A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Better Fed Than Dead

This review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle.

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: An Eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 244 pp., $21.95

These days, it seems as if almost any statement about the relationship between food and health needs to be taken with a grain of … Mrs. Dash? We have all become victims of what might be called the “Sleeper” syndrome, after the 1973 movie in which Woody Allen wakes up in the future and discovers that everything he thought he knew about food was wrong. In the film, the physicians of the future confer:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or … hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy … precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
All too credible, to Michael Pollan’s way of thinking. “Today in America,” he writes in “In Defense of Food,” “the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented – and dizzying.” We are the victims of what Pollan sees as the media-industrial-political complex: “journalism by uncritically reporting the latest dietary studies on its front page; the food industry by marketing dubious foodlike products on the basis of tenuous health claims; and the government by taking it upon itself to issue official dietary advice based on sketchy science in the first place and corrupted by political pressure in the second.”

Most of all, Pollan says, we are victims of the ideology called “nutritionism,” which is based on several “unexamined assumptions,” among them that “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” and “that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” Moreover, nutritionism has foisted on us a view of a kind of eternal food fight going on in our bodies: “protein against carbs; carbs against proteins; … fats against carbs” as well as “smaller civil wars … within the sprawling empires of the big three: refined carbohydrates versus fiber; animal protein versus plant protein; saturated fats versus polyunsaturated fats; … omega-3 fatty acids versus omega-6s.” No wonder the pharmaceutical industry makes so much money off of drugs to combat heartburn.

And now we seem to be entering the “Sleeper” future, in which deep fat may make a comeback. “What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism,” Pollan observes, “the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism: -- its supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure.” More and more scientists are questioning whether there really is a connection between dietary fat and heart disease. Not only that, Pollan quotes an article from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition: “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.” In other words, the low-fat, low-cholesterol campaign not only hasn’t helped stem such problems as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, but it may have in fact made them worse.

Readers of his engagingly written earlier books on food, “The Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” know that Pollan is not just another Berkeley food crank. Moreover, his is not the only new book proclaiming the hazards of nutritionism. Pollan himself cites science writer Gary Taubes’ recently published “
Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, $27.95) as an “important” book “blowing the whistle on the science behind the low-fat campaign.” Taubes’ book is weightier than Pollan’s, thickly documented and heavy on the science. Pollan faults it for not being skeptical enough about the current identification of carbohydrates as the enemy that fats were once thought to be: “As its title suggests, ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories,’ valuable as it is, does not escape the confines of nutritionism.”

Pollan urges us to relax, and not worry so much about food. At the very beginning of the book he provides a mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” After spending much of the book explaining why almost all nutritional advice in the past 30 or 40 years has been misleading, unsubstantiated, bogus and even counterproductive, he unpacks his mantra for us concisely and amusingly. “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he advises. This needs a bit more explanation. After all, many of our great-grandmothers weren’t exposed to the great multicultural bounty we find in stores and restaurants, so a lot of them wouldn’t recognize some perfectly wholesome stuff as edible. Calamari, for example, or tofu. One imagines Great-Grandma’s reaction to such now-commonplace fare as artichokes (“You want me to cook a thistle?”) or yogurt (“That milk is sour!”) . To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, it was a brave great-grandmother who ate the first oyster.

But Pollan’s point is this: Great-grandmother never cooked with guar gum, carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, soy lecithin and any number of other ingredients found in processed food. Great-Grandma may have picked cotton, but she never ate it. Yet cottonseed oil is commonplace in all sorts of the “edible foodlike substances” found in supermarkets today.

Pollan’s advice is sensible and even inspiring. It can, however, be faulted as a little elitist. It’s not that hard if, like Pollan, you live in Berkeley, where Alice Waters is guide and guru, to shop carefully at farmers’ markets and specialty stores, to spend more to get fresher and better stuff, to cook your meals, and to eat them slowly and at a table with good company. But god help you if you’re a single parent working long hours and living in a poorer neighborhood where there aren’t even any supermarkets. A bag of Whoppers or a bucket of KFC is probably your inevitable choice.

And in the end, this thoughtful, entertaining and helpful book does wind up being a little more alarmist than Pollan pretends it is. The very thought that a book needs to be written “In Defense of Food” is unsettling. It might instead have been called “Fear of Feeding.”

Saturday, December 29, 2007


I fell into a coverage gap. The prescription coverage I had from my former employer ended on November 30, and I couldn't pick up Medicare prescription coverage until January 1. But I ran out of my meds -- a generic anti-anxiety drug -- last week and had to pay full price. One hundred seventy-seven dollars. For sixty little pills.

I look at these small white pills and think: Each one of you costs $2.95.

Somebody is making out like a bandit on this deal.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

I watched a football game tonight. That Patriots-Giants thing? It was fun, too. I mention it only because it's not something I normally do. Sports, that is.

I sometimes tell people that I'm just not interested in sports, but the truth is, I'm afraid I might get too interested in them. I know that I have a tendency to get addicted to things, obsessed by them, preoccupied with their minutiae. I mean, for god's sake, I wrote a whole book about the Academy Awards. And I can see myself becoming one of those guys who comb the agate type in the sports section for statistics.

