By David Shrigley, from Sarah Boxer's Slate slideshow.
By David Shrigley, from Sarah Boxer's Slate slideshow.
Last week I read Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament, and it's a deeply satisfying book, although the author loses the courage of her convictions at the end. Suffice it to say that Hugo Whittier is one of the more inspiring protagonists I've come across lately, all the more so because his specific predjudices and general misanthropy make it clear that his tale wasn't originally intended to be an uplifting one, even if Christensen finds the temptation irresistable. A few choice quotes:
"Talking precludes thought or consideration; most interpersonal yakking is prompted by the concomitant desires to appear to be something and to get something, commerce and advertising masked as 'social communion.'" [p. 139]
"Underneath she was white and smooth as an oyster out of its shell, quivering with briny juices and piquantly yielding to the teeth." [pp. 178-9]
"I am still that young Hugo, the way a withered apple is its fresher self as well as its rotted self, both at once. Midlife is like standing on a high peak looking down at the plains, temporal and spatial simultaneity; it's a congruence of life and death, ashes that you came from and the ones you're headed toward becoming." [p. 203]
At least the optimistic coda makes it slightly more likely that we'll see Philip Seymour Hoffman in yet another role he'd be perfect for.
The essence of Guiliano's book is the claim that women can trick themselves into experiencing what is actually self-denial as a kind of pleasure. She never questions that most women, if they wish to be attractively thin, will have to play some mental games. But such games are, as Guiliano acknowledges, something that the French generally value. They think of themselves as an old culture, skilled in the arts of irony, hypocrisy, and nuance. We Americans may be innocent, artless, and nuance-allergic, but we are sharp enough to recognize that French women's advantage over us is simply that they are thinner—not that they have better, saner, less complicated attitudes about food. "The useful art of self-deception"? Let 'em have it.
I just finished Franklin and Winston, Jon Meacham's stirring history of the personal relationship between FDR and Churchill that began in September 1939, shortly after the latter became First Lord of the Admiralty (and 8 months before he became Prime Minister), and lasted until Roosevelt's death in April 1945.
It's a very good book, although not a great one--Meacham provides almost too much background in the early going and then, as if tiring of his subject, rushes from one major event to the next in the final years of the war, leaving a few too many holes along the way.
But I found myself lingering as I neared the end, reluctant to finish it, and that's a credit to Meacham's ability to bring his subjects to life as much as it is to the gripping nature of the lives they led. In the simplest terms, Roosevelt was the savvier politician, and Churchill was the keener intellect--and ultimately the more sympathetic figure. But what makes their story compelling is how difficult it is to reduce them to simple terms, and their relationship was as complex as they were.
I'm not going to write a full-on review here, but I made a number of notes to myself while reading that seemed worth hanging on to in some form:
On Leadership: Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor (and the first woman in a president's cabinet) said of FDR:
His capacity to inspire and encourage those who had to do tough, confused and practically impossible jobs was beyond dispute. I, and everyone else, came away from an interview with the President feeling better. It was not that he had solved my problem or given me a clear direction which I could follow blindly, but that he had made me more cheerful, stronger, more determined to do what, while I talked with him, I had clearly seen was my job and not his. It wasn't so much what he said as the spirit he conveyed.
It's hard to imagine a better image of leadership--of management--in action.
During Churchill's second stint as Prime Minister in the 1950s, he called his private secretary:
"Has anything happened," Churchill asked? "No," replied [his secretary.] "Then let's make something happen," Churchill said, with mischief in his eyes.
He would have been at least 77 at that time, and he would serve in the House of Commons until he
was 90--a model of vigor and determination.
Finally, from Churchill's historical volume, The Hinge of Fate:
There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril of misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool's paradise.
Two cultural icons with roots in the 1930s are about to celebrate big birthdays: Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon turns 75 on Valentine's Day, and the Village Vanguard turns 70 this year and is holding a week-long party Feb. 14-20. "Falcon" is a fine book, certainly Hammett's best-known, and if its 75th anniversary brings him any new readers, all the better. (Jesse Hamlin has a fine piece in yesterday's S.F. Chronicle on Hammett's rough life-and-times.)
But "Falcon" pales alongside "Red Harvest," a relentless book that left me staggering. The story of a nameless detective-agency operative dispatched by his company to an utterly corrupt town, "Red Harvest" has a surprisingly contemporary, unsentimental--even amoral--ethos. But it's also laced with reminders that the 1920s and '30s were a different era from our own, when telephones were still novel and important news traveled by telegram.
Jazz and bloody pulp fiction don't seem to have much in common anymore, now that the music's acquired a high-toned patina. But it's useful to keep in mind that jazz was originally the real-life soundtrack for the sort of people who featured in books like "Red Harvest." Ashley Kahn recounts the Vanguard's history in today's Wall Street Journal, and he notes that the club had previously been a speakeasy, and that when Vanguard founder Max Gordon opened his doors in 1935, the location was suitable because, among other reasons, it satisfied legal requirements by being "two hundred feet from a church or synagogue or school."
I've never been to the Vanguard, but I can testify to the accuracy of Kahn's quote from Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note Records: "The words, 'Live at the Village Vanguard' do have a direct and positive influence on an album's sales." This isn't just hype--saxophonist Joe Lovano says that the club's unusual triangular shape makes it "the best venue on the East Coast for recording jazz, period." (Uh, Ashley, the natural follow-up question would be, "So there's someplace better on the West Coast? Where is it?" Not all WSJ readers live in NYC. Hell, some of us live in California.) And the club's magic shines through in recordings of John Coltrane's November 1961 sessions there, captured on Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions. Check out Sonny Rollins' A Night at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2, too.
In another life, I wouldn't mind coming back as Jim Harrison. A tough guy with a soft heart, Harrison's best known for his poetry and his novellas, most notably Legends of the Fall. He also apparently made some good money writing screenplays and enjoyed life in Hollywood's fast lane for a few years. But he first came to my attention because of a New Yorker article from last Fall that documented a 37-course, 12 hour meal that he had with friends in Burgundy. Totally over the top, and richly entertaining.
He's been a food columnist for Esquire, Men's Journal, and Smart, and these and other writings have been compiled in The Raw and The Cooked, a book that seems to pulse with the intensity of Harrison's appetites. I don't think I could eat or drink or just live like Harrison does without doing grievous harm to my arteries and my liver, but he manages it somehow, and we're the better for it.
I love what poetry I've read, but I haven't dug deeply yet. Conversations with Jim Harrison is a lengthy compilation of interviews with him, and it has some shining moments, but he returns to a few themes over and over--often using the exact same words--and I eventually got the feeling that he has not only a script that he trots out for interviewers, but also a well-worn public persona that he uses to keep the world at bay and protect his privacy, his real self.
He's not a political writer per se, but his views come through clearly in the interviews and peek out regularly in his nonfiction. He's an unreconstructed liberal, so from my perspective he's great on social issues but not a guy I'd want in charge of economic policy. But Harrison's warmth, his passion for life, his desire to make a better world and to enjoy it to the hilt positively leap off of every page, and since I don't believe in reincarnation, reading him is probably the next best thing.