Monthly Archives: February 2012

Liebestod — Leslie Epstein

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.

It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.

I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.

You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.

Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn   Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company   2012

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

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Death Comes to Pemberley is a P.D. James tour de force—a Jane Austen novel with a murder mystery at its heart. James is the grand dame of the British murder mystery and an Austen enthusiast. She has captured the world of Pride and Prejudice in characters, convention and idiom—so you almost feel as if you are reading a long-lost manuscript in which Austen experimented with the mystery genre. Murder might not be Austen’s cup of tea but James seems to have delighted in the dynamics of great English estates and social protocols on the cusp of the nineteenth century.

On the eve of the annual Lady Anne’s Ball, as Pemberley is in a frenzy of preparation, Elizabeth manages the bustle with practiced aplomb as she worries about the suitors for Georgiana’s hand. Mr. Darcy’s little sister is grown up now—Darcy and Elizabeth have two treasured sons and most of the Bennet sisters are married. An army officer and a solicitor, both possessed of appropriate fortunes, are vying for Georgiana and Elizabeth considers how to broach the subject with Darcy and which choice will make Georgiana happiest.

But such concerns are driven nearly out of mind when a coach with an hysterical Lydia–the bad-girl Bennet sister–arrives in the middle of the night. She is screaming about murder in the dark woods abutting Pemberley and a search party is assembled, the doctor is called in to see to Lydia and the men in the house set out to discover what happened. Murder most foul, of course, and Wickham, Lydia’s ne-er-do-well husband, is discovered, inebriated and blood-covered, wailing over the corpse.

This is a complicated predicament—the social implications may be as damaging as the crime—and life is upended in the aftermath of the event. Is the family of servants living in an old house in the woodland near to the scene of the murder involved? Can Darcy prevent a distressing incident from Georgiana’s past from surfacing as part of the murder investigation? Will there be the scandal and calamity of a hanging in the family if Wickham is found guilty? Why is there no evidence of another presence in the woods that night–or any apparent intention behind the crime?

Motive is key to the solution in this puzzle. Without it you can suspect a vague pattern of guilt and opportunity but never sort it out or attach names to any of the victims—and there are more victims than the single dead body might indicate. James doesn’t shirk character development—the feuds and venom of the times are delicious but they pale in the presence of social graces and higher virtues—alas. Enmity in Austen is tempered by good manners and that remains a hallmark of Pemberley and its inhabitants—the human heart is examined and its rancors reduced sensibly.

Death Comes to Pemberley is interesting and a fun read. It’s satisfying to revisit Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy to see how their life together unfolds. The novel feels true to Austen, even if she would never have stooped so low as to subject her creations to the rigors of a detective story. There are some redeeming developments in the end that spell out a less chaotic future for the residents of Pemberley as they age into the mists of their fictional, sequel-free lives. James could probably keep this going with more homicidal episodes on the estate but I might vote for the return of Adam Dalgliesh, professional detective, over Fitzwilliam Darcy, landed investigator. A literary, no-nonsense gumshoe on the trail of a killer is more entertaining fare than the courteous lord of the manor, who has too many of his edges softened by maturity and a happy marriage to project his old, brusque and roguish appeal.

Death Comes to Pemberley   P.D. James | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff

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Pooh is a Bear of Very Little Brain so he is the perfect embodiment of Taoism—at least in Benjamin Hoff’s charming The Tao of Pooh he is. Hoff borrows freely from A. A. Milne to illustrate basic precepts of Lao-tse and concepts like Wu Wei and P’u. The crew in the Hundred Acre Woods is a living laboratory (fictionally speaking) for the examination of the Tao and how you might recognize it or even practice it in your own life. I read an old paperback but the book and its sequel, The Te of Piglet, have been reissued as a boxed set.

Pooh is pretty much ego-free and has no pretensions of impressive intellect or prodigious talent. He lives in the moment, regrets nothing, casts no blame and is unendingly cheerful or, in the event of a shortage of honey, admirably resilient. His mind does not get in the way of his life—a state of advanced spirituality to aspire to. Piglet, who hangs out a lot with the master, comes in a close second, although sometimes his nerves get the best of him. But Piglet can be very Brave and quite selfless on occasion, which is a kind of leading with the heart that syncs with the Tao. Rabbit and Owl are hopeless and Eyeore is just a gloomy donkey who can go with the flow—especially when he gets Bounced by a Tigger and falls in the river–but will generally drift to the dark side of things.

Hoff spends some pages critiquing the Bisy Backson, a section of the text that eerily captures the frenetic mindset of the Western capitalist. From Christopher Robin, a note:






From Benjamin Hoff, a commentary:

You see them almost everywhere you go, it seems. On practically any sunny sort of day, you can see the Backsons stampeding through the park, making all kinds of loud Breathing Noises. Perhaps you are enjoying a picnic on the grass when you suddenly look up to find that one or two of them just ran over your lunch…The Bisy Backson is always On The Run, it seems…Let’s put it this way: if you want to be healthy, relaxed, and contented, just watch what a Bisy Backson does and then do the opposite.