So for now, I treat sports as an occasional thing, being careful not to show too much interest in them, lest I get drawn into another pastime (like surfing the Internet) that will occupy my attention.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Little Night Music

k.d. lang

Unsolicited Advice

A friend who lives in Palo Alto goes out for a daily walk. He was striding along happily one day when he was stopped by a woman, a complete stranger, riding a bicycle. She informed him that walking wasn’t a sufficient cardiovascular workout. Pointing toward the bleachers at a nearby playing field, she instructed him to start climbing them as part of his exercise. Which he now dutifully does.

Perfectly Palo Alto, which is the kind of place where you can mind other people’s business for their own good. I guess that’s what people hate about us liberals, too.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Awesomely silly, from that source of silly awesomeness, Boing Boing.

The Liberal Media Convenes

We met for breakfast this morning, one of those breathtaking cool and bright Northern California mornings we who live here take for granted. Seven old friends, journalists (or ex-journalists) who used to work together. Three women, four men, four Jews, one African-American, two on Social Security, two Easterners, two Midwesterners, one Southerner, one Southwesterner, one Californian, all more or less straight (although two of us have gay kids). And the question arose: Who were we voting for?

Maybe Obama, maybe Edwards, maybe Richardson.
Hillary reluctantly, though Edwards and Obama inspire more enthusiasm.

Consensus: It's going to be Hillary. But can she win? Is the America we don't live in -- the non-intellectual, non-affluent, non-urban, non-hyperconscious, non-reading, Fox-watching America -- going to go for Hillary?

A chill went through the room.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Et Incarnatus Est

I guess if I had to call myself anything, which I don't, it would be "Christian." Mainly because I was raised in a home that was rather unenthusiastically Methodist. (I really think of myself as a "secular progressive," because whatever Bill O'Reilly is, I don't want to be.)

Christmas has become an exhausting holiday, though. Everyone works so hard to make it merry, and you can see the effort. But it's the only Christian holiday that still holds meaning for me. Easter? No. Because I can't bring myself to believe in the Resurrection. Sentimentally, perhaps, I would like to believe in something after this life, but it all seems so implausible -- and even a little unnecessary. What would heaven be for, anyway?

But Christmas is the holiday that recognizes the one Christian mystery that I can still put some belief behind: the Incarnation. The idea that God, whoever or whatever that is, could become, for whatever reason, a human being. Where I part with the Christians is in holding that Jesus is the only incarnation. I think maybe he had a lot more of God in him than most of us do, sure. But there are surely a lot of other people who have manifested the divine. Moses and the Buddha and Lao-Tse and Muhammad; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and Sappho; Dante and Chaucer and Hildegarde of Bingen and Teresa of Avila; Shakespeare and Cervantes and Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe; Bach (for sure), Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven; Goethe and Keats and Shelley; Dickens, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf; James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the Marxes (including Karl); Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin; Voltaire and Moliere; Descartes and Kant and Nietzsche; Dryden, Pope, Swift; Leonardo and Michelangelo and Vermeer and Daumier and Picasso and Hogarth and Tenniel; Walt Kelly and Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson; Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks; Garbo and Dietrich, the two Hepburns, Stanwyck, Marilyn and Elvis; Fred Astaire and Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson and ....

Merry Christmas to them all, and to you and your favorite incarnations.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Sick System

I knew that there was a health-care crisis, and as an old lefty I've always believed that the government should do something about it.

But it's never been a matter of personal urgency. I've always had fully paid health insurance. But now, having retired, I have to deal with plans and fees and deductibles and limits and all the other headaches that millions of people have been dealing with.

Even with Medicare, there are choices to be made on prescription drug plans and supplemental coverage. And they cost money, and involve "gaps" and limits and all sorts of headache-inducing stuff, largely because Congress has kowtowed to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Even so, it's a lot easier than dealing directly with insurance companies.

What kind of "health care" system allows a teenage girl to die while waiting for a liver transplant? You probably read the story: Nataline Sarkysian's doctors said she needed a liver transplant, but her insurer, CIGNA, declined to pay for it because the surgery was "experimental" and because there was no guarantee that it would be effective. And while the family was appealing the decision, she died.

Why is health care less important than highways, or schools, or police forces, or fire departments? We trust the government to use our taxes to fund and manage these things. Why are we so reluctant to let the government take charge of seeing to it that Americans have guaranteed access to the health care they need? If we belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why is "life" being neglected?

Why is a governmental bureaucracy supposedly less efficient than a corporate bureaucracy? The standard conservative argument against universal health care is that it's too important to be left to bureaucrats. But it was a corporate bureaucracy that determined Nataline Sarkisyan's fate -- on the basis not of the patient's welfare but of the company's profits. My dealings with the government's health bureaucracy -- Social Security and Medicare -- have been both efficient and helpful. My dealings with insurance company bureaucracies? Not so much.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Go With the Grain

Freerice.com is an intriguing site that claims to do two things: help you build your vocabulary and feed the world's hungry. I'm not certain of its effectiveness on either count, but it's an ingenious attention-grabber.

The premise is that you're given a series of words to define. Each word has four purported synonyms. If you pick the right synonym, you earn 20 grains of rice, to be donated to the United Nations World Food Program. The ads on the site pay for the rice.

