An illuminating stroll through the decades of one of the most culturally significant streets in America.
The first book by journalist Calhoun vividly details the long legacy of artistic upheaval, political foment, demographic transformation, and resistance to gentrification along the street on New York’s Lower East Side where she grew up. St. Marks Place doesn’t submit to the easy stereotyping of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, perhaps because “hippies” and “Summer of Love” represented such a comparatively brief blip in American culture. The hippies of St. Marks preferred to be called “freaks,” with less of an emphasis on love and more on the liberation of anarchy. But as the author traces the legacy of St. Marks back four centuries, she shows how the street has long served as a magnet for radical visionaries, crackpot artists, self-proclaimed prophets, and runaways with nowhere else to go. “Disillusioned St. Marks Place bohemians—those who were Beats in the fifties, hippies in the sixties, punks in the seventies, or anarchists in the eighties—often say the street is dead now, with only the time of death a matter of debate,” she writes, and then counters, “but this book will show that every cohort’s arrival, the flowering of its utopia, killed someone else’s.” In quickly paced, anecdotal fashion, Calhoun connects the dots between Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Parker and the Velvet Underground, those who occupied the neighborhood during different decades but sustained its character as kindred spirits. While readers looking for a more thorough documentation of the Beats or CBGB might consider the narrative a little hit-and-run, the breezy approach underscores the radical, significant transformations experienced by St. Marks and leads to her engagingly personal reflection on how a child raised there might not feel much nostalgia for blocks of discarded needles, used condoms, and threats of pedophilia: “though St. Marks Place will probably always elude true respectability, the street today is safer and more pleasant than at any point in the last fifty years.”
Rather than a nostalgic lament, this revelatory book celebrates an indelible cultural imprint.
A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself.
Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it's also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger's house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet's and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill (Veronica, 2005, etc.) takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.
Gaitskill explores the complexities of love (mares, meres…) to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.
Actress, producer, and director Douglas celebrates her love of movies in a cheerful debut memoir.
The granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas, the author grew up in a hippie commune started by her father, who rejected a suburban, middle-class version of the American dream after he saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. His daughter yearned to escape from her parents’ self-imposed poverty and become a movie star. “We look up to movie stars,” she writes. “We believe in them, because they are larger than life, and it makes us believe in ourselves when no one else does.” Channeling Liza Minnelli, Douglas was accepted into the Hartford Stage Youth Theatre, which set her on a path to acting schools in New York. Her career was marked by “dreams and magic signs that foretell where you’re going” and helped smooth the inevitable rough spots. On the way to success, the author recounts meetings with many movie idols who encouraged her: Lee Marvin (“my childhood sweetheart,” she confesses), who kissed her and wished her luck; Peter Sellers, who told her to learn to ride a unicycle “because it’s hard and not everyone can do it”; and Richard Dreyfuss, with whom she was obsessed. “He was the first actor I studied,” she writes, “and tried to be like, like a painter copying a master until he has a technique of his own.” Other luminaries who make appearances include the generous and understanding Roddy McDowall; Robert De Niro, with whom Douglas acted in Cape Fear; “kind and adorable” Gene Wilder; and Martin Scorsese, who was her boyfriend for a while. She also describes an emotional meeting with Marlon Brando and recalls her success at producing Easy to Assemble, a satirical series made with IKEA’s cooperation.
The author’s warm portraits and disarming honesty infuse the memoir with an endearing sweetness and charm.
A collection of recent work from this venerable publication includes a dozen short stories that range as widely in style as they do in quality.
