Posts from December 2013

December 11th, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Collected Letters!

“One of the grim pleasures of reading collected letters,” Wilfrid Sheed, a connoisseur of grim pleasures, once wrote, “comes in watching a style being built year by year until it resembles a model prison, with the writer on the inside. ” 2013 saw an exceptionally strong showing of such prisons, so for the first time this guiltiest of literary guilty pleasures gets its own category here in our year-end festivities. “Guilty” pleasure because in almost all cases, such scholar-curated letter collections are presented to the reading public against the explicitly-stated wishes of the correspondents themselves – time and again, the star figure in the collection puts himself on record forbidding any posthumous publication of what he wrote for private consumption, and though professional writers enamored of appending a Byronic “Burn This” even to innocuous one-page chats are always, always lying and would be mortally offended if the recipient actually did so, plenty of people actually don’t want their private laundry annotated and aired in public. So letter collections have an ineradicable allure of gossip about them; it makes them hard to resist, and in 2013 I didn’t resist very much! In fact I read damn near all of them, and these were the best:

selected letters of willa cather

10. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Random House) – We start off this inaugural ‘Best Letters’ list (inaugural and perhaps isolated? Who knows what new speciality the books of 2014 will display? Even I, who’ve been reading 2014 books for months now, consider it far too early to tell) with this fat and immensely interesting collection from a writer who very much would have been appalled at the sight of it – and yet, the vaguely forbidden allure holds stronger here than in most such collections, not because of the well-known fleshing-out of Cather’s sexuality but for her surprisingly approachable and sometimes caustic take on the world – and the people – around her. My own reading experience prompts me to say the Willa Cather found in these letters is a hell of a lot more interesting than the Willa Cather found in her books, which have always struck me as severely over-praised … but thanks to Jewell and Stout, I may have to re-think that.

letters italo calvino

9. Italo Calvino Letters: 1941-1985, edited by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Princeton University Press) – A little sub-theme in this list this year is the way it’s inadvertently re-positioning some authors for re-appraisals by yours truly in the near future, and this splendid Calvino volume is a perfect case-in-point: as with the dreary, ham-handed fiction of Willa Cather, as with the … well, the everything-ever-written of T.S. Eliot, so too with Calvino, whose slim novels have always struck me as just so much mugging for the camera – and yet the Calvino writing these letters, an immensely cultured and puckish man I instantly wanted to know better, wrote those novels! And so, since I loved this volume so much, I must re-visit all those books in light of this one. It’s a great letter-anthology that can do such a thing.

the selected letters of anthony hecht

8. The Selected Letters of Anthony Hect, edited by Jonathan Post (Johns Hopkins University Press) – As with so many of the writers on this list, Hecht could often erect a facade of literate, cultured bonhomie that was at dire odds with the boredom or panic he was feeling, and although he sometimes did something similar in his letters, a more disturbing and appealing vulnerability peaks through. You can read my full review here.

letters t.s. eliot vol 4

7. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Yale University Press) – Long before the grizzled old legend and borderline crackpot, there was Eliot the brilliant reader, editor, and deadline-prose writer, and that’s the Eliot captured in this wonderfully-researched volume, by far the most entertaining so far in Yale’s ongoing publication of the Eliot correspondence. You can read my full review here.

letters of paul cezanne

6. The Letters of Paul Cezanne, edited by Alex Danchev (J. Paul Getty Museum) – Danchev, whose 2012 biography of Cezanne was so deeply thoughtful, returns to the master in this sparkling collection of freshly-translated letters that show the man in all his steadfast dedication and infrequent volubility, all of it underpinned by Danchev’s typically wonderful critical apparatus. This Cezanne is no great shakes as a letter writer (but then, not many people, even great prose artists, tend to be), but his personality animates everything he wrote so fascinatingly – and charmingly – that the reading is irresistible.

reason and imagination - learned hand

5. Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand, edited by Constance Jordan (Oxford University Press) – The austere and forbidding sepia print Oxford picked for the cover of this fantastic and long-needed collection of the letters of the great jurist Learned Hand perhaps does a disservice to the leaping, often playful mind contained in these correspondences, but readers won’t have to go far into this volume to encounter it, and along the way they’ll get to know one of the most penetrating and sometimes controversial legal minds America has ever produced.