When you miss a word, you're given an easier one. When you get one right, you're given a slightly harder word. The site keeps track of your score, too. I got up to level 50 a couple of times, but fell back to level 46 or 47 pretty quickly. At the upper levels, you're getting words like apologue, petrous, secern, axenic, furcula, altazimuth, and retrorse. Time for some educated guessing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Something Phishy

The government's do-not-call list is a great accomplishment, virtually wiping out telemarketing calls in our house. We still get the occasional guilt-inducing charity calls -- tickets to the policemen's ball and such. But for the most part silence.

Lately, however, we've been plagued by robocalls that have either skirted the do-not-call list or are in outright violation of it. The ones that claim to be from "your credit card company" offering a way of lowering your rates. Since these don't identify themselves as any bank or credit union with which I have a card, I'm pretty sure they're phishing scams. But I don't know how to make them stop. They usually offer an option -- "press 9" -- to remove your number from their list. I've pressed nine or two or whatever number they ask for a few times, but to no avail. Instead, I'm now getting calls that offer to extend my "vehicle's warranty" which they tell me with some urgency is about to expire. (The warranty on my "vehicle" expired a long time ago.)

So now I'm beginning to wonder if the opt-out number is a scam, too -- as on e-mail spam, which often asks you to reply if you want to be removed from their mailing list. I learned a long time ago not to do that.

Anyone know of a way to report these guys?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Cure for the Blues

A Trivial Matter

In thinking about the current race for president, I noticed that we seem to have an unusual number of candidates whose surnames end in vowel sounds: Obama, Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, Tancredo.
  • Only three presidents had surnames that ended with vowel sounds. Can you name them?
  • How about the four whose surnames ended with a silent e?
  • Sixteen of the forty-two men who have been president have surnames that end in what consonant?
  • What is the most common presidential first name? (There are six who share it.)

Answers in the comments section.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Politics as Ususal

Sorry for the paucity of posts the past few days. This blogging thing, I’m told, only works if you keep it up regularly. I’ve been blaming my dilatoriness on this head cold and on a review deadline. The cold is still with me but the deadline has been met.

And there’s good news on the DSL front: The problem seems to have resolved itself. I finally did a wholesale shutdown. I reset the modem – that paperclip trick where you poke a little hole in the back of the thing. And when everything came back up, voila! The VCR, on the other hand, still seems to be stuck in a time warp four and a half hours away.

I’ve been meaning to write something about politics – one of those so-you-know-where-I’m-coming-from posts.

My parents were New Deal Democrats. Having suffered the blows of the Depression, they thought of FDR as the Great Deliverer and of his party as the hope of the future. And even when most of their kinfolk deserted the party in the 1960s, they remained true to it.

I’ve never found a compelling reason to depart from their beliefs – or at least their political beliefs. I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a Republican. And I certainly can’t find a reason to do so this year. Where did they get these guys?

  • Romney is the Oakland of politicians: There is no there there.
  • McCain withstood the torture of the Vietnamese, but the loony right has made him strip himself of all his once-praised integrity.
  • Giuliani is the product of media hype, a weird little man whom the careless media converted into a hero after 9/11 – to the amusement and disgust of many New Yorkers. But now all the sordid little secrets are oozing out of his closet.
  • Huckabee? Now, really. President Huckabee? Never having voted for a Republican I’m sure not going to start with one who’s also a Southern Baptist preacher and doesn’t believe in evolution.
  • Thompson? If we have to elect a character actor, why not Paul Giamatti? At least he’s a good one.

No, I can easily vote for almost any of the Democrats. I’ve never had any problem doing that – even with Hubert Humphrey.

I think I like Edwards the most, because what he’s said about poverty and health care makes sense, and even though he’s doing the usual waffle on gay marriage, at least his wife came out for it. But the media have been unkind, focusing on the $400 haircut. So he’ll wind up third in the early primaries, and by the time I get to vote in California, he’ll be out of the picture.

Obama is charismatic and incredibly smart, but I’d rather wait to vote for him in 2016. I’m just not ready yet to vote for someone young enough to – gulp – be my son? Back in 1987, I wrote a piece for the Mercury News’ now-defunct Perspective section in which I bemoaned the fact that half of the Democratic candidates were younger than me.

I may have to vote (shudder) Republican next year.

It's not that I like any of their candidates. George Bush makes me think of those Ralph Bellamy characters Cary Grant took Rosalind Russell and Irene Dunne away from. And I want to see Bob Dole stand in front of a mirror; I'll bet he doesn't reflect in it.

But at least they're old.

Not real old -- just old enough to be president. Bush is 63, Dole 64. Which makes them old enough to be my . . . well, my uncle.

The “George Bush” referred to there is H.W., of course. And no, I didn’t really vote for him – I voted for Dukakis. But there are times when I almost feel nostalgic for him. That’s because of his son, who makes me think of what one of the Ralph Bellamy characters might have fathered if he’d married the kind of character played by Gail Patrick or Binnie Barnes: a selfish, resentful spoiled brat.

