A portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretensiA portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretension and so far wholly chronological. Author Zabor has an astonishing ability not only to make jazz come alive on the page, but to catch his hero's most transient angst in mellifluous sentences. The Bear's inner voice, his self-loathing, runs deep and profound.
He becomes somewhat unhinged. He is falling, disintegrating when slammed in prison, for what are the authorities to do with an intelligent bear alto saxophonist? Right, hide him away. Behind bars his love of jazz feels gone, expunged. It's a stirring yet sad interval. I understand many readers find the book funny. So far, I do not, which is not to say that the humor isn't well handled here, but that on this first reading it's the Bear's musings that I find so deeply affecting. It is that frequency to which I am tuned.
Belay that, I just got my first laugh on page 122. The Bear has just asked the old Austrian doctor to help him break out of jail. The doctor demurs. Here's the exchange:
"There is one eppel you did not eat," said [Dr.] Friedman, casting an eye down upon a fold of brown army blanket. If you don't mind, it vould freshen my breaths."
"By all means," said the Bear, passing him the apple. "By all means cover up the inconvenient smell of internal rot, failed will, suspect sentiment."
This is one irritable if articulate bear. Later, sprung with élan by musicians and friends dressed as EMTs, he hides out at admirer Iris' apartment in Peter Cooper Village where the atmosphere is charged with interspecies lust. His old pal, Jones, who won the Bear as a cub years ago in a card game, has arranged a top-flight recording contract. An earlier LP—the novel was published in 1997—has sold out overnight. The Bear's going big-time. He's given the chance to record with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden. He composes several pieces and writes out the music for a quartet.
Problem is the Bear still feels estranged from his talent. The jailhouse has taken its toll. Unfortunately, for those around him—luckily for the reader—the ursine instrumentalist is of a most choleric temperament. You might say he's bearish. Nothing can be easily done. Everything's an imposition. This induces misery in Jones and everyone else except for the blissful musicians, who inhabit a realm of their own. During the recording session he's so out of touch with his mojo that he can only perform by way of a conscious imitation of himself. Eventually things swing again.
Here the writing becomes striking. The prose becomes so descriptive about music that in the mind's ear one can almost hear it. It's unlike anything I've ever read before. And then there's the sex. Interspecies sex between woman and bear that is anything but bestial. It's such a peculiar interlude, so new, that I found myself not at all bored as I so often am by human fictional schtuppings. Especially well told is the sense of lover Iris's fragility. It's ambiguous, but if I'm reading it right, there seems to be something of a history of taboo-breaking with her. In that sense then she's the perfect—if rather neurotic—match for the Bear. But it doesn't bode well for the future, does it? When she arrives at the Bear's bed she is described as wearing a "winding sheet." Uh-oh!
The jazz, much of the stuff the novel revels in, was already classic when the book was published in 1997. (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk etc.) The jazz argot comes across as dated, too, so Zabor's careful not to overdo it. The book may read better once the period in which it has been set is beyond living memory. Who knows, it may become a Don Quixote of its time. I certainly think the Bear has that kind of iconic potential. The novel really sings. For example, there are so many, the sequence in which Jones meets Mr. Big in the midtown offices of Megaton Records is astonishing. The details are pitch perfect.
But here comes the cognitive dissonance. The Bear is fully imbued with the thoughts and impulses of a human, yet he is a bear. This duality smacks the reader upside the head a bit when he or she comes to passages like this one on p. 257. The downstairs tenant, a photographer—the Bear's living upstate with Iris now, closer to nature—shows up "in the early evening with two teenage girls who looked like they might fancy being models."
The Bear found it morally offensive and knew that it could lead to trouble – outraged parents, charges of statutory rape, police. He wasn't about to barge in there, but he made a mental note to have a serious talk with the man the next time he found him alone.
Now, it would be impossible for the Bear, given what we know of his socialization, to think those thoughts. Fact, it is said, is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Well, here author Zabor breaks that rule, just tosses it out. It is impossible for the reader in this case to lend plausibility to the scenario. Just like that the writer has mucked with the fabric of the novel's believability. Yet we read on, why? Somehow it happens. Very confounding. . ....more
Shattering. Edie's story is a tragedy. Wait until you meet her family. Her father should have been taken out at dawn, blindfolded and shot. Moreover,Shattering. Edie's story is a tragedy. Wait until you meet her family. Her father should have been taken out at dawn, blindfolded and shot. Moreover, if you want insight into the 1960s New York art world and contemporary culture as a whole, this is your book. It's redolent of America in the '60s. Fascinating.
