An elegant, deeply researched life of the Canadian musician, poet and novelist.
With the resurgence of his career in the last decade, Cohen has been the subject of several new books, but it’s hard to imagine a better one than that of veteran music journalist Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass, 2001, etc.). Born into a wealthy family of Jewish clothiers in Montreal, Cohen became one of Canada’s leading young literary lights with his early volumes of poetry and two well-received novels. He was already in his early 30s when he became a professional musician, after folk singer Judy Collins brought his songs to the world’s attention with her cover of “Suzanne.” Beginning in 1968, the globe-trotting, seemingly driven Cohen recorded a series of wise, dark albums that made him a star in Europe and brought him a far smaller but devoted following in the United States. He was enjoying renewed commercial and critical success in the mid-’90s when he withdrew into a Zen Buddhist monastery for more than five years. Upon his return to the world, he discovered that his longtime manager had embezzled millions; his unexpected penury prompted a wildly received 2008-2009 world tour that grossed $50 million and finally lifted him, as a septuagenarian, into the top echelon of international stars. Simmons follows every step of Cohen’s peripatetic artistic journey with acuity and no small measure of poetic observation. Drawing on interviews with Cohen and most of his important collaborators and paramours, she paints a deep portrait of a man seemingly torn between the spiritual and the worldly, deeply gifted but plagued by abiding depression and frequent self-doubt. Simmons offers an abundance of revealing stories about Cohen’s ardent womanizing, restless pursuit of enlightenment through sex, drugs, alcohol and spirituality, and sometimes excruciating artistic perfectionism. He emerges in his full complexity, brimming with both seemingly boundless brilliance and abundant human imperfection.
Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.
An impeccably researched, authoritative history of Marvel Comics.
Former Entertainment Weekly editor Howe (editor: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics, 2004) interviewed more than 150 former Marvel employees, freelancers and family members to weave together a tapestry of creative genius, bad business decisions and petty back-stabbing. Progenitors of Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, Marvel’s rocky road to merchandising success is as epic as any of the company’s four-color adventures. Howe pulls no punches as he details the fledgling enterprise’s slow rise from Timely Publications in 1939 to its official emergence as Marvel Comics in 1961, when the groundbreaking brilliance of writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko led to the creation of the company’s most iconic characters. In an era before movie-making technology facilitated lucrative cross-merchandising, however, Marvel struggled financially while its editors massaged the bruised egos of freelancers who poured their lifeblood into creations in which they didn’t retain an ownership stake. Kirby, bitter over what he perceived as Lee’s efforts to take undue credit for his stories, ultimately left, becoming a rallying point in the struggle for the rights and compensation of writers and artists. Lee relocated to Hollywood in an effort to bring Marvel’s characters to the big screen, a frustrating endeavor that would take decades and a procession of other individuals to come to fruition. Compared to the thorough account of Marvel’s formative years, Howe gives relatively short shrift to recent corporate machinations—including only a brief mention of Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel in 2009—and the work of current superstars, but that’s a minor quibble in what is otherwise a nuanced and engrossing narrative of a company whose story deserves its own blockbuster film.
Brilliantly juxtaposes Marvel with its best characters: flawed and imperfect, but capable of achieving miraculous feats.
Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and idiosyncratic, allusive style to bear on this ambitious consideration of the history of motion pictures and their effect on the audience.
The author goes beyond mere survey and analysis to question what movies mean to us and how they have shaped our perceptions and beliefs. Thomson chronicles the development of movies from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century photographic experiments to the phenomenon of Internet pornography. Along the way, he explicates the excitement and politically fraught evolution of Soviet cinema, the provocations of the European New Wave, the allure of film noir and the world-shaking product of Hollywood, but the author makes no attempt to give a comprehensive or strictly linear history of the medium. Thomson is more interested in making striking connections, looking deeply at particular films, such as Brief Encounter (a surprising subject for such intense scrutiny and indicative of Thomson’s iconoclastic bent) or the TV landmark I Love Lucy, to pursue the central question of his history: What does life in front of screens do to us? Thomson’s approach is lyrical and questing rather than academic; the book is accessible to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject, written in a distinctive voice, learned and authoritative without pedantic dryness and touched with wonder and trepidation at the primal power of the image. Readers familiar with the author’s Biographical Dictionary of Film will be happy to note that Thomson’s beguiling knack for capturing the essences of our movie icons in poetic or provocative asides has not diminished, and the scholarship on display is first-rate. However, the heart of this unique overview is the author’s ambivalence about the power we grant those shadows on the wall.