The younger Bush’s relentless incompetence, combined with his stubborn refusal to use government as anything but a vehicle for enriching his own kind, has put us in a terrible predicament. John Dean, who should know, since he worked for a president who pointed us in this direction, calls it “broken government.” I fear that it’s true, that it will take years to remake the federal government into an efficient and beneficial instrument of policy, to weed out all of the hacks and incompetents who have infested the Justice department, the intelligence agencies, and all of the agencies concerned with quality of life, such as the FDA, OSHA, FEMA, the EPA and so on.

Which is why I’m reluctantly deciding to cast my vote for Hillary. She’s the one who has direct knowledge of the way the federal government is run. The question is whether she knows how to make it run again.

Five years ago, I reviewed Joe Klein’s book “The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton” for the Mercury News. Since then, Klein has become something of a joke in the blogosphere – indeed, he’s often referred to as “Joke Line” – because he’s stuck in the centrism of the 1990s, which often makes him urge Democrats to be more conciliatory to the right, and occasionally betrays him into uninformed and wrongheaded characterizations of the left. But he did have some shrewd and informed things to say about the Clintons, for example:

''Over time, I decided that the wisest course regarding the Clinton marriage was to be indiscriminately credulous, to believe all the stories: He was chronically unfaithful. They fought like harpies. They were political partners. They were best friends. They loved each other madly, in every sense of the word. None of these were mutually exclusive. . . . Which is not to say that it wasn't a stupefyingly weird relationship.''

I also wrote:

''The Natural'' is weakest when Klein attempts to sum up the concrete achievements of the Clinton administration -- but Klein can give you a sense of the human beings at work. He's particularly good at quick-hit descriptions. Al Gore, for example, ''had a genius for subservience (and also, unfortunately, the submerged, constricted anger that often accompanies such passivity).'' Klein says of Ralph Nader that his ''personal asceticism and low-key style masked a sour and unrelenting demagogue.'' And Hillary Clinton's staff ''suffered from Tippi Hedren Syndrome: They looked as if they were about to be attacked by birds.''

Clinton's gift was an ability to overcome crisis -- unfortunately, many of the crises he faced were of his own making. The drifting, indecisive first term, with its disastrous bungling of health-care reform, led to the Republican triumphs in the election of 1996. This proved to be the challenge Clinton needed, Klein says: The ''battle against a rigid American mullah named Newt Gingrich would consume the next several years. It would prove successful; indeed, it will probably stand as a textbook example of how a tactically astute President can transform a position of weakness into strength.''

I don’t know how much of this tactical astuteness has been transferred to Hillary. I suspect that she possesses more of it than her husband does. And I feel sure that she knows the ways of Washington far better than any of the other candidates – firsthand knowledge.

And because I think we’re going to be in serious trouble unless the next president knows how to make Washington work – for all of us – I guess that’s why I’m hoping she wins.

That said, I’ll probably still cast my primary vote for Obama … or Edwards.

Monday, December 10, 2007


You know that bit of techsnark: RTFM? (If you don't, you can find the definition here.) Well, I'm the guy who RsTFM. I've always been a friend to technology, as long as I don't have to look under the hood. I can string cables with the best of them. I can hook up the stereo to the TV and the printer to the tower and the modem to the router. So why am I lost in computer hell with my DSL problem? Gimme a break.

Moreover, I even know how to set the clock on a VCR. (Yes, I'm still using a VCR, mostly to tape shows for other people. I figure if I succumb to Tivo, I'll spend all my time watching stuff I shouldn't.) (Oh, and I've never had a VCR that blinks 12:00 when it hasn't been set. I've gone through a bunch of them since the mid-1980s, and every one of them has blinked --:-- instead.)

So, anyway, I reset the VCR in the living room after the last time the power went out. And I put it on automatic, so it checks for the time signal from the satellite box. But for some reason, it has reset itself so that it's four and a half hours off from Pacific Time. Right now, the clock on my computer tells me it's 11:50. The VCR is informing me that it's 7:20.

I know better than to ask a real techie for an explanation. ("The dilbert in the grommit has gone out of sync with the paxil. You should recycle the motown so it aligns with the dystrophy.") I can live with it. But I don't deserve it. I've been so nice to you machines.


Another puzzlement: Why do people say stupid things to reporters? They surely can't believe what they're saying, can they?

Case in point, a woman in Iowa who told a reporter that she opposed a program to provide breakfasts for poor schoolkids. "I work hard for what I have. Why should I buy somebody else's kid breakfast?"

Jeez, lady, because you live in a society where things work together. You buy the kid breakfast so he can get an education and get a job so he can pay taxes too -- the taxes that provide you with roads to drive on, people to put out the fire that threatens to burn down your house, the army that's supposed to protect the country, the pipes that bring water to your house, and the cops who arrest those guys who didn't get good breakfasts as kids so they didn't get an education and therefore didn't get good jobs and wound up robbing your house instead.

Some people forget that promoting the general welfare is established as an American duty in the preamble to the Constitution.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nostalgia and Sorrow

I’ve been a fan of “The Amazing Race” since I happened upon it during its fourth season, but I have to admit that the formula casting – especially the Bickering Couples like this season’s Nathan and Jennifer – has begun to wear a bit thin. One thing I have liked about this season, the show’s twelfth, is the variety of some of its locations – Burkina Faso, Lithuania, and tonight’s trip to Croatia, particularly to Dubrovnik, a fascinating place I visited many, many years ago.

