Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mental coolant

As the mercury starts to climb in many parts of the US (where I am it's 92 but "feels like 97" according to the Weather Channel), I think a handful of last winter's snow—which showed up in 49 states—might come in handy.  One train of thought leading to another, I recalled an incredible essay I came across on the great blizzard of 1888 called “New York under the Snow” by Jose Marti. A revolutionary poet, educator, children's writer, art and literary critic, and journalist from Cuba, Marti began to write what became his North American Scenes during a 15-year exile in New York City. This vivid and compassionate excerpt appeared in Writing New York: A Literary Anthology.
After the first surprise of the dawn, people find ways to adjust their clothing so the fury of the tempest will not do them so much harm. There is an overturned wagon at every step; a shade, hanging from its spring, flaps against the wall like the wing of a dying bird; an awning is torn to ribbons; a cornice dangles from its wall; an eave lies in the street. Walls, hallways, windows are all banked with snow. And the blizzard blows without respite, piling up drifts, scattering destruction, whistling and howling. And men and women keep walking with the snow to their armpits.
One has made a mask of silk from his umbrella, with two holes for the eyes, and another for the mouth, and thus, with his hands behind his back, he cuts his way through the wind. Others have tied stockings over their shoes, or bags of salt, or wrapping paper, or strips of rubber, fastened with twine. Others protect themselves with leggings, with fur caps; another, half dead, is being carried, wrapped in his buffalo-hide overcoat. "Sir," pleads the voice of a child, who cannot be seen for the snow, "help me out of here, I am dying. It is a messenger boy whom some heartless employer has sent out in this storm. There are many on horseback; one, who came out in a sled, is carried away with it at the first gust, and nearly loses his life. A determined old lady, who set out to buy a wreath of orange blossoms for her daughter's marriage, loses the wreath to the wind. Night fell over the arctic waste of New York, and terror took over. The postman on his round fell face down, blinded and benumbed, protecting his leather bag with his body. Families trapped in the roofless houses sought madly and in vain to find a way out through the snow-banked doors. When water hydrants lay buried under five feet of snow, a raging fire broke out, lighting up the snowy landscape like the Northern Lights, and swiftly burned three apartment houses to the ground. The fire wagons arrived! The firemen dug with their hands, and found the hydrant. The walls and the snowy street were scarlet, and the sky was blue velvet. Although the water they played against the flames was hurled back in their faces in stinging pellets by the fury of the wind, although the tongues of crimson flame leaped higher than the cross on the church steeple, although the wind-tossed columns of smoke bearing golden sparks singed their beards, there, without giving an inch, the firemen fought the fire with the snow at their breasts, brought it under control, and vanquished it. And then, with their arms, they opened a path for the engine through the snow.
Whew! Here's a book suggestion if you're also seeking "something cool": The Arctic: The Complete Story. It's got glaciers galore, as well as stunning photos of animals and birds that make their home in this frigid zone. Also, if you have any blizzard adventures, we'd love to hear about them!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day edition

Disabled ex-servicemen in a veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, assemble "Buddy Poppies" for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Sale conducted nationally during the week preceding Memorial Day in 1947. Proceeds of the flowers  were used for welfare and relief activities. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / Photographs and Prints Division).

Elizabeth Taylor at home
Architectural Digest has published the spread about Taylor's Bel Air residence they were collaborating on when she died. In a corner of her living room are a Frans Hals portrait (her father was an art dealer), a David Hockney print, bronze horses sculpted by daughter Liza Todd Tivey, and an Andy Warhol silkscreen, a gift from the artist. "Children and grandchildren were given the run of the house," states the article, "as was a succession of dogs, cats, and birds. In recent years nearly every room was awash in blues and lavenders, shades echoing Taylor’s famous violet eyes. And if that chromatic scheme wasn’t in fashion, well, so be it. Elizabeth Taylor’s private world reflected no one better than the woman who lived there—authentic, unapologetic, and full of passion."