On vacation in Martha's Vineyard, this book had me screaming in my sleep, nightly. I had to stop reading it until the vacation was over. Shall we sayOn vacation in Martha's Vineyard, this book had me screaming in my sleep, nightly. I had to stop reading it until the vacation was over. Shall we say it touched a nerve......more
These essays may at times seem too truncated and the editorial policy of the New York Times, where they first appeared in a column called The Stone, mThese essays may at times seem too truncated and the editorial policy of the New York Times, where they first appeared in a column called The Stone, may be partially at fault. However, for someone who quickly glazes over at the massed abstractions of the Great Systematizers, I find the better essays clear and cogent. I'm still reading but here's my crème de la crème so far. My gratitude to the editors for their approach which touches on current social, political and cultural issues.
"Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity" —Adam Etison "The Limits of the Coded World"—William Egginton "On Modern Time"—Espen Hammer "Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter"—Avital Ronell "On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism"—Timothy Williamson "The Core of Mind and Cosmos"—Thomas Nagel "Things Fall Apart"—Philip Kitcher "Bursting the Neuro-utopian Bubble"—Benjamin Y. Fong "Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?"—Eddy Nahmias "Is the 'Dumb Jock' Really a Nerd?"—Jason Stanley and John W. Krakauer "The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz"—Simon Critchley "The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously."—Samuel Scheffler "Why I Love Mormonism"—Simon Critchley "The Light at the End of Suffering"—Peg O'Conner "Should This Be the Last Generation?"—Peter Singer "Questions for Free-Market Moralists"—Amia Srinivasan "What is Economics Good For?"—Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain "The Taint of 'Social Darwinism'"—Philip Kitcher...more
Epistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry AdamsEpistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry Adams was grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams. He was a Boston Puritan born in 1838 who at sixteen attended Harvard College—severely berated here—and went on to pursue a career as a journalist, novelist and historian.
His historical gamut stretches from the American Revolution to the years just before World War I. His writing is wry with patches of brilliance and, less often, turgidity. There are some extraordinary scenes. In one it's 1860 and Henry Adams travels as a courier for the American consulate to Sicily to find Garibaldi "in the Senate house toward sunset, at supper with his picturesque and piratic staff, in the full noise and color of the Palermo revolution." He also meets William Makepeace Thackery, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Lyell, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few.
It was fascinating for me to learn that in 1861, when the author arrived in England as a private secretary to his U.S. diplomat father, that the British recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate belligerency and came close two years later to recognizing the Confederacy as a state. Then came the Trent Affair in which two Confederate diplomats (Mason and Slidel) were seized by a U.S. vessel from a British mail steamer—clearly an act of war. The author describes the tentativeness of their position in London at the time.
Mostly the first half of the book is a merciless dissection of British royalty, society, manners, dining (ugh), and eccentricity in general in the latter half if the 19th century. Adams views it as wholly self-centered and self-regarding, a closed world without lessons to offer him. He's says so in a singular, scabrous overview that's at times very funny.
It occurs to me that the The Education of Henry Adams (1906)—whether intentionally or not—serves as a kind of corrective to James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1819). In it many of the assumptions underlying that earlier work are called into question. Dr. Johnson's famous bromide—"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."—gets a thorough refutation.
Adams' insights come at the expense of himself and anyone nearby. His irony morphs at times into vitriol. Lauded as a unique view on the American story. I think it very well may be. This has for me been one of those great interstitial reads, in which, using the framework of autobiography, the writer is able to cover many of the nooks and crannies of history often overlooked in more general texts. Neil Sheehan does much the same thing but with biography in his Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. I recommend both books highly, though from a literary point of view Sheehan's is the better written work.