When I wrote the following review for the Mercury News several years ago, I felt a rush of both nostalgia and sorrow. Nostalgia for being very young and very foolish, sorrow for the country that had suffered so much. Dave, Bob, Rainy and I were four young Americans studying on a variety of grants at the University of Tübingen in what was then West Germany. (Studying” is a very misleading word for what I was doing. After a few months of conscientiously trying to attend lectures, I gave up and concentrated on a seminar in contemporary American lit being taught by an American professor – in English.)

When a long holiday came, we decided to explore Yugoslavia, since none of us knew anything about it. We squeezed into Rainy’s VW beetle and navigated ourselves through the countryside, which changed from lush to barren with a breathtaking suddenness. After winding our way through miles of Bosnian hills, we found ourselves confronted by a vast green plain. Finally, we thought, the road would straighten out and we could make some time. But instead, it stuck stubbornly to the hillside, making its tortuous way to the Adriatic. We concluded that the great green plain below was a flood plain too treacherous for a highway.

As we neared the coast, the land grew greener, however, and we happened into some pretty villages. Years later, I would encounter their names again as the tragedy of Bosnia unfolded. And even Dubrovnik, that extraordinary gem of an old city, would be shelled – as one of the tasks on tonight’s “Amazing Race” mentioned.

I misbehaved in Dubrovnik. I developed a taste for slivovitz, the plum brandy. And sitting on the pier that night, I guzzled far too much of it. Back in the room, I passed out. And then threw up. A lot. (To this day, I can’t eat a plum.) The result is that we were kicked out of the nice, incredibly inexpensive hotel we were staying, and I spent a miserable hungover day in the beetle as we wound our way up the stunning Adriatic coastline.

Oh, to be young again. (And a little smarter.)

THE STONE FIELDS: Love and Death in the Balkans
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Picador, 320 pp., $14 paperback

Many years ago, three friends and I wedged ourselves into a VW Beetle and set out to drive through what was then Yugoslavia to the Adriatic. We didn't know how wild and beautiful and strange and lonely much of the country was, or that we would ride for hours, hairpinning through green hills and barren ones, and seldom see another car or come upon a village or farm.

And in the towns and cities, we naive Americans were surprised to see minarets rising above the rooftops. We hadn't known that Yugoslavia had such a large Muslim population. Later, the whole world would know that -- and, terribly, much more.

When that time came, and the names of places where I had been -- Dubrovnik, Jajce, Mostar, Sarajevo -- filled the news, I felt sadness and horror but also remorse: I had learned so little when I was there; I had passed through those places in the tourist's cocoon of ignorance. At least I was not one of those Americans who, in Courtney Angela Brkic's words, ''asked whether Croatia and Bosnia were in Latin America.'' But though my ignorance was lesser, it was still strong.

''Those savvy enough to know the region's geography would express surprise and confusion that the war had happened at all,'' Brkic writes. ''Yugoslavia had been an idyll, hadn't it? Where the past had been forgotten and people lived as brothers? I did not relish explaining, over and over again, that the past had never been forgotten, but merely buried.''

Brkic may not relish explaining that, but she has done so eloquently in ''The Stone Fields,'' trying to bring into emotional focus -- such things are beyond reason -- the hideousness that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the rapes and torture and massacres, as well as the ignorance and indifference of the outside world.

As her name suggests, Brkic is Croatian-American. Her father left Yugoslavia in 1959, and, she says, ''Like other new Americans who seek to reinvent themselves, he let weeds and dirt overtake the past.''

She was given the all-American name Courtney, along with an Americanized version of her grandmother's name, Andelka (pronounced ''Anjelka''). But as she notes, ''My father had been troubled when I started responding to the name Angela. I think it seemed to him a rejection of the safe life he had created for us in America.''

Trained as an archaeologist, Brkic went to Bosnia in 1996 to work with a forensic team of the Physicians for Human Rights that was unearthing mass graves and attempting to identify the bodies. ''My father did not know that I had come to Bosnia,'' she tells us, ''and the knowledge would have eaten away at him.''

Part of the book is about Brkic's work on the grim task of identification, handling human remains and working in fields that had been land-mined. It was work that took both a physical and psychological toll. She came to be bothered by a burning sensation in one of her fingers.

''I had the terrible feeling that a splinter of bone from one of the bodies had made its way into me and lay buried under my skin.''

But the book is also about her grandmother, Andelka. Brkic has always been ''a stubborn demander of stories,'' she tells us, and from the stories told by her father and her aunts, she has crafted a fascinating account of her grandmother's life -- one ruled by the unresolved tensions of her country's violent history.

''Politics is a whore,'' Andelka would say, bitter at the sway it held over her life. She was born in Herzegovina, orphaned at 14, and married at 16. Soon after their marriage, she and her husband were exiled to a remote village by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia because he was a follower of a Croatian nationalist.

Andelka gave birth to four children, two of whom survived, before her husband died of typhoid when she was 21. Not wanting to live the life of a self-denying village widow, she moved to Sarajevo with her two small sons, Bero and Zoran.

In Sarajevo, she fell in love with Josef Finci, who was Jewish. With the coming of the Nazi occupation, Andelka was arrested for hiding Josef, who was sent to a concentration camp. Twelve-year-old Bero and 10-year-old Zoran were left on their own for weeks -- a neighbor looked in on them and fed them -- until Andelka was released. They never saw Josef again.

