Literary Review

The Wicked Witch of the West Village

Wicked PavilionSometimes you still see them, lurking around Greenwich Village, scurrying past Starbucks and Duane Reade drugstores under their crumpled fedoras, ink-smeared newspapers in their gnarled hands, ghosts. These are the living reminders of the days when any artist, intellectual, blowhard, genius, fakir, poet, or debutante with a diploma from one of the 'Seven Sisters' and a penchant for hard liquor and brittle conversation could turn the world on its head --all within a half-mile radius of Washington Square. That scene was even far gone when Dawn Powell wrote her satiric elegy to it in 1954. But it rings true today, not just as a nostalgia-trip, but as an x-ray of the way people, especially that unique subspecies known as New Yorkers, live and work and make love and generally get on with life.

Poetry of Perception and Power

This is a slim, beautiful chapbook of twenty poems by Victoria Sullivan of one or two pages each, accompanied by photos by Barbara Milman. Though the photos and the poems are not specifically related or aligned, they share a Zen-like artistic sensibility that makes them work well together.

Sullivan (an occasional CultureCatch contributor) maintains homes in both New York City and Saugerties; it is the latter location, where she is in constant contact with nature, that most informs the tone of this book. She is a poet of a certain age; she has lived, and loved, and lost, and learned. In the latter category, she has acquired the wisdom -- partly thanks to Buddhism, one guesses based on direct references, not least the brilliant poem titled "Zen" that closes the volume -- of acceptance and non-attachment without overdoing either.

Sterner Measures

stern.jpgAt the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the '60s, if you owned a farm or an orchard within 50 miles of a major city, you were one happy camper. That's because, in the flash of a checkbook, you were rich rich rich. Which probably explains why there are no books about the plight of a suburban farmer getting a huge wad of cash to let his cornfield or pear orchard be turned into "Revolutionary Estate" or "Laurel Hills"or "Old Orchard," and why, at the same time, there were so many written about the poor displaced city people (mostly men) who had to trade in the bubbling, cosmopolitan, ethnic stew or the big town (mostly New York) for suburban bliss. Well, not exactly bliss. Well, to be precise, damn far from bliss -- more like mind-numbing, mind-addling, mind-breaking fear, longing, and horror.

Prime Time

Jean BrodieIt's hell revisiting things that school has rubbed smooth. You know, books you had to read, plays you had to act in, essays you had to write. Not only do they seem, when you think about them, about as edgy as tapioca, they inevitably bring to mind the gray-skinned, watery-eyed, crunchy-haired teachers who harangued you about them, the five-page papers you had to write about them, the paperback books you wanted to crumble to pieces that held them. It's hard to believe that before they were anesthetized by the school district, these books were -- often -- art. They were shots across the bow of society by men and women who cared, about life. Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a prime case. Forget the movie. Forget the tests and the quizzes.

The Other 1984

ChristopherFace it, the '80s were a seriously crap era. All I can think of is music with lots of synthesizers and actually having to take Madonna seriously. Which is just one reason to appreciate what Allison Burnett accomplishes in his novel Christopher - A Tale of Seduction. He plunges us right into Orwell's apocryphal anno, 1984. In a month-by-month diary, he inhabits the psyche of one B. K. Troop, an avowedly gay (queer? homosexual? bent?) narrator who has one of the most delightful, insightful, and -- to use that much maligned term in literary fiction -- enjoyable voices I've come across in a long time. Fresh. He's so out, he's in. He's self-loathing and self-loving at the same time. He's world-weary but, under that coarse, New York-before-condominiums world, he's a real romantic.

Plum Wild

Hot WaterIn 1930, still dripping from the bath he took in the stock market crash, P. G. Wodehouse (evidently known to his friends as "Plum") decamped for Hollywood. There he'd spend just a little over a year lounging in the pool, collecting huge checks, hobnobbing with some Broadway and Brit folk he knew, and, basically enjoying himself. He caused something of a scandal when he told an interviewer that he made a fortune for just writing "titles" for movies. Nevertheless, possibly out of frustration, maybe out of boredom, he concocted the non-Jeevesian comic tour de force Hot Water, one of the most infernally complicated, trivial, lighter-than-air, insignificant, and completely delightful comic novels I've ever read. It's important to note that there is no Jeeves here.

Corporal Bemelmans's War -- and Ours

War BookIf you're looking for an example of how we, the citizens of the United States, wage war on some of our greatest writers, you need look no further than Ludwig Bemelmans and his out-of-print masterpiece My War with the United States. Yes, he's the same guy who created the Madeline series of children's books (and they are nice ones). But there's more to him, much more. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Bemelmans was that rare specimen, a total original, a writer of memoirs and stories so personal and so poignant, and so damn funny, they rival anything written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Chandler, and Thurber, all wrapped into one. And what's more, these things sold. They were big time.

75,000 Watt Prophet

Jean ShepardHe was Howard Stern's crazy grandfather, Don Imus's hip cousin, and Wolfman Jack's uber role model. He was the first reporter to hang out with the Beatles when mere mortals weren't allowed within a mile of them, Charles Mingus dug him so much that they improvised a talking/jam together the likes of which has never been equaled in jazz, and he had such a quibble with movie Dr. Strangelove that Stanley Kubrick's mother -- his MOTHER -- demanded that Stanley go talk to him about it (and after that Kubrick became his friend and begged him to be the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he turned down). Shel Silverstein, the hippest kid-poet this side of Alice, looked up to him like a guru. Andy Kaufman called him a true comic genius. And, oh, along the way he authored a collection of anti-sentimental fiction/memoirs that redefined the genre, gave Mark Twain and David Sedaris a run for the money, and led to the classic modern holiday movie A Christmas Story, and all that is still just scratching the surface of Jean Shepherd, someone you probably have never heard of.

An Englishness at Home and Abroad

Tony Fletcher/Tom Hingley
26 November 2012
Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

Just around the corner from this evening's Manchester proceedings, I once saw an elderly British actor make an early afternoon appearance in the hallowed arena known as the Royal Exchange Theatre. The thespian in question was Dirk Bogarde, who was promoting one of his self-seeking, closeted novels, with which he interspersed his equally closeted and self seeking volumes of autobiography. Bogarde wasn't averse to selling himself, although he was very particular about the parts he chose to throw into the marketplace.

All This And Something More...

Tony Fletcher 
A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
(Crown Archetype) 

For a band whose dying gasp came over two decades ago, the Smiths' brief, entire career has been barely scrutinized. Initially there was the stodgy Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan, which has long just about sufficed in the absence of anything more, and there has been a ceaseless, incoming tide of books about the songs, and the aura which surrounds their apostle-like leader, Morrissey, when all that was really required was a clear-headed history, a factual consideration, as to why they sprang into life. Tony Fletcher has finally created that with A Light That Never Goes Out, a reasoned, logical, and unhurried recreation of their initially unlikely route to fame.