations like this: “One of Perkins’s daughters insisted that he no longer drink so much and then drive. Max gave up driving.”

Berg also paints clear and succinct miniatures of the legendary characters who peopled Perkins’s world. Fitzgerald, to my mind, comes off the best; a tragic, self-aware character, doomed and damned and despairing. Hemingway is cold and hard: “There was something in Hemingway that preyed on the weaknesses of others.” And Wolfe—possibly the son Perkins, the father of five girls, never had and always wanted—contains multitudes, but in the end comes across as extremely immature. In the face of Wolfe’s fulsome, overheated rejection, which is the climax of the film Genius, Perkins remains compassionate and understanding, a good editor to the end: as fellow Scribners’ editor John Hall Wheelock noted, “Thomas Wolfe was the ultimate editorial challenge, part of which meant dealing with his personal temperament.”

In a late-in-life, fiery correspondence with a difficult author who asked him “just who he thought he was,” Perkins answered that he was “John Smith, U.S.A.” who “is always aware of the fact that he may be, and probably is, wrong. That is tolerance.”

And that, in the final analysis, is the very best tool for being a good editor.

The Lobster

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The Lobster is a disturbing, disconcerting, and disarmingly alarming movie. It tells a romantic story in a dystopic setting, crackling with the blackest of dark humor.

The movie takes place in some not-so-distant future where being paired up is mandatory. After his wife of twelve years leaves him, the protagonist, David — the only character in the movie given a name; everyone else is defined by some incidental detail such as a limp, a lisp, a great smile, a tendency to nosebleeds, or being another person’s best friend — checks into a rigidly managed resort hotel where he has forty-five days to find a mate. Failing that, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: a lobster, he has decided, since they are long-lived, have blue blood like aristocrats, and are fertile till death. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that a lot of lobsters just get eaten.

The world of The Lobster is highly circumscribed and characterized by a flaccid passivity — remarkably so, given the high-stakes, short-duration task the inhabitants must accomplish. The unpaired guests are given identical clothes and shoes; they are to presumably find each other in this sea of uniformity on the basis of their individuality. But what passes for individuality is only outward quirks and tics: failing to find a limping girl, the limping man fakes nosebleeds. There is no desperation, just resignation and lethargy. There is certainly no passion.

Nightly, the residents are reminded, through dances, presentations, and lectures, of the importance of being mated. One telling demonstration — ineptly, woodenly, and ludicrously performed by the hotel staff — showed a single woman walking on her own being sexually assaulted. The same woman walking in the company of a man (albeit one some forty years older than she) was not. The lesson is clear: it’s safer not to be alone.

And that’s when I started to see a larger message in the movie. It could very well be that it is only meant as a dark comedy about the difficulties of being in and out of relationships, but we saw it as an exegesis on conformity and freedom, and the price that people are willing to pay for security.

In this mannered and restricted world — somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, I thought — the people have surrendered their judgment and individuality. I was reminded too of Sartre’s No Exit; it seemed to me resistance was not futile, just not undertaken.

In the second act, David does resist and escapes to an equally oppressive mirror world in the woods just outside the hotel. Here, a tribe of loners are led by a dictatorial young woman who has every bit as many rules and regulations for living as exist in the hotel. The objective in the woods is not to pair up and to fiercely reject anything that smacks of empathy. And of course it is here that David falls in love.

A word that kept running through my head during the movie was “affinity” — as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a book I hadn’t thought of in lo these many years since college and which I don’t even own anymore. But a quick wiki confirmed the connection: Elective Affinities posits that human relationships are all just, as Guys and Dolls‘ Sky Masterson would aver, chemistry. Which is to say, outside the bounds of higher order rationality, respect, or reflection: like finds like and connects and bonds. The superficiality of the affinities displayed in The Lobster are almost farcical. And this leads to the film’s punchline, for David’s affinity is based in his being literally shortsighted.

I found The Lobster unsettling yet appealing, repellent but compelling. Julie thinks it was responsible for giving her a migraine, and no animal lover will sit easy. Its several acts of brutality can be seen as a series of escalating wake-up calls, gradually shaking the protagonist — and us — out of passivity and into action, however misdirected, misguided, and — yes, here is the punchline — shortsighted.

A postscript upon sleeping on the movie and its affects: Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s vision is sufficiently fluid, and the movie’s ending sufficiently ambiguous, as to permit a quite converse conclusion. Inaction could rule the day, making the brutality, and the shortsighted hero, tragically meaningless.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

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S. Ramanujan.

And again, a fascinating story, a fascinating life, is twisted and contorted into a Hollywood-ized biopic. I vaguely knew of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, an imaginative genius of humble origins who came to Cambridge around World War I and then died at a tragically young age, his promise barely realized. His real life, and the contributions he made to experimental mathematics, are recounted in some detail here; I highly recommend this blog post by Stephen Wolfram, as it gives a very measured and insightful description of the characters and concepts tackled by the movie — and the movie pales dreadfully in comparison.