The primer is full of little gems that set out the Tao in manageable bits and glints. Pooh is an effortless example of how to arrange your priorities and live in the Now. He likes nothing better than to visit Christopher Robin with Piglet right about snack time on “a hummy sort of day outside, and birds singing.”  Hoff’s point is that you can study serious tomes of deep philosophical teachings about how to live your life. Or you can just take a page from The House at Pooh Corner and borrow Pooh’s artless wisdom.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

“It’s the same thing,” he said.

Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet Boxed Set   Benjamin Hoff | Penguin  1982

Best Animated Short 2012 — about books!

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore WON the Oscar for Best Animated Short! One lovely scene dramatizes that books only come alive when you read them. The whole film seems like a metaphor for subsuming your life in books–so I am especially fond of it in the midst of all this relentless reading. Enjoy!

The Science of Yoga – William J. Broad

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William J. Broad tackles the proliferation of yoga systems and claims in his review and analysis of research and marketing in The Science of Yoga. Yoga, in its ancient simplicity, captivates the imagination. It turns out that it can also enhance imagination—and serenity, stress-reduction, longevity, sexuality and a host of desirable qualities. Yoga can also cripple and come close to killing you so a guided tour through its potential and pitfalls is a useful thing for initiate and adept alike.

At first I was intrigued by the science and Broad’s extensive research into trials and teachers. He pokes some serious holes in claims that have been accepted at face value for generations. He examines hot and sweaty Bikram with its 105-degree studios, meticulous Iyengar with its blocks, straps and other props designed to produce perfect alignment, vinyasa—a flowing series of moves sometimes referred to as “yoga ballet.” He holds up famous experiments and “miracles” to the light and it is not always kind to them.

I began to get irritated with the relentlessly scientific filter through which he reported on a practice which is not entirely quantifiable. It is a problem to have unsupported claims duping thousands of people. It is also a problem to reduce yoga to a lab result, a jogger’s measure of oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide release, an aerobic non-starter of an exercise. Science pushes the frontiers of our knowledge farther out and it is often behind the curve in understanding both physical and etheric realms. Once the most learned scientists of their age taught that the sun revolved around the earth—that earth that was devoutly believed to be flat, until it was not. We can’t know what we don’t yet know but it is surely an immensity.

Eventually and mercifully, the scientific studies published in peer reviewed journals give way to the search for how yoga generates the good feelings, relaxation and bursts of insight practitioners recount. Neuroscience is beginning to confirm the influence of asanas and a regular practice on stage fright and solo performance, creative thinking, the making of art, intensified sexual experience, and the extreme lowering of stress that contributes to vigorous health and longevity.

So, yoga is more than the latest celebrity guru or gimmicky class. Maybe you should rethink your devotion to plow pose, shoulder stand and definitely head stand. Do some homework before you embrace yoga as therapy for your ills—it can be but most yoga therapists are freelancers as there is no professional regulatory body for the field. Do, however, unroll the mat and perfect your Salute to the Sun. The benefits of yoga, scientifically vetted in a lab or gained in an expert class or daily solitude, are many. Feeling good is no small thing, neither is a better life. Broad leaves room for both, even as he debunks common misconceptions and challenges a few iterations that function more like magical gym sessions for buff wannabes than the serious practice of an exacting–and rewarding–discipline.

The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards   William J. Broad | Simon and Schuster 2012

11/22/63 – Stephen King

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I finished 11/22/63 at 4 a.m. It’s a doorstop of nearly 850 pages—and it’s very very good. I have admired Stephen King’s work, the excerpts and articles and the classic book about writing, but this was the first novel of his I’ve read. Can’t handle horror. Have no skin for it. Horror haunts me and creeps me out so I was never brave enough to tackle Carrie or The Shining or any of the mega-bestsellers that made King’s reputation. 11/22/63 is spooky and weird but it is also an addictive story that pulls you through from open to Afterword because you want to find out what happens and you know the people King has created and their fate is important to you.

It is possible to stop right there. That’s what books are supposed to do so you should read this one. (Maybe you could take it in large bites so you don’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. though.) I’m not quite ready to abandon the experience and move on so a few words about the world of 11/22/63 will allow me to relive it a bit. The fiction is a time travel and the present-day hero steps back into 1958 to begin his adventures. He is reluctant—the book does follow Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and you can sort that out as you read it. But he is intrigued and quickly hooked. A dying friend reveals the portal to 1958 and entrusts Jake Epping, a high school teacher, with his life’s mission: travel back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.