letters of john f. kennedy - small

4. The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin Sandler (Bloomsbury Press) – This is a comparatively short book and a necessarily discreet one, and those are its only flaws. But even the mostly polite (and mostly official – in other words, carefully proofed and routinely redacted by JFK’s faithful secretary Evelyn Lincoln, who was often far more of the President’s “auxiliary brain” than Ted Sorensen ever was, only without the grandstanding) selections provided here richly display Kennedy’s sharp wit and equally sharp insight, and Sandler’s accompanying curations are winningly non-intrusive.

selected letters of william styron

3. The Selected Letters of William Styron, edited by Rose Styron and R. Blakeslee Gilpin (Random House) – This one is technically a late 2012 publication, but it got to me too late for inclusion in last year’s list and is far, far too good not to be included on this one! This is a brimmingly human collection, showing Styron in all his many mental registers as he recounts in quasi-Rablesian terms the clashes and triumphs of his writing life, first to his colleagues and peers in the trenches and then, later, to the younger crop of writers to whom he was a problematic but challenging mentor-figure. If 2013 was a standout year for ‘selected letters,’ it’s this great book (and William Shawcross’ surprisingly wonderful collection of the Queen Mother’s correspondence, also from late in 2012) that kicked it off.

the leonard bernstein letters

2. The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone  (Yale University Press) – This is another of those ‘selected letters’ volumes that any sane reader would wish were five times as long (and so prolific a correspondent was Bernstein that such a mammoth volume could theoretically be assembled – and may yet be, we can hope). Here is all the man’s irrepressible spirit, his uncontrolled hyperbole, his unfeigned interest in all things, even the easily-imagined echo of his glutinous, infectious laugh. Simeone’s editorial apparatus is excellent, but these letters would shine like bright suns (what a joy it must have been to get one in the mail) no matter what their setting.

suitable accommodations cover

1. Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963, edited by Katherine Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I thought the critical reception given this great, sad, heartwarming book – the best Letters volume of 2013 – by the professional punditry class in the United States this year was puzzling enough almost to be disgraceful. Space was allotted to the book (which is almost always a boon of some kind), but usually the space was allotted in order to warn readers that the space ought not to have been allotted – that Powers, essentially, isn’t a literary figure worthy of this kind of careful, archival attention, even from his own daughter. This “readers who like this sort of thing will probably like this sort of thing” passive-aggressive sniffing informed even some of the critical appraisals that seemed most praising on the surface, and it’s a shame; it downplays what is here a magnificent achievement on Katherine Powers’ part, a painstaking reconstruction of the heart and mind of one of America’s most penetrating satirists – a thoroughly daring act of empathy from a first-rate critic in her own right.

July 2nd, 2012

The Camelot harem in the Penny Press!

Of course I was never really going to stay away forever from my once-beloved Atlantic. It’s true that I cancelled my subscription over a certain brain-dead phrase being allowed to stand in the place of critical thought, but that hardly blinds me to the wealth of work and thought that still goes into every issue. I can’t bring myself to subscribe again (that ‘wtf’ phrase had to go through editors! And worse, it had to strike the writer as not only cogent but worthy of the Atlantic! It still rankles), but reading is another thing. Shyly, almost self-protectively, I skipped straight to the back of the latest issue, to the Books section presided over by Benjamin Schwarz, where both he and his hand-picked freelancers will be holding court in a way that might fascinate or frustrate me but will never simply annoy me. Or almost never.

Straight to Schwarz himself, for instance, who this time around reviews Henry Kamen’s new history of the Escorial, the labyrinthine Spanish fortress that was headquarters to, among others, King Philip II of Spain. Kamen has spent the better part of a lifetime studying the history of Spain, so it’s understandable the Escorial would loom in the background of his thoughts and eventually prompt a book of its own, but Schwarz puckishly warns: “… ultimately artistic wonders of the world are too important to be left to the historians.” Deep research or not, all books are held accountable on this particular threshing floor, and Schwarz is one of those few remaining omni-competent reviewers who can take a book like this one and find plenty in it that’s comment-worthy, including shortcomings that would have eluded a lesser critic:

Kamen overstates and under-argues his case. Moreover, he fails to illuminate with precision – or even to probe – the degree to which the man who commissioned the building determined its form and strange beauty, rather than the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, who actually designed and built it. In this way, Kamen’s characterization throughout the book of Philip as the Escorial’s “creator” is wrongheaded, or at the very least unearned.