After the war, chaos was succeeded by the regimentation of communism, but the country's ethnic tensions were only repressed, not resolved. Andelka ''had endured her own life,'' Brkic writes. ''This impossible country had undermined her.'' So she urged Bero and Zoran to leave: '' 'Get out while you still can,' she told them. 'And don't come back.' ''

For Brkic, a tension remains between Andelka's ''impossible country'' and the ''safe life'' her father, Bero, had tried to create for her. And her desire to understand overcomes her need for security.

In Zagreb, she has an affair with Stjepan, who has served in the army and seen terrible things. She tells him that her father would like to come back -- ''a piece of him is always here'' -- but would find the adjustment difficult after growing used to life in America. ''This troubled him. Stjepan had, afterall, fought for the right of people like my father to come back permanently, to reclaim their lives.'' But deep conflicts about his country also trouble Stjepan, who is prone to nightmares. Their relationship sours to an end. The buried past will not stay buried.

''The Stone Fields'' has a haunting, lyrical economy. Brkic wonderfully blends precise depictions of a harsh land and hard lives with a deep and sympathetic understanding of what people have endured. Added to this is a keen self-awareness that never becomes self-indulgence.

It's a book designed to banish ignorance, and it goes a long way toward its goal.


STILLNESS AND OTHER STORIES, by Courtney Angela Brkic (Picador, $13 paperback)
Fiction based on Brkic's experiences in Croatia and Bosnia

A PROBLEM FROM HELL: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power (Perennial, $17.95 paperback)
Pulitzer Prize-winning book on our failure to prevent genocide in Bosnia and elsewhere

BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West (Penguin, $25 paperback)
A classic account of the country on the brink of World War II

Saturday, December 8, 2007


I'm sitting up in bed with the first head cold of the season, feeling the viruses stomping around my upper respiratory tract in their Doc Martens. And trying to entertain myself on the 'Net, but only getting more frustrated with my wonky DSL connection. I hope you're enjoying the videos I've linked to because I can't watch them. Most YouTube videos play for about a minute and then freeze. Web pages greet me with a mournful "could not connect" page that I can usually get past by refreshing. But not always. Others stall as they're loading.

Oh, yeah, I've reported all of this. I've switched off, rebooted, unplugged, replugged, done the paper-clip reset of the modem, called AT&T and had many a pleasant conversation with nice people in Bangalore. I've replaced filters, bought a new router, unplugged phones completely, had the wiring guy out to check things over. Things go along smoothly for a few weeks, then they start to hiccup again. I seem to be in the Bermuda Triangle of DSL connections. And no, I can't switch to a cable modem -- the complex isn't wired for cable.

Sorry, didn't mean to whine. (Of course, there's also no guarantee that I'll be able to post this.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Songs and Their Singers, Part Five

This review originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

BING CROSBY: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years, 1903-1940
By Gary Giddins
Back Bay Books, 736 pp., $17.95 paperback

Strange to say, Bing Crosby needs this biography. Other major white male jazz/pop singers who were eclipsed in the rock revolution of the '60s managed to re-emerge. Frank Sinatra's bad-boy behavior kept him hot. Tony Bennett hung with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and got certified as hip by the MTV generation. Even Mel Tormé benefited from Harry Anderson's worship of him on ''Night Court.'' Of course, they were around to help revive their reputations, while Crosby, who created the style of singing that made them famous, died in 1977. So Crosby got dismissed as a nostalgia throwback, like the Andrews Sisters, or a bland middle-of-the-roader, like Perry Como. At worst, he was regarded as a cultural imperialist who made his fortune by ripping off black musical idiom and making it palatable for white audiences. Or he was just that old guy who played golf -- before Tiger Woods made golf cool.

Gary Giddins' task, then, is to persuade us not only that Crosby was ''the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century'' but also that the work he left behind him deserves our continued respect, admiration and emulation. This exhaustive -- and occasionally exhausting -- biography takes us up to 1940; Giddins plans to tell the rest of the story in another volume. But the Crosby of the '30s is the essential Bing Crosby, the one whose achievement was summarized by bandleader/clarinetist Artie Shaw: ''He really is the first American jazz singer in the white world.''

It was a very white world in which Crosby grew up. He was born in Tacoma, Wash., and raised in Spokane, and on his father's side, he could trace his lineage back to passengers on the Mayflower. His mother's Irish-Catholic heritage and religion prevailed over his father's, however: Bing was raised a Catholic and attended the Jesuit-run Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University. But he dropped out of law school at Gonzaga and headed for Los Angeles with a friend, Al Rinker, whose sister, the singer Mildred Bailey, was breaking into show business.

The vaudeville duo of Crosby and Rinker became a trio, the Rhythm Boys, with the addition of Harry Barris, and soon they were featured performers with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. In 1930, the Rhythm Boys appeared in the movie ''King of Jazz,'' a showcase for Whiteman that flopped but launched Crosby's film career.