Epping takes a stack of 1950s silver certificate dollars, a fake i.d. and identity as George Amberson, and a sheaf of notes about Oswald’s life and the sporting events of the time and, eventually, assumes the challenge. But first he tests the theory by foiling a brutal domestic crime that affected the janitor of his high school—to see if the time travel actions really hold in the present. It works and, with enormous trepidation and curiosity, he sets out. Along the way, Epping encounters life in the age of sock hops, real Co’ Colas with cane sugar, people who say “Can I help you?” when you need help and don’t lock their front doors. He places unlikely bets that he wins to bankroll his exploits—when you know the outcome in advance this is not hard. He falls in love with and acquires a cool ragtop, a snub revolver and a fiancée and tries to remember to ditch 21st century slang along with his cell phone.

The magical world of the 50s is, in reality, not all that magical, as Epping finds out. People are violent, racist, ignorant, trapped in dirt and poverty, and die of physical illnesses for which there are not yet cures. People are also innocent, open, caring, in touch with an essential kindness, and accustomed to savoring life at a human, not a high-tech, pace. Epping likes it so much he considers staying once his task is complete. But the past is a living entity in King’s mind and it doesn’t relinquish its hold on history lightly. Malevolent things occur and the stakes rise sharply. Epping prevents some horrors from happening but other, equally vicious and ghastly acts exact an exorbitant price. Gain is offset by wrenching loss. Spooky stuff drives the plot and consumes Epping’s attention. Meals, clothes, guns, gas and rents are cheap but heroism will cost you everything.

There is incredible research in this novel and the world Epping visits is authentic and fascinating. It’s almost history—but it isn’t. It’s extraordinary Stephen King, which is, in some ways, even better.

11/22/63: A Novel   Stephen King | Scribner   2011

Harold’s Purple Crayon Adventures – Crockett Johnson

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One evening, Harold appeared on the scene at bedtime. The moon was shining in his imagination and the powerful purple crayon was at hand. He needed a memorable adventure so he got right to work.

Harold and the Purple Crayon is the first of the Crockett Johnson books to delight children and the grown-ups who love to read to them. In fact, those purple crayons are a guilty pleasure that can be indulged even when child-camouflage is nowhere to be found. Harold wastes no time on the concept of impossible. He quickly sketches what he requires and sets out to conquer the world. His trusty purple crayon holds the potent magic of his belief.

The nighttime journeys are always moonlit and daring. Harold encounters a tree that bursts into apples, which he thinks will be very tasty once they are red. As they are presently purple, he invents a terribly frightening dragon to guard them as they ripen. His trembling crayon lands him in an ocean of rippling waves and, due to his fast thinking, he is able to haul himself into a handy boat and sail away. The first tale is crammed with nine kinds of favorite pie, a deserving porcupine, a hot air balloon ride, mountain climbing, perilous drops and a comforting bedroom window to frame that moon for a tired traveler.

Naturally, the initial taste of adventure leads to many more. Harold slips from the high wire at the circus (Harold’s Circus) and lands on an elephant’s trunk. He avoids embarrassment by donning a clown’s hat and a big purple smile, tames a lion and shoots himself out of a cannon. At the North Pole, Harold rescues Santa from an avalanche that seems to have buried his workshop, lines up the correct number of reindeer, stuffs an enormous sack with toys, finds the perfect Christmas tree and tops it with a crescent moon. (Harold’s Trip to the North Pole) He discovers that a purple crayon is just the thing for warding off monsters and Martians in Harold’s Trip to the Sky and has a few more escapades in the series before that crayon wears down to a nub.

Imagination is a very trendy topic these days, as educators, politicians, C-suite types and pundits debate the flatline produced by our school systems and search for innovative ways to inspire original thinking. They might open a couple of the Harold books, grab a purple crayon, drop a few pretensions and preconceptions and set out into the unknown—illuminated, of course, by a waxing moon so that they won’t see things in the dark.

Harold and the Purple Crayon 50th Anniversary Edition (Purple Crayon Books)   Crockett Johnson | HarperCollins

The Man Within My Head – Pico Iyer

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When I saw that Pico Iyer had written a self-examination of his long fascination with and links to Graham Greene, I knew I’d have to read it. Iyer’s work evokes Greene for me sometimes—the outsider’s adventures in extreme and theatrical cultures are the stuff of movie swashbuckling or gritty documentaries. But the exploits cast another kind of filter over the events that I knew as well. There is a sharp and bitter loneliness in not belonging. There are shadows, a knife-edge of introspection, a heightened awareness of what is—and what you are not. It’s easy to become someone else when you travel beyond your own social boundaries but, paradoxically, it’s impossible to avoid yourself.