A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.
The acclaimed novelist shows off his considerable gifts for parsing music.
Moody (The Four Fingers of Death, 2010, etc.) is also a musician of semipro status, with a couple of albums by his group, the Wingdale Community Singers, and a solo set under his belt. This collection of his writing about music for various journals is characterized by passion, inspired insight and a generous sampling of warm humor. The essays cover an astonishing amount of genre ground. Moody’s catholic tastes run the gamut from rock to left-field experimental sounds, and he’s a sensitive listener who almost always connects with the heart of the matter. He tackles the challenges of writing about the most fundamental of human emotions as he carves a playlist out of the Magnetic Fields’ "69 Love Songs"; explores the expression of spirituality in the work of the evangelistic rock group the Danielson Famile; ponders what music in heaven might sound like in the title story, which springs off a live recording by Otis Redding; muses on the affect of the Pogues’ music, viewed through the prism of lead singer Shane McGowan’s alcoholism; and excoriates the soullessness of modern European pop in a tart and frequently hilarious jeremiad about the drum machine. Some chapters are less satisfying: Moody’s account of two weeks at a New York music camp is essentially a journal entry, while a survey of the fin de siècle New York underground reads like exactly what it is: a chapter from an as-yet-unpublished textbook. But most of the writing is acute and intensely wrought. It’s often highly personal stuff—Moody weaves his parents’ divorce, his struggles with alcohol and his performance experiences into the mix—but it never succumbs to the solipsism so prevalent in much latter-day rock criticism. For Moody, music is most of all about rapture, and he communicates his feelings with an ardor and intelligence all too rare in these waning days of music criticism.
Thoughtful, heartfelt and frequently moving, like the best music.
From the former Talking Heads frontman, a supremely intelligent, superbly written dissection of music as an art form and way of life.
Drawing on a lifetime of music-making as an amateur, professional, performer, producer, band member and solo artist, Byrne (Bicycle Diaries, 2009) tackles the question implicit in his title from multiple angles: How does music work on the ear, brain and body? How do words relate to music in a song? How does live performance relate to recorded performance? What effect has technology had on music, and music on technology? Fans of the Talking Heads should find plenty to love about this book. Steering clear of the conflicts leading to the band’s breakup, Byrne walks through the history, album by album, to illustrate how his views about performance and recording changed with the onset of fame and (small) fortune. He devotes a chapter to the circumstances that made the gritty CBGB nightclub an ideal scene for adventurous artists like Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Tom Verlaine and Television. Always an intensely thoughtful experimenter, here he lets us in on the thinking behind the experiments. But this book is not just, or even primarily, a rock memoir. It’s also an exploration of the radical transformation—or surprising durability—of music from the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction through the era of iTunes and MP3s. Byrne touches on all kinds of music from all ages and every part of the world.
Highly recommended—anyone at all interested in music will learn a lot from this book.
Brilliant lectures on the American masters from the late, legendary acting teacher.
The indomitable Stella Adler (1901–1992), who tutored Marlon Brando, displays both her omnivorous intellect and decades of experience in this generous second volume of acting-class lectures (following Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, 1999) edited by celebrity biographer Paris (Garbo, 2002, etc.). Here, the teacher covers Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. Adler knew the play, she knew the writer, and her message to her actors was direct: You must understand the play and the playwright at both the macro and micro level. You can’t do O’Neill if you don’t know about his tormented Irish-Catholic background; you can’t perform A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman if you don’t know about postwar alienation. “If you don’t use the play’s world, you are not an actor, because the play is taken from that world, not yours, and you have to go there to find it.” Also, you must know the character’s inner and outer life: “Does he have an accent? How does he dress, how does he wear his hair?...What are the circumstances he lives in?” In Beyond the Horizon, Robert is weak, but don’t play him weak; he thinks he is strong. In Mourning Becomes Electra, play Christine like a queen; “use your epic voice, not a little intimate voice.” In The Glass Menagerie, Laura wears a leg brace; when she sits on the floor with her gentleman caller, she’s in pain. Read between the lines; follow what’s said and what isn’t. Adler has another, subtler message for her actors: Stay true to your art.
