TORN BETWEEN TWO REVIEWERS, FEELING LIKE A FOOL

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                                  Purchase here

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I have spent a great deal of time with New York Times art critics. Willingly, you ask? Well yes, I am married to one – now retired – though still critiquing his way through the world. I was with Ben Brantley when he pointed at the “Critics” sign in the office and said, “It might as well say ‘throw bombs here.” I sat at the great Joe Lelyveld’s house when literary critic Michi Kakutani kept us on the edge of our seats recounting a performance piece where the artist ate monkey brains over and over. Oh, and let’s not forget the titanic John Rockwell going mano-a-mano about French culture with a woman wearing at least 10 strands of pearls. (John said it was over. She disagreed.)

Always interested in what might go on inside my husband’s head, I picked up a copy of A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism. Now involved in the film business, I couldn’t wait to hear what this fine reviewer had to say about the movies.

Ooph, did I buy the wrong book. This great film reviewer had become the expert of everything art and the whole enterprise read like an unmoored balloon, filled with gas and headed god knows where.

Here is, in no specific order, the artists and thinkers this film critic invokes: The Avengers, Mencken (required), Kant, Rilke, T.S. Elliot, the French New Wave, Pollock, Plato, Dante, Velazquez, Milton, Joyce, Horace, Aristotle, Orwell, Facebook, Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Wilson (required), Kant, Kafka, and Henry James….AMONG MANY OTHERS. It’s a huge scrum of all the characters involved in a Liberal Arts education and A.O.’s parents got their money’s worth.

Maddening. A book that could throw out this nonsensical sentence, “Or maybe I’d conclude that we are able to make determinations and discriminations of value because we have access to innate and eternal standards that, though they mutate over the centuries and express themselves differently from place to place, nonetheless keep us on the path of truth and beauty” makes me think, DAMN, WHERE WAS A.O.’s EDITOR THAT DAY? A POSITIONING MEETING? What a pompous meaningless sentence. The pointed pencil should have come down like the Sword of Allah.

Please Mr. Scott, descend the abstraction ladder and help us out.

But then A.O. says this and my mind lights up like the Fourth of July: “A work of art is itself a piece of criticism.” BOOM! He hit the mark.  And thus the maddening up and down of this book, both dense and convoluted and direct and fresh, keeps you from tossing the book at your critic husband for yet a few more pages.

And now I want to be a critic. The place? The Vatican. The moment? Four summers ago. I came around the corner after fleeing my group of tourists and there she was, out for cleaning.  I stood understanding and not understanding at the same time. Her face was calm yet filled with the sorrow of all of mankind as she held her dead son across her lap. I started crying, that deep kind where the tears just run and you can’t even make noise. I may have even dropped to the floor, I no longer remember.

From that moment forward, she created a kind of reverse PTSD in me, flashing in front of my eyes at the strangest times, goading me toward love and empathy.  As a critic, I can not compare her to anything else made by human hands because she was larger than that.

It was Michelangelo’s Pieta and my review would have said, “No words.” Just that. Everybody would have understood and we didn’t need Kant or Mencken to get there.

A.O. Scott had a different motive when he conjured Rilke up in his book, but it fits my experience with the Pieta as well:

                  ……………..For there is no place here

that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.

*****

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P.S. That’s my husband’s book up top on the right, Something I Heard.  He’s a music critic so it’s about music. Seemed a good fit.

TAKE A SHORT MASTER TO BED: 5 BOOKS FOR 90-MINUTES OF ECSTASY

imagesWriting short. Hemingway could do it.   Proust could not.   Brendan Gill could fit the world in a 300 word New Yorker architecture piece

 Sometimes it is just a matter of space:  If you have a lot, you put more words in. People feel this way about the decoration of rooms as well. It’s a shame.  Like silence, people are frightened of space.

One has big hopes the internet will rein in certain prose;  hypergraphia  be gone! Practice your new art of writing short on @twitter: those 140 characters are a mighty wall.

Writing short is the misty lair of poets. They know something about silence and space and power. They understand less is more. When poets write novels, the result is usually spectacular; they know the right word.  There’s no room in a poem for the wrong one.

 After a difficult day, people say, “Go home. Get in bed. Eat bonbons. Read some trash.” Why read trash?  Trash – literally and metaphorically – is what you’ve been grappling with all day. Don’t wallow in more mediocrity. Treat yourself way better than that. The food should be healthy, the reading very good.  Sheet thread counts matter, but that’s another discussion.