Those violet eyes and that stunning beauty and charm first came to filmgoers' attention in a big way with National Velvet. Thanks to celluloid, she'll be forever young, and forever with us.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rite of Spring ballet

"Le sacre du printemps" premiered in Paris on this date in 1913. The under-rehearsed dancers were flummoxed by the challenging time signatures, and conductor Pierre Monteux had his hands so full with the cacophony in the audience that he never even looked at the stage. "On hearing this near riot behind me," he wrote, "I decided to keep the orchestra together at any cost, in case of a lull in the hubbub. I did, and we played it to the end absolutely as we had rehearsed it in the peace of an empty theatre." The choreography, by Nijinsky, was recreated by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987; here is the opening section.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reel women

Quote of the day
"These aren't 'movie women', these are 'women women'!"—Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, on the dialogue in the new movie Bridesmaids. BTW, did anyone catch Amy Poehler's commencement speech at Harvard? Fantastic!

Sharapova gets two snaps for couture

Her French Open outfit, as always, is tasteful, aesthetic, sporty but elegant, and stunning on her! No one even comes close. I love Serena and Venus, but their ideas of court fashion are so sad in comparison. I know Nike designs them all for Maria, but can't some of the other tennis ladies get in on the action? Functional is ok, but ofttimes they sport something dowdy, crass, or a hideous neon color.

Hattie McDaniel
Mae as Tira
Playing maids
In the May 23 issue, The New Yorker reviewed Lynn Nottage's play "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark." Set in 1933 Hollywood, it contrasts the title character with her maid, an African American who has acting aspirations herself and is actually more talented. Black actresses railed against having to "play the maid," and Lord knows TCM is rife with cringe-making stuff. But many actors in this position managed to inject some personality and a bit of humor not thoroughly soaked in stereotypes. Such is the case with the trio who attend Mae West's character Tira in I'm No Angel after she comes up in the world. Hattie McDaniel, Gertrude Howard, and Libby Taylor have some great moments, and participate with her in a fun musical number. West seems to put herself on a par with them, doesn't talk down, and acts like they're all women trying to get a leg up as best they can. I think she picked up elements of her jaunty style from African American actors and musicians in New York before she went to Hollywood, and she respected them as peers. I find West as "fascinatin'" as the characters she plays find themselves, and I'm always a sucker for a new bio, such as Charlotte Chandler's She Always Knew How.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Food of yore

The New York Public Library has enlisted scores of volunteers to digitize the thousands of items in the Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930. There's something so gratifying about this beehive-like effort …now if the same energy could go toward solving world hunger! One thing I was surprised about was how many vegetables they ate back then (and how awesome train food was). If perusing this makes you a bit peckish, you might want to check out Best of the Best, Vol. 11: The Best Recipes from the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year.
A real rabbit hole for an image hound, the library's digital holdings also include several theater collections—from whence comes this kooky image of 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman as Romeo. My only question is, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Thursday, May 26, 2011

We're talking billions

The Guardian just did a slideshow on the best-selling books of all time; interestingly, all have been made into films. Four of them are British: And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. The 18th-century Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin is the outlier. Look at this gorgeous 1929 art nouveau cover from the digital collection of the New York Public Library (which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary)! 

They also divulged the five biggest-selling e-books on Amazon so far for 2011: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo, and Saving Rachel by John Locke. I had only heard of two of them (don't know what that says about me!) Also from a Guardian slide show (on bookshelves), here's a cool approach to arranging books: make them into an art installation ("homage to OCD?")!
"If you read a lot of books you are considered well read.  But if you watch a lot of TV, you're not considered well viewed."—Lily Tomlin
One kind of tv that doesn't get a bad rap for being a cultural wasteland is PBS, which recently ran a show called The Agatha Christie Code, an attempt to suss out what makes her, after Shakespeare, the world's bestselling author (2 billion books sold). One academic (who dressed like he moonlights either as a magician or rock star) used computer analysis to show that she used repetition of word forms to direct the reader's absorption of material. He was backed up by none other than the founder of neuro-linguistic programming! Characterized as part hypnotist and part dopamine pusher, Christie manipulates her prose and plots so that you race to the finish and then are compelled to start another one to get the same high. All of this is well and good, but it can hardly have been intentional. Let's just say she had a unique gift and honed it to perfection. Their textual analysis is somewhat gainsaid, moreover, by the popularity of stage and screen adaptations, which will probably run on until time immemorial. Witness the upcoming PBS remake of Murder on the Orient Express! Or consider another David Suchet gem, The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Update on Mona
The other day I was commenting on all of the visual riffs on La Gioconda, especially in this age of Photoshop. Opening The New Yorker of May 9, what should I find but this image. Part of an issue-wide graphic sendup of The Donald, it's the first time to my knowledge that these whimsical column breakers have been satirical instead of decorative.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Place we wish we'd been