An exciting, inspiring and essential book for anyone interested in American theater.
A sterling collection of essays from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner.
Arranged chronologically rather than thematically, in “what amounts to a scrapbook of one man’s literary life,” the book ranges widely in tone from the serious to the satirical. Several of the works have yet to be published, and a few have been revised or expanded. Morris (Colonel Roosevelt, 2010, etc.), who writes that he is haunted by visual images, occasionally pairs a pertinent illustration with an essay and when necessary, inserts a footnote to clarify an obsolete reference. “Outside of literature in general and biography in particular,” he writes, “my non-book work has consisted mainly of commentary on the presidency and writings about classical music.” Morris begins with a 1972 essay, “The Bumstich: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit,” in which he recounts his time as a schoolboy in Kenya. The author concludes with “The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography,” an exploration of the process of writing Dutch (1999), his controversial book about Ronald Reagan. This last essay is an updated revision of three seminars the author gave while serving as a writer in residence at the University of Chicago in 2003. In other pieces, Morris laments the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro; probes the psyche of South African writer Nadine Gordimer; explains his passion for writing biographies; narrates his tour through Britain’s Imperial War Museum; and bemoans the loss of the physical pleasure of writing with pen and ink or typewriter.“Parker man or Remington man,” he writes, “one felt a closeness to the finished product that the glass screen of a computer display now coldly precludes.”
A splendid assemblage of significant work by one of our keenest observers.
Another superb essay collection from novelist Hustvedt (The Summer without Men, 2011, etc.).
As in her previous collections, Yonder (1998) and A Plea for Eros (2006), the author trains a formidable intellect on difficult subjects (the structure of the brain, the nature of perception) with an engaging personal touch that invites a general readership. In “Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few,” though she acknowledges the need for specialized vocabulary and research, she regrets the “culture of hyperfocus and expertise” in which “people inhabit disciplinary islands of the like-educated and the like-minded.” Hustvedt, by contrast, has a doctorate in English literature, has written extensively about art and has lectured at neuroscience conferences and at the Sigmund Freud Foundation. The categories invoked in her title—personal essays (Living), intellectual puzzles (Thinking), investigations of art (Looking)—indicate her broad scope; their underlying unity rests on Hustvedt’s consuming interest in connections: between emotion and intellect, memory and imagination, mother and child, artist and audience. Embodied, employed both as a verb and adjective, is a favored word, and it’s no accident that she mentions several times a 1996 neuroscience paper that identified certain “mirror neurons” that fire in the cerebral cortex of macaque monkeys performing a specific physical action and that alsofire in monkeys observing the action. She is fascinated by the link between what we do and what we see and by the noncorporeal but nonimaginary spaces where human beings interact emotionally and intellectually. Frequent anecdotes about her extended family and her childhood illustrate her points and lower the intimidation factor; Hustvedt addresses a broad public without dumbing down her material. There are no weak essays here, but some of the best concern art, particularly those on Goya and Louise Bourgeois, whose work provides particularly fertile soil for Hustvedt’s exploration of the “electrical connection [that] takes place between the viewer and the image seen.”
At once stimulating and warmhearted, with sentences of drop-dead beauty and acuity on nearly every page.
A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic.