Time has not been kind to Adams' style. Though there must have been a day when it was considered muscular, its phrasing today strikes one as slightly archaic and stilted at times. Its historical insights may be unique, but the text's omissions are as telling as its inclusions. Indeed, Henry Adams' world seems strangely Islamic with half its population going unmentioned. Women had virtually no role in the society of his day—they certainly did not have the vote—except as helpmeets and incubators of heirs. It's very strange to read historiography which excludes them so painstakingly.
(Tellingly, Clover, his wife of many years, is completely written out of the book. This seems truly strange when one learns by way of a Wikipedia search that in 1885 she killed herself by drinking darkroom chemicals. Adams takes a page or two to rhapsodize about the Augustus St Gaudens' statue he commissioned for her grave, in Rock Creek Cemetery, but he never tells us it's for his wife. This we must learn by independent means.)
It is the ultimate form of self-denigration to declare that one is beyond education. The kind of almost omniscient learnedness that Adams pursues is a literary convention that dates to the ancients. He returns to this hobbyhorse over and over. It wears thin, for he is only able to keep to his steed by views increasingly abstract. The writing—always a challenge—grow less coherent the deeper into the book we go. So an at times fascinating if ultimately problematic read....more
I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green:I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is and superbly written. The author's ability to compress this picaresque decade of his life into a mere 230 pages is a marvel. Stone has long been considered a writer's writer, still, I would lay odds that some of his nimble phrasing here came from honing these tales at dinner parties and other venues over the years. The book is very funny.
It opens with Stone at the helm of the USS Arneb. At sea he keeps two pictures over his desk: one of Bridget Bardot, the other of the New York City skyline. These he calls the poles of his desire. His descent into yellow journalism is interesting. On discharge he went to work for the New York Daily News, perhaps no worse then than it is today, and later for a few scuzzy National Enquirer-like rags. There he was responsible for headlines such as "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds." He goes to Hollywood with Paul Newman to make his novel A Hall of Mirrors into an apparently bad movie called WUSA. I've never seen it, have you?
He introduces us to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other works. I'm very grateful for the introduction because I've always been led to believe Kesey was a charlatan. Au contraire. Stone eulogizes his friend here as a great—if often drug-addled—man of superior learning and charisma. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are probably most famous for setting off from Northern California in a psychedelic bus for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Neal Cassady was the driver. Yes, that Neal Cassady, Kerouac's friend, the one immortalized in On the Road.
One tale of the Pranksters in Mexico—Kesey was on the run from drug charges—has Cassady clandestinely using a hypodermic to dose a roast pig with LSD and amphetamines, thus sending the many diners—Stone was one—on an unexpected journey. That LSD was originally intended as a Cold War weapon, coming out of CIA-funded studies at Stamford University, and ultimately became a popular drug which "changed the minds" of Baby Boomers and others in many ways during that time of heightened social consciousness, is an irony that resonates to this day.
When Stone goes to Vietnam as a stringer, the narrative grows thin, the prose seems rushed, fragmented. But this is only in the last fifteen pages or so. The rest of the book is quite wonderful....more
A real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American CiviA real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Brown's plan was to steal tens of thousands of rifles from the sleepy, rural armory. With them he would arm fugitive slaves hiding in the Blue Ridge Mountains against their so-called masters. It didn't quite work out. Brown and nineteen others were hung for the attempt.
I like that it's a folksy tale without literary hi-jinx. The whole thing—prefaced by a hilarious news story dated 1966—is said to be gleaned from the newly discovered slave narrative of one Henry "the Onion" Shackleton, the only survivor of the raid. The beauty of this sort of writing is that it gets out if its own way, leaving the greater narrative arc open to view. It's interesting how some of the constructions here—the tropes—their economy and method of proceeding, remind me of E.L. Doctorow. I'll have to think some more about that.
To create convincing speech of the period, McBride makes interesting use of solecisms—such as runned for ran, set for sat, gived for gave, throwed for threw, hisself for himself, and incorrect subject-verb agreement as in: "We has come to free the Negro. And you is our prisoner." There are intentional clichés, too, figures of speech which are key to the Onion's idiom. Because this non-standard English is consistently rendered throughout, it never seems a burden to read, as overwrought dialect can often be. See William Faulkner's Flags In the Dust, his third novel, for an example of such overwrought dialect. By contrast, McBride's novel is fresh, broadly funny, a delight. Highly recommended.