The term “unprofessionals” aims to distinguish the writers here from those who “write long and network hard” in search of commercial success, Paris Review editor Stein says in his introduction. That’s somewhat disingenuous: the author bios note 16 published or imminent novels, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker’s poetry editor. Never mind. Along with 5 essays and 14 poems, the fiction here represents what Stein calls “the intensity and perfection found only in small things.” “Intensity” certainly applies to some. Ottessa Moshfegh writes of a man’s weekend flight from his pregnant wife to an unplanned tryst with his brother’s lover. Angela Flournoy seems to capture a lifetime in a few hours of a gambling addict’s life as it moves from eviction to the roulette wins and then broke again. An S&M session between two men gets out of hand in Garth Greenwell’s painfully clinical prose. Atticus Lish carries the torch for Raymond Carver in his laconic tale of a blue-collar worker in and out of prison. Several pieces have the callow ring of MFA exercises. "Perfection” came to mind only with Zadie Smith’s angry, tense, hilarious story of a black transvestite shopping for a corset in prose that manages to suggest both Lou Reed and Flannery O’Connor. Special mention goes to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s evocative essay on the time he spent with 92-year-old Southern literary critic Andrew Lytle, an atmospheric portrait that some of these unprofessional fiction writers would do well to study.
The collection may give a sense of contemporary U.S. writing, but the marked unevenness is surprising given the magazine’s illustrious history.
A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.
Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.
A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.
The acclaimed classicist delivers a massive history of ancient Rome, which “continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, 2014, etc.) writes fascinatingly about how Rome grew and sustained its position. More importantly, she sorts the many myths from history. As in her previous illuminating works, she is no myth builder; she is a scholar who reaches down-to-earth conclusions based on her years of dedication to her subject. This is no simple chronological biography of rulers. The author provides a broad overview of how events from the rape of Lucretia to Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to everyone (except slaves) strengthened and eventually weakened the empire. The rulers of Rome never planned a land grab to build an empire. As the author points out, they didn’t even have maps. However, they continued to conquer peoples, took slaves and bounty, and made their men part of the army and, eventually, citizens. Beard writes of the reformers who fed the people and instituted laws of compensation for abuse. What they failed to do was establish a policy of succession, instead leaving it to luck, improvisation, plots, and, usually, violence. Because the author is such an expert linguist who is exceedingly comfortable in her field, she is able to step back to see the entire Roman world. Throughout the narrative, Beard refers to works by Polybius, Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus, as well as the prodigious correspondence of Cicero and Pliny the Younger. She shows us how to engage with the history, culture, and controversies that made Rome—and why it still matters.
Beard’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious and is well-reflected in her clever, thoroughly enjoyable style of writing. Lovers of Roman history will revel in this work, and new students will quickly become devotees.
Few directors in film history have generated more biographies than Orson Welles (1915-1985), and anyone tackling the job anew better have a fresh angle or something new to report. Veteran film scribe McGilligan (Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, 2011, etc.) meets this challenge by focusing exclusively on Welles’ early years, but his success is mixed. When he’s not leaning heavily on the work of his many predecessors—mainly Barbara Leaming, as well as Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow, and Frank Brady—as well as the bitter memoirs of Welles’ former friend John Houseman, he’s expanding heavily on stories they either succinctly boiled down or scraps they left behind, from Welles’ youthful poetry to day-by-day accounts of his international trips to microscopic rehashings of minor scuffles. While the book is needlessly long, McGilligan does illuminate the full scope of a truly charmed youth, and he reminds us that while it may be unfair to say that Welles peaked early, there were definitely a lot of peaks, even before he triumphed as the 25-year-old whiz behind Citizen Kane. The pampered son of an alcoholic businessman and a progressive socialite, he was raised to be a genius, and he didn’t disappoint. He was only 20 when he staged a revolutionary all-black Macbeth for the Federal Theater (“The great success of my life,” he called it), followed up by a modern-dress Julius Caesar and more theater successes, making the cover of Time even before he cooked up the idea of a live-radio Martian landing. Then it was on to Kane, which the author pieces together in generous detail, with specific attention to the much-debated relationship between Welles and co-scenarist Herman Mankiewicz.
McGilligan works overtime trying to justify such a massive book about only a part of Welles’ life, but it’s also buoyed by a dependably powerful subject at the center.