In recent years, Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, 2010, etc.) has built a reputation as an expert on video games, culminating with the scattershot Extra Lives. Here, he covers a wider swath but provides more coherence, in part because a more consistent theme emerges: the necessity of calling shenanigans on the artificiality of much of mass culture and the difficult search for glimmers of integrity. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell follows the filming of an indie movie in his hardscrabble Upper Peninsula hometown and cannily reveals subtle parrying between the townsfolk and the visiting filmmakers. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations. In “Cinema Crudité,” he investigates the anti-genius of Tommy Wiseau, director of the contemporary camp classic, The Room. Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an “incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.” Bissell’s more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home: “Unflowered Aloes” debunks the idea that literary greatness will always be discovered, and the closing interview with Jim Harrison is a lament for a dying working-class literary culture. Even the book’s weak spots are strong: A pair of New Yorker profiles on TV and video game professionals feel relatively voiceless—a problem with the magazine’s house style that, ironically enough, Bissell calls out in an earlier essay.
Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.
Another top-notch collection of previously published criticism from Mendelsohn (How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, 2008, etc.).
“There rarely are any real ‘barbarians,’ ” the author writes. “What others might see as declines and falls look, when seen from the bird’s-eye vantage point of history, more like shifts, adaptations, reorganizations.” This long-range perspective distinguishes Mendelsohn’s criticism from that of less erudite and measured peers. The opening section, “Spectacles,” ranges from Avatar to Mad Men with refreshing matter-of-factness, pinpointing the cultural significance of commercial forms of art without over- or understating their merits. Mendelsohn’s analysis of why Julie Taymor was precisely the wrong director for the Broadway musical Spider-Man is particularly sharp. Mendelsohn’s assessments can be negative, even dismissive, but they are not overheated or personally nasty. The near-exception is “Boys Will Be Boys,” a severe going-over of Edmund White’s memoir City Boy (2009), and even that is less a slam than a forthright statement of the differences between two generations of gay writers. Although Mendelsohn mused at length on questions of homosexual identity in The Elusive Embrace (1999), his criticism reveals an openly gay writer comfortably connected to the culture at large. He is equally acute and balanced on the memoir craze, the pleasures of Leo Lerman’s journals and “the fundamental failure of genuine good humor” in Jonathan Franzen’s work. Mendelsohn’s tendency to announce that there is a single key insight that crucially explains a given artist’s work can be irritating, but often his insight is key: Susan Sontag’s affinity with French classicism, for example, or ultrasophisticate Noël Coward’s grounding in “the stolid values of the decidedly unsophisticated lower-middle-class.”
Incisive, reflective and unfailingly stimulating. It wouldn’t hurt Mendelsohn to occasionally pass up an opportunity to remind readers he’s the smartest guy in the room, but then again, he almost always is.
Charting the remarkable journey of a modern musical classic, from obscurity to ubiquity.
Former Vibe and Spin editor Light’s (The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys, 2006) brisk, engrossing study of “Hallelujah” comes on the heels of Sylvie Simmons’ definitive Cohen biography, but this book is brilliantly revelatory on its own. The song, a beguiling, mysterious mix of the spiritual and the erotic with an incantatory chorus, originally appeared on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s 1984 album "Various Positions." Cohen’s label, Columbia, refused to issue the album, and it appeared on an independent label; it failed to sell. But the song was kept alive by John Cale’s 1991 cover, augmented by new verses supplied by its author, and Jeff Buckley’s heavenly rendering of Cale’s text on his 1994 debut album “Grace.” That album also flopped commercially, but “Hallelujah” became the touchstone of Buckley’s posthumous reputation after his death. Light skillfully delineates the song’s genesis as a contemporary standard, through its emotionally potent use in a famous VH1 montage after 9/11, feature films like Shrek, a host of TV shows and televised sing-offs like American Idol. Though Cohen declined to be interviewed for the book, Light spoke with several of his key collaborators plus many of its interpreters, including k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Bono and Jon Bon Jovi. He recounts how the tardy success of Cohen’s unheralded composition led to his latter-day critical and commercial renaissance: After his manager embezzled nearly $10 million from his accounts, Cohen returned to performing on the back of “Hallelujah” and reinstated himself with a rapturously received 2008-2010 world tour. In the meantime, the song had become a fixture of religious ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and memorial services. Light’s main point is that the song’s stirring melody, malleability and lyrical ambiguity made it a natural candidate for wide-scale popular adoration.