N.B. — A movie is in the works with author McBride as producer and Liev Schreiber, who will play the fiery abolitionist John Brown, also serving as producer. Henry "the Onion" Shackleton is to be played by Jayden Smith. Let's hope they do a good job....more
A novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd persoA novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd person to 1st and back again. A tale of young men finding their way in the world. Beautiful and shattering....more
This economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political instituThis economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political institutions if they are to achieve prosperity. Such political institutions include fair and free elections, an independent judiciary, uncorrupt legislative and executive branches etc etc. Inclusive economic institutions include financial controls such as (in the U.S.) the Fed, the SEC, trust breaking litigation, and so forth. The authors say all of these things are mutually reinforcing. In the U.S., for instance, all three main governmental institutions at the federal level hold each other in check. This is also more or less true in Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Botswana. Yes, that Botswana. The stories of Botswana -- and the rest of post-colonial Africa -- are ones I have not come across elsewhere and for which I am especially grateful.
Nations with inclusive economic and political institutions allow something called "creative destruction." This is what happens when new technologies appear and cause a redistribution of wealth. Perhaps the most recent example of creative destruction has been the impact of computers and the internet. So many industries have been upset by these new technologies: publishing, the music industry, retail stores, manufacturing, etc etc. Nations which do not have inclusive economic and political institutions are called "extractive." An extractive nation is one in which an elite prospers from the misfortune of the rest of the population. One example of this is the post-colonial African nation of Sierra Leone. When the British left Sierra Leone, and it was thought that the extractive mechanisms they had put in place would be abolished, just the opposite happened. Local strong men came along and upped the ante. This had the effect of disincentivizing entrepreneurs. After all, why work hard if 90% of one's output will be seized by the junta? Moreover, such extractive nations will not permit creative destruction because it threatens to undermine the power of the governing elite. So the extractive states tend to be backward because they shun new technologies. Though examples from antiquity are adduced -- Rome, Mayan civilization, for instance, both extractive -- the authors are mostly concerned with what happened starting with the Industrial Revolution on. They show how the English Civil War and subsequent Glorious Revolution set the stage for the growth of inclusive political and economic institutions in England and how these became mutually reinforcing over time.
The book is compelling. I hope people living in these extractive nations will get a translation because it is so eye-opening. But that's unlikely, isnt it? Since a major feature of extractive nations is suppression of the media, which is transparency.
This is a view of history, on the other hand, that does not question its foundations. It's a great cheering section for capitalism generally. But there's a huge problem with this economic-growth-at-all-costs mentality. It may have been fine for a century or so but now it's no longer tenable. In fact, it's killing us: climate change, loss of biodiversity, global deforestation; our oceans are covered, by one recent estimate, with 480 billion cubic tons of plastic. GDP is the wrong measure of our "progress" now. (Though we are only killing ourselves. The earth will do fine without us. It's got billions of years before the sun explodes. That's plenty of time for a post-Anthropocene explosion of species.) We need new sustainable economic models. From what I can see these have been extremely slow to emerge. That's the only problem with inclusive politics: they're incremental. I was going to say politics moves at a glacial pace, but that's no longer even a valid cliché, is it? So the book, while being a captivating history of how capitalism has worked historically, offers no solutions for how it might change. New models are badly needed. If, that is, we aren't already past the ecological tipping point....more
I'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing isI'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing is always hard to find no matter its form. But this particular work is terrific. It's insightful. We see how Georgia O'Keeffe's talent developed early in life. In 1903-04 Georgia and her many sisters were driven some miles in a horse and buggy from their Wisconsin farm to art lessons, an almost unheard of extravagance in those still largely frontier days. We follow O'Keeffe during her subsequent study at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York (57th St.), and Columbia University (Teacher's College), also in New York. She becomes a most unorthodox teacher of art in Virginia and, later, Texas. It is while there, in West Texas, that she discovers Big Sky country, the American southwest, whose strange beauty was to possess her for the rest of her life. But between the Texas teaching and the full-time move to New Mexico there was an interval in New York when she was discovered by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist, who championed her, scandalously left his wife