The "Women Who Rock" Exhibit Opening and Concert on May 14, 2011 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Inductees Darlene Love, Mavis Staples, and Ronnie Spector sang "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" with Cyndi Lauper. Sigh. Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson was also in the house!
(Photos by Janet Macoska)
Whoa! Dig the raw power in this vintage Jackson performance ... the guitar she's using, a Martin D-18, now resides in the museum, along with one of her costumes.

I love love love Mavis Staples. She has such beautiful energy. Here's a muddy but great old video of Staples singing "I'll Take You There."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Vissi d'arte

For the opera lovers out there (and I know there are a few!) who are already missing the Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts, you may want to sample their new CD series of historic reissues. Anthony Tommasini wrote a lengthy and adulatory New York Times article on the first grouping, which he summarizes below:
There is a 1962 broadcast of Puccini’s “Tosca” with Leontyne Price in sumptuous voice as an impassioned yet dignified Tosca; Franco Corelli, a virile-voiced and charismatic Cavaradossi; Cornell MacNeil in his prime as Scarpia; and Kurt Adler conducting.
The cast of a 1950 broadcast of Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” is headed by Lily Pons as Rosina and Giuseppe Valdengo as Figaro. Of special interest is the Count Almaviva of Giuseppe di Stefano, sung with such lyrical splendor that no one should mind his dicey execution of passagework and dated approach to the Rossini style.
Speaking of Björling, he is a poignant Roméo in a ravishing 1947 broadcast of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” with Bidú Sayão as the most heartbreaking, tender Juliette imaginable. And speaking of “Bohème,” the series offers an affecting performance from 1958 with Licia Albanese as Mimi, Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo and the conductor Thomas Schippers, 27 at the time, drawing a buoyant and glowing performance from the Met orchestra.
Lily Pons and Bidú Sayão
After his article, the Met also issued Fidelio, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and The Marriage of Figaro. To view a lovely meditation on Figaro as a perfect work of art, you can peruse this blog entry by soprano Mary Beth Loup, with videos of some of her favorite performers (including the one below with her husband, François, as Dr Bartolo!).


Monday, May 23, 2011

Picks of the day ... and a guest from the past

Shower and Honkytonk Man. Both are true-to-life family dramas leavened with humor: sweet but not sappy. 3 stars each.
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Tan is somewhat of an uber Chinese–American author by this point, and that's because she keeps evolving. Along the lines of what one used to dub "a ripping good yarn," this novel chronicles the not-so-pretty consequences when a motley crew of Americans confronts Burma and vice versa.
MUSIC: Not that Gaga!!
If you didn't know that "gaga" is street celebration music performed by Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, then join the club. I discovered this while researching some of the hundreds of albums of music from around the world issued by Smithsonian Folkways. Much of this is rare and special stuff, and needless to say, it's well curated. You can put together an entire world music library in no time. So prepare to get your gamelan on!

Daily Funny: "Moana Lisa"
Perhaps the most photoshopped image in existence. Mona Lisa has been re-created as Marge Simpson, as a Naavi, and as a blonde with breast implants. The puzzle below is but a small sample of the artistic licence that has been taken with Leonardo's most famous painting.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The First Time Ever"

A few days ago I posted a video of Mary Travers (who died last September at the age of 72), in her salad days, singing with Cass Elliot and Joni Mitchell to some shlocky strings on tv. My friend Howard saw it,  began "webcasting" around for some solo Travers work, and found this gem.