What The Man Who Knew Infinity does is set up a simplistic redemption on two levels: (1) the unfeeling professor (that’s Jeremy Irons as Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy) who doesn’t know how to be a friend is ennobled and enlightened through his contact with the pure and idealistic savant, and (2) the narrow-minded, xenophobic academic institution as a whole is uplifted and enlarged by recognizing the genius who has quietly dwelt among them, patiently enduring their abuse and scorn. And then, of course, his task of enlightenment completed, the martyr dies. This variant on the “magic Negro” trope makes Ramanujan’s story an Occidental one.

Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan.

 

The truth was apparently much more interesting — and actually much more inspiring. The collegiality of science trumped petty racism (and I have been racking my brain: I know I read last year of a situation where German U-boat incursions near Britain were temporarily suspended during World War I in deference to a scientific mission — another example of a shared recognition of the boundarylessness of scientific truth). Further, Ramanujan’s genius was recognized by his peers in England, and the issue was less about breaking his spirit, as Bertrand Russell accuses Hardy of in the film, than it was of filling in gaps in his knowledge and providing discipline and structure for his creative leaps. And, as Wolfram points out, Hardy and Ramanujan came to math from two very different viewpoints: Hardy built up to conclusions from proofs, and Ramanujan boldly inferred/extrapolated from mathematical phenomena. I have probably not expressed that properly, but the point is that one is a bottom-up, incremental approach, and the other a sweeping, experimental attitude. Very different, and yet complementary.

So the conflicts the movie establishes didn’t really exist. Neither did the heightened romantic longing for his left-behind wife, or the cruel purloinment of her letters by his jealous mother (who in actuality forbade the daughter-in-law to write Ramanujan lest it distract him), or his TB (thought now to be hepatic amoebiasis; see Wikipedia), or the imperialist bigotry of his boss in India (in reality, Sir Francis Spring was a mentor to Ramanujan).

The gaps between the fictionalized and actual versions of Ramanujan’s life could be overlooked — or at least forgiven — if they were in service of pursuing a larger truth. But The Man Who Knew Infinity failed to move me with its portrait of a Christ-like outsider (even though I heard our fellow attendees in the Showroom’s little upstairs theater sobbing as the credits rolled). Overall, I found the film blatantly manipulative and simplistic, despite fine performances, in particular by Jeremy Irons. Even so, three quite impressive cinematic moments stood out for me, salvaging much of the movie for me by stimulating my imagination and introspection:

  • When, on Ramanujan’s arrival at Trinity College, his companion, mathematician John Littlewood, points out a tree, laconically explaining that it’s the one under which Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
  • When, during the narrative wrap-ups scrawled on the screen before the end credits, we see Ramanujan’s “lost notebook,” with the note that his formulae are being used in understanding black holes.
  • When a huge, motionless zeppelin blotted out the Cambridge sky and rained sudden death on those below.

The first two of these speak to the prosaic origins of profound scientific discoveries: how so much is rooted in so little, and how the trivial should not be overlooked. In this context, note the lovely quote, included in the movie, by Littlewood about Ramanujan: “Every positive integer is one of his personal friends.” The last speaks to the tremendous waste of war with its indiscriminate destruction of youth, promise, and intellect. Both concepts can be further distilled to a message of mindfulness: wonder at the awesome magnificence of this world and attempt to, if not understand, at least appreciate it, as it can all end all too quickly.

Not a bad place to end up in, even if via a rather mundane film.

 

Hail, Caesar!

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Smarter people than I have written lots of very smart reviews and analyses of this latest Coen brothers movie, so I will not presume to contribute to the larger conversation. But what struck me most about the picture, which is an affectionate tribute to old Hollywood, is its deep and abiding — and utterly unironic — appreciation for craft and craftsmen.

There is a scene where the singing cowboy star has gone to pick up his date for the evening, a sizzling Carmen Miranda type he has been fixed up with by the studio in an attempt to forge a reputation as a sophisticate. And while he waits for her, he gets out his rope and starts doing Will Rogers style tricks with it. Effortlessly. And the girl appears and is duly impressed, and he asks her if it’s hard to dance with bananas on her head. And she explains that no, it isn’t, just a little hip and neck action (but it’s a much better written line), and the point is made. This incongruous pairing is not so incongruous. These are craftsmen, and they have practiced and mastered their craft.

The movie is filled with hard-working, talented people, each contributing their best efforts to something larger — and they hope better — than themselves. What that something is, and whether it is worth it, I leave to the wiser heads to battle out. For my part, I was content to be taken to a world where strange, perhaps useless, but enchanting talents are appreciated and given full attention and encouragement. And where gung-ho all-American ingenuity triumphs, as it does in every one of protagonist studio fixer Eddie Mannix’s solutions to the wildly diverse and seemingly intractable problems he is thrown during the course of his day.

Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers picture, and there is much to think on and contemplate — and much to feel uneasy about. But the movie’s satire, and any post-viewing reflective cynicism, does not extend to the celebration of the individual doing what he or she does best, doing it well and with pride and — yes — integrity.