 Get out of your head and your life. Some of the books below are novellas and there is a short story or two. Doesn’t matter. They are the same thing: great art.  These pre-bed reads may be just the thing to erase the trashy memories of the day and reattach your wings:

  1. The Death of Ivan Iylich by Leo Tolstoy – Nearing the end of Romanticism (1800 – 1850, more or less, and easily identifiable by swoons, stolen kisses and heaving bosoms), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Iylich’s 128 pages electrify. In this blasé-toned bomb of a little book, Tolstoy takes us through   the death of a mediocre government worker (he’s middle-aged and has a freakish accident with the drapes) who never once considered his own ending.  Heartbreaking and as real as it gets, this is one great instruction manual on how not to live. Everyone knows an Ivan; he may be working in the next cubicle right now.

 2. The Stranger by Albert Camus – Nobody had really encountered the likes of Camus before (and often called him an “existentialist,” much to the confusion of him and Jean Paul Sartre, that movement’s Buddha), and his work generated many a coffeehouse debate in the middle of the 20th century. Every intellectual sought to understand this cool Algerian thinker, labeled “absurdist” by those who make labels.   He won a Nobel Prize in 1957 and this little 123-page book shows you why: in one violent moment, Camus shows the impossibility of truly knowing what drives humans to do what they do.

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   3. Memories of His Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Known for opening lines that blow your skirt up, this 130-page trip to the top of the mountain begins with “the year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”  The New York Times wrote the line off to Marquez and his love of playing with time, but there is something else here the Times would never spot: the unending well of strange magnificent love that flows through every Marquez book. Love makes time it’s bitch over and over as Marquez proves he was one great magician.

4. The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac – Once you get over Kristen Stewart being cast in On the Road, give Jack another go. Wild and sexual, The Subterraneans follows the breakup of Leo and Mardou through the smoke rooms  and back alleys of San Francisco on the edge of the 1960s. In this wild 111-page ride, you’ll read some of the greatest sentences ever written about modern America. You’ll also feel San Francisco when it was the heart of counterculture, not computer corporations.

 5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – In today’s world of undulating booty, it’s hard to imagine an American culture where women’s sexuality constituted the bars of her prison. But that is Edna’s – and every woman’s lot in 1899. Set in and around New Orleans, Chopin’s character is isolated physically and emotionally until she has an affair, a very dangerous pursuit for a 19th Century woman. The book’s original title was A Solitary Soul. Pretty much says it all.

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LOOKING BACK: ONE SCARY MOMENT IN LITERATURE

51HErXoZTUL._AA160_Joseph Conrad gets an extra special spot in Writerland; his first language was Polish but he wrote in English. Brilliantly. Not many writers can do this – Nabokov was Russian but wrote in English,

Agota Kristof was Hungarian but only wrote in French – there are a few others.

And no matter how great we find their books, there is always the nagging green man in your head saying “would this book have been beyond genius if he’d written it in Polish first?”

We won’t know now, will we? But I suggest other reasons for greatness.

In the spirit of transparency, I must tell you that I read this book for fun; I didn’t study it. I came to it late: like after marriage. (And I didn’t marry until I was wearing corrective shoes,) I had seen Apocalypse Now more times than is normal, but I love that movie, hallucinogenic, beautiful, pointless, stupid. Just like Vietnam. The Director’s Cut is best.

I began reading Heart of Darkness and I anticipated Kurtz would give me the most trouble. He’d be the scariest, most threatening character. Jungle pressing in, choking wet air, opaque churning water, arrows, leaves morphing into spears and painted war faces,  megalomania and murder in the airless hut.

I was so wrong. It wasn’t Kurtz at all. It was the girl that runs to the edge of the river – the native girl – she raises her arms up toward the sky and releases a blood curdling scream. The men on the boat don’t know her and have never seen her before. Because of the way Mr Conrad writes his story, the reader doesn’t know who she is either.

But I think I know now. She was the entire wildness of the world, the people who lived close to nature, nature itself. She burst from the jungle  and screamed  upward, a mourner almost 100 years before Earth would fall under such peril, many are forecasting its death.  The danger that called her to river’s edge? A diesel engine firing  up river in the very middle of a place so wild, no one one but a madman would go there.

Have any feelings about immigration? Try another of Mr Conrad’s gems, Typhoon.