The song was written  by Ewan McColl for his wife Peggy Seeger, and although Roberta Flack's was the most famous rendition, I like this one the best. I think the world of PP&M as musicians and activists, but it's nice to have this solo performance too. Here's the trio performing the song on the BBC in 1965 ... oh, that heavenly blend!! And dang, how gorgeous they look.

Incredible app & website
Leafsnap.com shows some of the "fruits" of a series of electronic field guides being developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian. The website cycles through gorgeous high-resolution images of leaves, flowers, fruit, petiole, seeds, and bark, whereas the free mobile app uses visual-recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. On view now are the trees of New York City and Washington, D.C., with the trees of the entire continental United States to come. Pictured: the lesser periwinkle flower.

If that stimulates a yen to learn more, check out Alpine Plants of Europe: A Gardener's Guide or Taylor's 50 Best Shrubs: Easy Plants for More Beautiful Gardens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006)

I had always collected books by Octavia Butler, knowing that she was a pioneer African American woman in the field of sci fi, but when my favorite bookstore owner told me recently that she had actually died in 2006, I decided now was the time. I pulled out Kindred—a "grim fantasy" addressing the relentless torments of slavery as experienced by a 20th-century woman who time travels against her will—and was blown away. Then in a recent Guardian article ("The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction") Tricia Sullivan chose the novel, and said this about Butler:
Beginning in the 1970s, Butler wrote three sequences of novels: the Patternist books, the Lilith's Brood series and the Parable novels (incomplete at her tragic death in 2006). Critically respected, she won the Hugo and Nebula awards, received a Clarke nomination, the PEN lifetime achievement award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. A serious writer working in a field that is seldom taken seriously, Butler addressed biological control, gender, humanity's relationship with aliens, genetics and even the development of a fictional religion. Her narratives leave space for the reader's involvement while exploring the nature of change. They gaze unflinchingly on power dynamics. "Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design? Who will dominate? All struggles are essentially power struggles," Butler stated, "and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together." Butler's writing is courageous, stimulating and infused with a rare purity of intention. Crushingly, she died at the height of her powers. Bloodchild and Other Stories is a good place to begin discovering her work.
Margaret Atwood chose Farenheit 451, while Ursula LeGuin picked Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Two authors chose The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957), and their descriptions really made me want to read this retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, written by an American ad man.

In the sci fi department, we currently have intriguing novels by Johnathan Lethem, Jeanette Winterson, Thomas Nevins, and H.G. Wells.

Friday, May 20, 2011

In this age of E-everything, bookstores soldier on

I was thinking about some of my favorite indie bookstore names and thought I would solicit yours. I'll remind you from time to time and then present a list when I have a goodly number. I don't like them too punny! (Although if you want to send in some true groaners, that's ok too.) Off the top of my head: The Tattered Cover, Read It Again Sam, Women and Children First, Mystery Loves Company, Murder Ink. I also like the blog of the Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans: "Fighting the Stupids."
"Mona Lisait!" is a clever title for a bookstore —where else?— in France. You can view it and many other stunning and exotic book havens in easily scrollable fashion by clicking here. Love the art nouveau one in Porto, Portugal, pictured below.

Vis à vis a previous post on bookshelves going the way of the dodo in home design, my friend Carol sent me this quote from Anna Quindlen: "I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think that interior decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves." Right on! From "Get To Know Types of Bookshelf for Home Library and 18 Bookshelf Ideas" on the site www.modresdes.com come these two selections, which seem more artsy than practical, but hey, they're trying!


And from The Daily What website comes this "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead" polymer clay bookmark created by Kira Nichols. TGIF!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Live and luminous

Two recent causes for rejoicing: Emmylou Harris's new CD Hard Bargain and a 3-CD compilation of music by Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Tell My Sister, which we'll by carrying soon). Emmylou sings about her late friend in this solo version "Darlin' Kate" from NPR's Tiny Desk Concert.

Alison Krauss is another favorite whose haunting tones are unmistakable. In this title track from her new CD Paper Airplane she goes from a cello-like pianissimo to a soaring, full-throttle refrain. She starts singing at 1:20, but for a laugh you might want to just listen to the Today Show gals, who are a pretty hilarious SNL-type parody of themselves. AK is always so unpretentious and real ... you can just see her thinking "What's up with these weirdos?"