And as if to flaunt that omni-competence, Schwarz rounds off his column-space with an equally-good review of Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s new history of …Wonder Bread. And despite the inherent triviality of the subject, the review is interesting – not just because Bobrow-Strain has managed to tease an actual story out of his archival rooting but because Schwarz has sensed that story in a book I would have passed by with hardly a second glance.

And then he steps aside for the showpiece of the issue: Caitlin Flanagan’s essay “Jackie and the Girls,” which purports to tell the story behind some of those recent Jacqueline Kennedy “historic conversations” with Arthur Schlesinger that were briefly bestsellers last season. Flanagan joins the Schlesinger interviews with Mimi Alford’s recent JFK tell-all Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, but as usual in the excellent Flanagan’s case, her essay is also powerfully personal. She writes movingly about having been under the spell of the iconic Kennedy photographs her entire life, especially the photos showing JFK as a doting father to his two small children, Caroline and John – and especially because of the shearing contradiction those photos pose to the endless stream of allegations that JFK was compulsively, even morbidly adulterous all through his married life. Flanagan calls any resistance to that ever-growing legend of infidelity “a loser’s game” – and indeed, it never seems to cross her mind that there’s even a remote possibility that, for instance, Alford is simply lying about what happened between her and the President.

The essay is a masterpiece, full of Flanagan’s sharp wit (at one point she describes two other alleged mistresses “returning to their desks with wet hair so they could go on with their important work of autographing his photographs and wondering how to type”) and carefully-demarcated vulnerabilities. She wants to believe in President Kennedy, she implies, but these (to use a pungent term from the Clinton administration) “bimbo eruptions” keep getting in the way. The result is a piece with a curiously bitter after-taste … a piece almost entirely stripped of the background kindness that usually marks this author’s prose. Jackie Kennedy herself is certainly done few favors:

She was a shopaholic who loved to party and ride horses and vacation in the most happening ports of call, to settle her boyish, perfectly dressed frame into well-upholstered chairs with her pack of Salems and her glass of champagne and to exercise her savage gifts for mimicry and comic malice.

To put it mildly, nobody who ever actually knew the woman would recognize much of her in this shrill caricature, and she gets off easy compared to her husband. It’s an old reflex for me to be Kennedy-wary when thumbing through the pages of The Atlantic; the late (and, I admit, very much missed) Christopher Hitchens couldn’t come near the subject of JFK without lashing out – often in startlingly and uncharacteristically uninformed ways (long-time Stevereads readers will recall the time I myself publicly took him to task for one such attack, in a letter The Atlantic printed but to which he didn’t – couldn’t? – respond). Flanagan of course mentions Hitchens, while in the sad, eerie process of channelling him:

As for John Kennedy – what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them (“That administration,” said LBJ … the mists of Camelot beginning to clear, “had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.

That’s the old Hitchens mania, in full blossom for post-Hitchens readers (and on this subject Schwarz is little better, referring to JFK last month with tossed-off slurs like “drugged up” and “mobbed up”), a complex and in many ways superb President drawn among these heartless hinds and rendered into a bumbling, cartoon Priapus. Flanagan can write about those famous Kennedy photographs “These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own,” but she’s not willing to connect that imaginative stirring either with the lurid fantasies of people like Mimi Alford (he called her on the phone all the time! He asked her how her classes were coming along! What her homework was like!) or with her own vicious knee-jerk reaction (or Hitchens’) to the man’s life and legacy. Instead, we get this nonsense about JFK ‘starting’ the Vietnam War or somehow causing the Cuban Missile Crisis (not to mention sleeping with – how many women is it now, in the White House? Two hundred? Two thousand? Two hundred thousand?) – for all the world as though history were just a football you could toss around at Hyannisport.

As I’ve mentioned before, however, it’s the mark of a first-rate critic that they can keep you happily reading even while writing things you don’t agree with at all. The book-catalogues of every season are crammed to their indexes with serious, meaty works I’d prefer Benjamin Schwarz review in The Atlantic instead an interesting but necessarily featherweight thing like a new book on Wonder Bread, and yet he made it worth my while to read the review (and with a cash-bulging envelope – and perhaps a beagle puppy – he might convince me to read the book). Likewise for Flanagan, who’s fascinating despite her flailing this time out.

The other glimmer of good news in this issue? In Jeffrey Goldberg’s doltish “What’s Your Problem?” back-page feature, there’s just the slightest hint that the feature itself might finally be closing up shop. If this turns out to be true, let’s hope The Atlantic decides to replace it with content. You can never have enough content in The Atlantic – a view, coincidentally, shared by a certain maligned Commander-in-Chief, who was an avid reader of the magazine – when he wasn’t rogering Marlene Dietrich atop the Resolute desk in full view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is.