The association with Whiteman, the self-styled King of Jazz, does nothing to help Crosby with either those who regard him as a cultural imperialist or those who fail to think of him as a jazz innovator. Whiteman's ''jazz'' was slickly orchestrated stuff, not the ebullient, improvisatory music we think of as echt jazz. But Giddins is content to face the simple fact: ''African-American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.'' Crosby, under Whiteman's aegis, became ''the first in a long line of white musicians who popularized real black music . . . for a white public. This was ten years before Benny Goodman launched the Swing Era, thirty years before Elvis rocked.''

It's good to remember that Crosby was raised in an era when the minstrel show and blackface performers like Al Jolson were tolerated. Today we cringe at production numbers such as ''Abraham'' in the 1942 movie ''Holiday Inn.'' In it, a blacked-up Crosby and company sing the praises of the Great Emancipator for an all-white audience, while his African-American cook sits on the back porch and sings to her children about how Lincoln freed the ''darkies.'' But as Giddins points out, Crosby also made an effort to integrate black performers such as Louis Armstrong into his films, and was frustrated: Armstrong's performance in the 1938 film ''Doctor Rhythm'' was cut in deference to Southern audiences. Crosby repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Armstrong, calling him ''the greatest pop singer in the world that ever was and ever will be forever and ever.'' The easy camaraderie in the duets Armstrong and Crosby recorded is evidence that the tribute was genuine -- and genuinely appreciated.

Of course, sounding genuine was Crosby's forte. There has been no surer master of the media -- from recordings to radio to film and TV -- in which he appeared. ''More than any other performer,'' Giddins observes, ''Crosby would ride the tide of technology. He dominated records, radio, and movies throughout a career that would parallel the development of those media in ways ever more suitable to his talents.''

He had the good luck to be starting his career just as recording shifted from acoustical to electrical reproduction of music. Before the development of the microphone, recording artists had to bellow into great horns -- a technology unsuited for the subtlety and intimacy characteristic of a performer like Crosby. Then came radio, on which the bright, high sound of the tenor was less welcome than a mellow baritone like Crosby's: ''Higher voices are better for reaching theater balconies, but lower ones are more appealing in living rooms,'' Giddins notes.

Crosby took each medium and shaped an agreeable persona for it. Like no singer before him, he made singing seem as natural as speaking. The voice that people heard on records and the radio had established his sex appeal, so when he moved into film it didn't matter that he was balding, paunchy and jug-eared. Moreover, he resisted Hollywood's efforts to make him conform to conventional ideas of good looks -- once he established himself at the box office, he rejected the practice of gluing back his ears, and chose to wear hats rather than toupees to cover his bald spots.

Giddins is one of the country's foremost jazz critics, so it's no surprise that his detailed accounts of Crosby's recordings are sensitive and illuminating. He succeeds brilliantly in his chief task of persuading us of Crosby's worth as a performer. But he's also a masterly biographer -- he has written about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker as well -- who compiles an astonishing amount of information and turns it into a readable narrative. Admittedly, there are some boggy spots -- I learned more about the making of movies like ''Waikiki Wedding'' than I really needed to know. Giddins also tends to lose sight of the off-mike Crosby -- the husband and father -- in his focus on Crosby at work. We learn that Crosby got his drinking problem under control, but that his first wife, Dixie, didn't, and we begin to sense that there are problems at home -- but then we're off on the road with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour again.

And sometimes Giddins' attempts to summarize Crosby's importance bring him perilously close to cheerleading: ''No other pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly liked -- liked and trusted. Bing's naturalness made him credible to all, regardless of region, religion, race, or gender. He was our most authentic chameleon, mirroring successive eras -- through Prohibition, depression, war, anxiety, and affluence -- without ever being dramatic about it. He was discreet and steady. He was family.''

That was the image, at least. After Crosby's death in 1977, the iconoclasts, including his son Gary, went to work on biographies whose allegations of abuse and infidelity tarnished his reputation as husband and father. But Giddins' biography is focused on how Crosby created a persona, and only to a lesser extent on what lay behind the mask. Rehabilitating Crosby's artistic reputation is higher on Giddins' agenda than sorting through the dirty laundry, but if he takes the story beyond 1940, things will doubtless have to come out in the wash.

If you ever need a definition of sprezzatura, just take a look at these two pros performing Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah?” in “High Society”:

Songs and Their Singers, Part Four

This review originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet
Knopf, 530 pp., $65

When he was asked to name the greatest French poet, Andre Gide gave a Gallic shrug and said, ''Victor Hugo, alas!'' And if you wanted me to name the greatest American songwriter, I'd have to say, reluctantly, ''Irving Berlin, alas!''

Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers were more gifted composers. Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer were probably better lyricists. But nobody was better at doing both, at putting both words and music together, than Berlin. In the golden era of American popular song, 1920-1950, the only other similarly gifted composer-lyricist was Cole Porter. (Frank Loesser, also a brilliant composer-lyricist, belongs to a slightly later era, the '40s and '50s.)

Berlin beats Porter partly because of longevity (and hence volume of output): He was born in 1888 and died 101 years later; Porter's dates are 1891-1964. But Berlin was also a more versatile songwriter. There's no denying that Porter's melodies are abundant and his lyrics have sophistication and wit. But too often Porter fell back on his forte: the catalog song -- ''You're the Top,'' ''Let's Do It'' and virtually the entire song score of ''Kiss Me Kate'' -- brilliant strings of one-liners set to simple, catchy melodies.