Also somewhat comical is this 1969 video of Joni Mitchell, Cass Elliot, and Mary Travers earnestly singing the Bob Dylan tune "I Shall Be Released" (with strings!) I call this "no one's getting phat except Mama Cass." I love them all, but seriously, each of them has such a distinctive and strong personality, mystique, or what have you that jamming them together in a Cass sandwich just doesn't cut it. Joni and Mary seem like they'd like nothing better than to have an out-of-body experience. And as for the couture, would that What Not to Wear could time travel back for an intervention!


Now that's enrichment!
The first title in Penguin's new e-book enhancement program is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men: Amplified, which includes an audio interview with James Earl Jones about his performances in a stage version; a video slideshow of Dust Bowl images by Dorothea Lange; Robert Burns' "To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785" (the source of the novel's title); stills from the 1992 film starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich; Steinbeck's 1962 Nobel speech; a Q&A with Carlisle Floyd (who wrote an opera based on the book in 1937); and an introduction and suggested further reading by Susan Shillinglaw, Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
Am I horrible to say that all of that sounds kinda more interesting than actually reading the book?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"While she was busy being free"

Yesterday I posted a video of Joni Mitchell performing "Woodstock" at a festival soon after she wrote it. Below is another, much later version, from Refuge of the Roads—the sound is better and the mood and arrangement are entirely different. I also forgot to mention the retrospective CD Dreamland, which is a great introduction to the scope of Joni's talents.  
Joni's songs have been recorded by scads of singers and musicians. Here are the current top 10:
 1) Both Sides Now (760 times)
 2) Big Yellow Taxi (299)
 3) River (246)
 4) Woodstock (225)
 5) A Case of You (180)
 6) The Circle Game (171)
 7) Chelsea Morning (94)
 8) All I Want (78)
 9) Urge For Going (70)
10) Carey (69)

Both Judy Collins and Bonnie Raitt did "That Song About the Midway." Streisand sang "I Don't Know Where I Stand" (exquisitely) on Stoney End (there's also a tape of her performing it for $1000 at a charity event at which Mitchell was present). Prince and Diana Krall ("A Case of You") are big fans; Herbie Hancock put together a tribute album, and on it Tina Turner sang a seriously awesome "Edith and the Kingpin." Annette Bening sang "All I Want" in The Kids Are All Right. The list goes on…..

So which are you favorite songs or performances by Joni? (I know, there are so many…..) And which covers by other artists are thumbs up or down? "Impossible Dreamer" (written for John Lennon), "Little Green," and "Night Ride Home" are some of my favorites. Sadly, Joni missed out on Woodstock because of a commitment to appear on the Dick Cavett Show, but she sang "Just Like this Train" there in 1998.  She's always so wryly perceptive and so completely honest that some of her songs remind me of Flannery O'Connor stories.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ladies (and gents) of the canyon

A lavish mixture of photos and prose by music historian and pop culture archivist Harvey Kubernik, Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon portrays a huge roster of iconic canyon dwellers and visitors, including David Crosby, James Taylor, and of course Joni Mitchell. To me and to many others, Mitchell is a goddess who towers over her peers like a redwood from her adopted California. In few individuals has the flame of art burned so brightly and with such a wide spectrum of hues. Among her magnificent legacy of songs is 1968's "Ladies of the Canyon," with its typically dense, poetic lyrics. Estrella Berosini (a "circus girl" for real) deconstructs the stanzas about her on Joni's website, as do the other two "ladies": Trina Robbins and Annie Burden. Here Estrella describes her first sight of Joni:
"It was like stepping from a pitch black room into the snow-blind white light of a crystal bright Canadian winterscape. I was stunned by the beauty of this absolutely foreign creature, who barely touched ground as she lightly clicked onto the vinyl tile kitchen floor. I locked on her face first; perfectly proportioned, perfect skin, immaculately clean, straight blonde hair and... OH MY GOD, WHAT WAS SHE WEARING?!? Her dress had stepped out of a renaissance painting, but was cut off just above the knee, and a loose, muted silver buckled belt hung below her waistline. Just like the paintings of royal ladies of old. She looked as though she stepped from the pages of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy."  
Joni Mitchell. Photo by Henry Diltz, 1971. From Rolling Stone (courtesy Morrison Hotel Gallery).
  Like those of Bob Dylan, Joni's lyrics have been published as books. Her concert DVD Refuge of the Roads ends with the visionary "Woodstock," which also appears on the remastered album Ladies of the Canyon. "With its slow, jazz-inflected pacing, her 'Woodstock' is a moody and at times heartbreakingly melancholy art song" says Camille Paglia before explicating its lyrics in Break, Blow, Burn, her study of significant works by poets ranging from Emily Dickinson to Shakespeare, Shelley, and Stevens. In Refuge, Mitchell performs the song on electric guitar; in this 1969 video from Big Sur she plays piano.