My vote: give the extra page to Schwarz and his crew: you can be sure they won’t waste an inch of it.


January 14th, 2011

Inauguration Storms in the Penny Press!

It’s naturally a bit daunting to open the legendary Open Letters PO box and find the waxy, inhuman features of talentless android/congenital idiot Justin Bieber emptily smirking back at me.

But Vanity Fair, which sports a cover photo of this most noxious Canadian import of them all, is too good a magazine to fling away in horror, so I braved not only the photo but the accompanying article (lack of talent? Confirmed. Android status? Confirmed. Congenital Idiocy? Screams from the rooftops) – pitying the poor slob of an interviewer who had to try to make something out of this soap bubble for 2000 words (she tries her level best to make things interesting to anybody but a hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, but although I pride myself on being hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, my interest flagged). It was worth it, I told myself, to get to the good stuff.

The issue had a great deal of good stuff, as it always does, but how could I not give top honors to Todd Purdum’s luminously happy account of the “tidal wave of glamour, promise, and high spirits that descended on the capital for the 1961 inauguration of the youngest president ever elected, John F. Kennedy”? I’d most likely have enjoyed this piece more than anything in the issue even if it had been poorly done – but that’s thankfully not the case here: Purdum keeps a very nice narrative flow going, and he has a great eye for anecdotes.

There are anecdotes in endless supply, about those heady two days in Washington (wags among you will ask if I was there, despite my oft-repeated assertion that I am, in fact, a 28-year-old stone-cold super-hottie, but in point of fact I wasn’t present for the occasion), about everything from the cavalcade of stars who showed up to ham in the spotlight (Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, the mighty Mahalia Jackson, and many more) to the unexpected and almost-crippling snowstorm that hit the capital at the exact same time.

Washington very famously paralyzes in inclement weather, and this storm ended up stranding entertainers, dignitaries, and well-wishers in all kinds of awkward combinations. Comedian Bill Dana remembered being stuck in a station wagon with a royally ticked off Ethel Merman: “I learned a lot of swearwords I didn’t know existed from the lovely mouth of Ethel Merman.” And the new White House social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, was stuck for two hours in a car with a Secret Service agent and a reporter, until they finally convinced a shop owner to open up and sell them some scotch. “We had our own little gala,” she remembered, “We got out of the car at one point and danced in the snow.”

It couldn’t help but strike a chord in me, of course, especially since Purdum interviews Russell Baker, who was covering the event for the New York Times and shared an anecdote about Times columnist Arthur Krock, who was also caught in the storm that night. Krock started off his career 52 years earlier, covering the Taft administration, and that set the bells ringing right there – since of course President Kennedy wasn’t the first 20th century president to have Mother Nature attend his inauguration.

The same thing happened to President Taft on March 4th, 1909, when a stinging, sleety, bitterly cold snowstorm struck Washington just in time to make a mess of all the preparations for the big day – most of which had featured outdoor events. Suddenly, seats under hastily-improvised canopies were selling for the moon, and spectators who’d counted on hearing a bit of that rolling, adenoidal Taft oratory were stuck with hearing about it from the relatively small crowd who could fit into the Senate chamber. The new president’s wife accompanied him from the ceremony in an open-topped horse-drawn buggy, and that was just one more thing that made Taft’s security detail nervous. His detail was larger than any previous president, not only because of President McKinley’s recent assassination but also because candidate Taft had received some nasty letters from lunatics who, believe it or not, disliked the fact that he was a Unitarian (the president-elect was never shown the worst of these letters – a sound procedure that remains in effect today).

Even in the black-and-white photos of the day, you can see the tension in those men, walking at even intervals alongside the presidential carriage, many of them with coats draped over their arms despite the cold – in order to conceal the pistols they had at the ready. The poor sap who insisted on being closest to the new President (you can partially make out his less-than-fashionable beaten-up brown derby at Taft’s right elbow if you try, and there are probably closer-up photos out there somewhere – and he was one sufferer among many that day in any case) got his shoes full of ice-cold slush for his troubles, but the day went off without a nefarious turn of any kind.

Ditto JFK’s – all motorized, thank God – and Purdum does a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and fun of the time. Here’s hoping he’s working on a book about it all, before many more of the eyewitnesses die off.