The Man Within My Head covers territory not often encountered in travel writing. Iyer digs into his bifurcated childhood as an Indian boy in a British boarding school with regular trips home to Santa Barbara where his parents’ academic lives were immersed in the culture of the 60s and 70s. Pico Iyer’s boyhood public school experiences were similar to those of Greene—and his subsequent wandering around the globe duplicated patterns of Greene’s journeys as well.  Greene became for him a kind of surrogate father, a fictional counterpart to the real father, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, who regaled college students with his brilliant syntheses of East and West, classical and contemporary.

The book is not a linear narrative. Scenes emerge, fade, veer off, double back like hairpin-turn mountain roads—the kind with single lanes, sheer drops and white crosses marking fatalities. Trips to Ethiopia and Bolivia seem foolhardy with explicit danger. In Sri Lanka, an explosion of violence makes leaving the relative safety of a hotel room unappealing. In Cuba, the trips are research for an eventual novel, Cuba and the Night, that is very thinly fictional. Our Man in Havana places Greene in eerily similar circumstances. In fact, Greene’s books ghost through Iyer’s travels from Indo-China to the Caribbean. Greene’s spiritual dilemmas engage Iyer in an enduring argument, even as Iyer turns his back on his world and upbringing, searching for some spare truth in his own peregrinations.

A surprise in the recounting of the life of a writer I have always sought out (Iyer, although I could claim the same thing about Greene), Pico Iyer is a good friend of Bernie Diederich. I knew Bernie and worked with him in Miami—he is the grand old dean of Latin American and Caribbean coverage and has written brilliant books on many of the region’s legendary dictators—but, in all the time I knew him, I never suspected he was close to Iyer. A small world just got much smaller. Made me nostalgic for the days when any bag I carried contained a passport, a reporter’s notebook, a pair of Raybans and some cash for the currency exchange.

Iyer’s trek inside his own mind isn’t an extended essay and it isn’t a memoir—more like the puzzling of a Zen koan or a long meditation on a literary and personal influence. Graham Greene was, and remains, a strong presence for him. The Man Within My Head examines the convergence of their lives and work, pulls out pieces of Iyer’s life and holds them up to the light, reveals as much about the author as it does about the real and fictional fathers who haunt him.

The Man Within My Head   Pico Iyer | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Related post:  Cuba and the Night

The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt

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Ideas delight us, define us and defeat us. Some are so incendiary that they condemn people to burn at the stake. Some are so insistent that they survive centuries of neglect and obscurity and blaze anew when they are exposed to the light. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is the story of a manuscript discovered by an Italian book hunter in 1417. De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, a poem in Latin by a Roman named Titus Lucretius, explores the philosophy of Epicurus:  that everything is made of atoms, that there is no heaven nor is there a hell, that gods are irrelevant and that a minute swerve in the path of an atom can send events veering off in an entirely new direction.

In this world so eloquently captured by Lucretius, pleasure is interwoven with virtue and religion presents a false and fearful front designed to control and subdue the general populace. De rerum natura had been lost for more than a thousand years when Poggio Bracciolini found an ancient copy of it hidden away in a monastery. He was a celebrated scribe who had developed an exquisite and extremely legible calligraphy in the civilization that existed before the invention of the printing press. He was also the chief apostolic secretary to several popes and probably the most famous book hunter of his time. His discovery changed the world.

The concepts in Lucretius’ poem were anathema to the Catholic Church and the dissemination of the work was a risky venture. Typically, a rediscovered classical manuscript would be carefully copied and recopied, discussed, debated, loaned to intellectual colleagues and collected by the wealthy. This manuscript, when it finally began to make its way around, caused alarm among the clergy and bred charges of heresy for those who commented on it, taught from it or wrote about it. It also influenced the development of modern scientific theory and humanist philosophy and provided the foundation for many of the ideas and beliefs at the heart of our own society.

Thomas Jefferson owes a debt to Lucretius and Epicurus for his contribution to the Declaration of Independence, which states as a right and aspiration “the pursuit of Happiness.” An Epicurean notion that Jefferson embraced and freely admitted to is explicit in the foundational documents of the United States. The  atomic explanation and the views and values in On the Nature of Things are pervasive throughout modern thought and discovery.  The unearthing of the manuscript is a fascinating story, set in the tumultuous and dangerous politics of the fifteenth century. As compelling is the tracing of the effects of a poem on lives and on history. Shakespeare, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Botticelli and Freud all eventually made crucial use of the material in De rerum natura.

The Swerve is terrific reading and Poggio is an engaging sleuth and tour guide. Greenblatt’s reconstruction reads like a good novel. Much as Poggio rescued an important manuscript from obscurity, Greenblatt has rescued an important historical figure and brought him to vivid life in this book.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern   Stephen Greenblatt | W. W. Norton & Company   2011