Former canyon denizens are also heavily featured in the fantastic CD/documentary package Carole King & James Taylor: Troubadours, a top-notch social/musical history of the folk-rock, singer-songwriter era.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Deluxe editions to treasure and savor

A few days ago, we were discussing the merits of books as tangible, aesthetic objects.  Pertinently, we now have quite a few beauties from Norton's "annotated" series on hand for your delectation!
"There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Illustrations by Arthur Rackham (left) and E. H. Shepard (right). Below, several interpretations of the incorrigible Mr. Toad. Charles van Sandwyk worked for two years on art (see Toad in washerwoman diguise, bottom right) for the Folio society edition. 
It goes without saying that these types of books are profusely illustrated; so for example, lovers of The Wind in the Willows are treated to images of Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger by scads of great artists. They are also offered intriguing arcania and helpful glosses, such as recipes for Captain's biscuits and mulled wine; a running commentary on how Grahame used Homeric parallels in the story (take that, James Joyce!); observations on class differences amongst the various animals; the tidbit that Evelyn Waugh read the book aloud to his students; and instances in which Grahame sends up Dickens (particularly his Victorian deathbed scenes).

Much ink, many pixels, and even time on 60 Minutes have been expended on the controversy over a publisher substituting "slave" for the "N word" in Huckleberry Finn. In Norton's edition annotated by independent scholar Michael Patrick Hearn, the word is preserved in all of its dreadfulness, which any sensitive reader of the text will acknowledge was Twain's intent. Publishers Weekly waxed effusive about this edition of
"a seemingly transparent work that, as presented in Hearn's exhaustive research, harbors linguistic complexities worthy of an Eliot or a Joyce. In his long introduction, Hearn chronicles Huck's publishing history, from its on-again, off-again composition, to Twain's stormy relationship with his publishers, to the book's embattled trip to the printer (trailing censorious editors in its wake) and its instant success on the market. Hearn offers a thorough cataloguing of the book's critical reception and many controversies, an ample pinch of biography, a lengthy analysis of dialect and a fairly sketchy historical background. The notes themselves (presented alongside the text) are eclectic, sometimes charmingly so: we learn what a huckleberry is, and a sugar-hogshead, and how corn pone is made. Huck's vast repertory of Southern superstitions is carefully glossed, and Hearn wisely includes quotes about the book from Twain (who could scarcely open his mouth without saying something funny) whenever possible… This liberally illustrated and beautifully designed book offers many pleasures for the general reader." 
Coda:  If you're a Lewis Carroll fan, here's your chance to get Snarky! Or would you prefer to delve into the weird and wonderful world of fairy tales? Check out The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quip Art 4

"And then we get to sing hosanna forever and ever!"

It was a very mixed-up  story.

The job of head waiter was not quite what he expected.

No one would tell her how washed out her mania for patterns made her look.

Note: If you like to acquire some comedy done by actual professionals, we currently have the following on hand:
§  a plethora of Monty Python (seven items, including a Holy Grail collector's edition)
§  a soupçon of Seinfeld (Bee Movie and Season 1 of his show)
§  and two ensemble hootfests: the doggone great Best in Show and the Oscar sendup For Your Consideration, both of which feature former SCTVers Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as well as the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, et al et al!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Quip Art 3

"Faster, Billy, faster!!"