and married her, a woman 25 years younger than himself. For about twenty years she lives with the garrulous Stieglitz in New York. In the spring and summer they shift activities to the Stieglitz family compound upstate on Lake George. Here the great man is surrounded by his large family and circle of admirers. For Georgia, the East ultimately comes to seem a dead place. She yearns for southwest. A change is made. Instead of going to Lake George for the summer, she will go to New Mexico, where she will paint prolifically. (She was virtually blocked in the East.) There she discovers Ghost Ranch, and a few years later the house at Abiquiu. Steiglitz doesn't like the arrangement but he knows she will not paint otherwise, so her lets her go. The arrangement continues until his death in 1946, when, after three years spent settling his estate, she moves west full time. In the 1960s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, she undergoes a ludicrous fall from critical favor. The absurd interpretations by the critics of the day are well represented, and hilarious they are too for being so fantastically off the mark. In the early 1970s she is justly returned to her proper status with a series of big shows in major U.S. cities. I found her will an astonishing thing to contemplate. Unlike most people, and this was her greatest gift in my view, perhaps greater than her artistic mastery, she knew what she wanted from life, almost from day one, and she doggedly went out and got it. This focus is at the core of her spare way of life and stripped down esthetic. Most of all she had this immense appetite for solitude. For most of us, with our various codependencies, that's hard to imagine. But it was fascinating to see it manifest in the life of this woman whose character seems set from the moment of birth. She is an astonishing historical figure largely because of her output of a timeless body of art which has defied all critical reductions. The author has done an excellent job. The biography's far more penetrating than I had thought it could be. And this is done for the most part by showing and quotation, not by that awful sort of psychologizing that is actually a projection of the writer's own wishes. Warmly recommended....more
These subtle, fascinating case studies are psychoanalysis condensed. They run about 6 or so pages each. Everything inessential has been stripped away.These subtle, fascinating case studies are psychoanalysis condensed. They run about 6 or so pages each. Everything inessential has been stripped away. We get the problem, the diagnosis, and the resolution or its semblance very quickly. There's the nine year old with autism whose hyper-acting out includes spitting in his analyst's [the author's] face five times a week for a year and a half. How far can one's compassion go? Or the HIV-positive patient who can do little more than sleep during his sessions. When the author presents his case at a conference, an American doctor asks: "Why are you wasting your time with this patient? He's going to die. Why not help someone who's got a future." The author is outraged. And as it turns out, the protease-inhibitors arrive in time and the patient lives for many years, is in fact still alive at the time the book is published. The essays are so lean, so fleet of foot and this is somehow connected – this brevity, this concision – to their ability to move us. I cannot recommend this slim volume highly enough. It's a near miraculous feat of writing....more
Interesting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now knowInteresting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now know to be beyond doubt. But at the time, when it was just being introduced, the theory, and especially its association with the Cretaceous extinction, was not immediately embraced on the part of paleontologists. This led Luis Alvarez, no doubt in his frustration, to call paleontologists "not very good scientists." Oh dear! But Gould's coverage of the developing story is very fine and can be followed here and in his subsequent books, especially The Flamingo's Smile....more
This book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. QuiteThis book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. Quite good and gripping writing explaining what is still pretty much the current state of our knowledge.
Gould has a fondness for rehabilitating scientists who were wrong for interesting reasons. In this volume those figures include: Edward Tyson (who sought to place chimpanzees next to humans as the next link in the great chain of being theory), the Rev. William Buckland (who misinterpreted evidence of past glaciation as proof of The Flood), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (who straddled the epigenicist/preformationist embryology debate of the 18th century), and the father of taxonomy himself, Carolus Linnaeus (whose work was also skewed by the false great chain of being theory).
Gould is always careful to point out that no science is without its limiting cultural or social preconceptions. Scientific knowledge, moreover, is conditional, never fixed, and changes with our ever modifying understanding of it. He writes:
Good arguments don't provide nearly as much insight into human thought, for we can simply say that we have seen nature aright and have properly pursued the humble task of mapping things accurately and objectively. But bad arguments must be defended in the face of nature's opposition, a task that takes some doing. The analysis of this "doing" often provides us with insight into the ideology or thought processes of an age, if not into the modes of human reasoning itself. (p. 284)