She had so longed for a Stratocaster....
Early Mad Man attempt at a Joseph Cornell Box?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Does this make you sad?

Frontispiece of Folio's "Prime of Miss JB"
"You know those built-in bookshelves you've always dreamed of having in your house or apartment?" reports the online book digest Shelf Awareness. "Apparently there are fewer people like you than there used to be. Crain's Chicago Business reported that 'with sales of e-book titles surpassing those of paper-and-ink volumes, homeowners are moving on.' Re/Max broker associate Lynn Fairfield said clients are dry-walling over bookcases to make room for flat-screen televisions: 'When I show houses, I never see books lined up on shelves anymore. If there are shelves, they're usually filled with sports trophies or photos or knickknacks.'"

As a person who lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, and dreams books; who has 26 non–built-in bookcases crammed into every conceivable cranny of a townhouse (including bedrooms, baths, and stairways); and whose greatest fantasy is to have a roomful of Folio editions of my favorite authors (I do have one of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!), I guess you could say that I am unusually enamored of books as possessions and aesthetic objects.  But obliterating bookcases with flat-screen tvs? Yoiks!

I am sure I would enjoy an e-reader immensely for certain purposes. And I love it that Google has out-of-copyright books available in a thrice. But when I kick the bucket they will probably have to pry a real book from my cold, dead hands. End of story. What do you all think—of books as mementoes, as possessions, as things to heft in your hand, to treasure and display?

P.S. Shelf Awareness also reported that Linda LaPlante—screenwriter of the Prime Suspect PBS series that blessedly brought Helen Mirren into our homes—is going to adapt Marcus Rediker's book Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age for tv as a sort of "Deadwood on the high seas." This we gotta see!
P.P.S.  The painting "Granny Lion Tamer," above, is by self-taught British artist Beryl Cook, whom I discovered through her illustrations for Folio's Miss JB.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Bon Appetit!"

If you're wondering whether the person who comes across in My Life in France could be anything like the wacky and wonderful character created by Meryl Streep in Julie&Julia, the answer is oui, oui, and again oui! Every bit as alluring as her cooking expertise are Child's all-embracing appetite for experience and her ability to convey her adventures colorfully, idiosyncratically, and with a soupçon of self-deprecation. Truly, there should be a picture of her smiling mug in every French dictionary under "joie de vivre." Interlaced with her husband's superior black-and-white photographs, the book chronicles her love affair with France and its cuisine,
from soup to nuts. Warning: her descriptions of favorite restaurant meals, cheese shops, bakeries, picnics, and even vegetable sellers' wares will leave you faint with longing. Here's one of the young couple's first forays into Parisian haute cuisine:  

Colette, looking somewhat fierce
"Over the course of the next two hours we had a leisurely and nearly perfect luncheon. The meal began with little shells filled with sea scallops and mushrooms robed in a classically beautiful winy cream sauce. Then we had a wonderful duck dish, and cheeses, and a rich dessert, followed by coffee. As we left in a glow of happiness, we shook hands all around and promised almost tearfully to return…. And that is where we first laid eyes on Grande Dame Colette. The famous novelist lived in an apartment in the Palais Royal, and the Véfour kept a special seat reserved in her name in a banquette at the end of the dining room. She was a short woman with a striking, almost fierce visage, and a wild tangle of gray hair. As she paraded regally through the dining room, she avoided our eyes but observed what was on everyone's plate and twitched her mouth."
This video of Child demonstrating omelette making (the topic of her first show) is one of the few online showing her in action, but the book gives a visceral sense of the unaffected and ebullient persona that endeared her to avid viewers of her PBS series (it also takes you behind the scenes at its inception). 
Has anyone tried recipes from her books (or show)?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Greatest film of all time?

Now celebrating its 70th anniversary!
In 1998, and again in 2008, film experts polled by the AFI voted Citizen Kane the best movie ever made. From the first reviews onward, that opinion has never wavered.  So what makes it No 1? Welles was "a master of genre" says New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. "It's a newspaper comedy, a domestic melodrama, a gothic romance, and a historical epic." This immense, mythic film is a puzzle the audience must solve through its groundbreaking narrative style of flashbacks and through the revolutionary camerawork of top cinematographer Gregg Toland. As D.B. Grady writes in The Atlantic,

"Citizen Kane is perhaps most studied for its use of deep-focus photography, wherein the entire frame remains in focus at all time. This technique challenges audiences to search the screen for crucial pieces of the puzzle, and allows for cinematic sleight of hand. An otherwise ordinary fireplace, for example, is a background piece in Kane's mansion. It's not until Kane steps next to it that its massive size is revealed, and Kane's captivity to his outsized riches fully expressed. In another scene, when Kane loses control of his media empire, he dominates the frame, signing away his holdings while claiming a moral superiority to his new corporate masters. He then turns and walks to a window at the far end of the room, and is visually diminished. Through deep focus, the camera captures the magnitude of Kane's defeat without a single word spoken."

The film is a puzzle in more ways than one
Let's not forget Bernard Herrmann's outstanding score, Herman Mankiewicz's contribution to the screenplay (quotes from the film on one internet site number 304), and the stellar bunch of Mercury players (yay for Bewitched's Agnes Moorehead!).

Critic Kenneth Tynan claimed that "nobody who saw Citizen Kane at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary, a dictionary instead of a phrase book for illiterates." Do you remember your first impressions of this masterpiece? Or do you not think it is one? And what are your favorite lines? One of mine is "I'm the one that gets the raspberries!," which is shrieked by Kane's vocally challenged mistress as he tries to fashion her into an opera singer.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The big seven-oh

Did you know that both Bob Dylan and Citizen Kane turned 70 this year? The influence of both on their respective art forms has been inestimable. We have quite a few super-cool Dylan items at present, including a two-CD set of demos and an awesome boxed set of the original mono recordings. We also have two illustrated biographies. In one of them, Chronicles, he talks about the musicians that moved him from a number of genres. They include Roy Orbison ("his stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn't even been invented yet ... he sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business ... he was deadly serious … no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn't anything else on the radio like him. I'd listen and wait for another song, but next to Roy the playlist was strictly dullsville ... gutless and flabby."), Judy Garland ("'The Man That Got Away'... always did something to me.... [She] was from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a town about twenty miles away from where I was from. Listening to Judy was like listening to the girl next door. She was way before my time, and like the Elton John song says, 'I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid.'"), Johnny Rivers (Of all the versions of my recorded songs, [Johnny's 'Positively 4th Street'] was my favorite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations ... were cut from the same cloth ... I liked his version better than mine. I listened to it over and over again. Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers's version had the mandate down ... It was obvious that life had the same external grip on him as it did on me."),
Harry Belafonte ("Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist ... There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. Astoundingly and as unbelievable as it might have seemed, I'd be making my professional recording debut with Harry, playing harmonica on one of his albums called 'Midnight Special.' Strangely enough, this was the one memorable recording date that would stand out in my mind for years to come. Even my own sessions would become lost in abstractions. With Belafonte I felt like I'd become anointed in some kind of way."), Mike Seeger (As for being a folk musician, Mike was the supreme archetype ... It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes ... The thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn't know."), Duke Ellington ("I'd listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records, too ... there were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music. 'Tattoo Bride,' 'A Drum Is a Woman,' 'Tourist Point of View' and 'Jump for Joy'—all by Duke Ellington—they sounded like sophisticated folk music."), songwriter Harold Arlen ("in Harold's songs, I could hear rural blues and folk music. There was an emotional kinship there ... I could never escape from [his] bittersweet, lonely intense world."), and bebop masters Parker, Monk, and Gillespie ("If I needed to wake up real quick, I'd put on 'Swing Low Sweet Cadillac' or 'Umbrella Man' by Dizzy Gillespie. 'Hot House' by Charlie Parker was a good record to wake up to ... 'Ruby, My Dear' by Monk was another one. Monk played at the Blue Note on 3rd Street ... I dropped in there once in the afternoon, just to listen--told him that I played folk music up the street. 'We all play folk music,' he said.")
Tomorrow: "Rosebud!"