Berlin could write catalog songs, too: ''Doin' What Comes Naturally'' from ''Annie Get Your Gun,'' for example. But just dip into the new anthology, ''The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin,'' to see what else he could do. There's the most popular song in history, of course: ''White Christmas.'' And the anthem given new currency after the events of Sept. 11, ''God Bless America.'' But there are also tender ballads (''Always''), sexy show-stoppers (''Heat Wave'') and songs of social comment (the anti-lynching ''Supper Time''). He wrote the most sublime of all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance numbers, ''Let's Face the Music and Dance,'' as well as Astaire's jaunty signature song, ''Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.''

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

In his greatest Broadway score, ''Annie Get Your Gun,'' Berlin went from parodies of hillbilly music, ''Doin' What Comes Naturally'' and ''You Can't Get a Man With a Gun,'' to the sweetly lyrical ''The Girl That I Marry,'' ''They Say It's Wonderful'' and ''I Got Lost in His Arms,'' and of course the indelible show-must-go-on anthem, ''There's No Business Like Show Business.''

And Berlin did it all without the benefit of Porter's Yale education or George Gershwin's studies with classical musicians: Berlin left school in his early teens, and he never learned to read music. Famously, he could play the piano only in F-sharp, so he had a special piano built that allowed him to compose in other keys.

When a composer collaborates with a lyricist, sometimes the words are written first, and sometimes the tune. When he was working with Larry Hart, Richard Rodgers would write the melody and Hart would fit the words to it; but Rodgers' next collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, preferred to write the lyrics and let Rodgers supply the music. Berlin's imagination seems to have fully integrated both words and music, so that no one can guess which came first. The effect in his best work is that of speech blossoming into song.

How many lyricists could have fitted words to the quirkily sprung rhythms of Berlin's ''Puttin' on the Ritz,'' for example? (Try tapping out the rhythms of the song yourself to see what I mean.) Yet Berlin did it twice, first with the ''Harlem'' version of 1927 -- ''That's where each and ev'ry Lulu Belle goes/Ev'ry Thursday ev'ning with her swell beaus/Rubbing elbows.'' Later he revised it with the more politically correct lyrics usually heard today: ''Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper/Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper,/Super duper.'' Each version is a tour de force of word fitting; doing it twice is miraculous.

Fred Astaire

And then there are songs that are so originally yet organically structured that only a mind producing both the words and music could have conceived of them. Consider the astonishing dramatic shifts in mood and melody found in ''Cheek to Cheek'': The song starts with the dreamy ''Heaven/I'm in heaven'' theme, which it repeats, then breaks into the buoyant ''Oh! I love to climb a mountain'' theme, repeating it (''Oh! I love to go out fishing''). And then, suddenly, there's the ecstatic command to ''Dance with me'' -- before the singer settles back into the dreamy first theme: ''The charm about you/Will carry me through/To heaven/I'm in heaven. . . .'' The song was written, of course, for Astaire and Rogers to dance to, but it stands, or rather dances, on its own.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

So why be reluctant to acknowledge Berlin's genius? For perhaps much the same reason that Gide sighed when he had to endorse Hugo: a feeling that so prodigious an output is a sign that quality was sacrificed in favor of quantity. Rodgers and Hart, Porter and Harold Arlen were more consistently sophisticated in their songwriting, and at their best, touched on emotional complexities that seem absent from Berlin's ballads. Gershwin and Ellington and Billy Strayhorn forged a link between dance hall and concert hall; Berlin thought for a time of writing an opera, but nothing came of it. Kern's ''Show Boat'' and Rodgers and Hammerstein's ''Oklahoma!,'' ''Carousel'' and ''South Pacific'' set benchmarks for the musical theater that Berlin never quite reached.

And there's also a sense that enormous public adulation -- Berlin was honored with everything from an Oscar to a Medal of Freedom -- has to be built on crowd-pleasing schmaltz and sentimentality. But there's great artistry even in Berlin's crowd-pleasing.

Many of us may be uncomfortable with the politics of ''God Bless America'' -- Woody Guthrie, you may recall, wrote ''This Land Is Your Land'' in reaction against Berlin's anthem -- but it's a prime example of Berlin's skill at writing for the human voice. (It must, however, be sung simply and sincerely -- not with the faux-soul note-bending that Celine Dion inflicts on it.) When Kate Smith's creamy contralto sails into those big open vowels of ''oceans,'' ''foam'' and ''home sweet home,'' who can resist?

This huge volume includes the words to every one of the more than 1,200 songs Berlin wrote -- from ''Marie From Sunny Italy,'' copyrighted in 1907, to a lyric called ''Growing Gray'' that's dated Sept. 2, 1987, seven months before his 100th birthday. Editors Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet, Berlin's daughter, supply commentary on many of the songs and on the shows and films he wrote them for, and the book is full of pictures of Berlin and the productions on which he worked.

It's also a wonderful document of changing American musical and theatrical tastes, from the now-disgraced ''coon songs'' -- as well as other Tin Pan Alley songs stereotyping the Irish, the Italians and the Jews -- to the giddy revues of the '20s, the movie musicals of the '30s, the book musicals of '40s Broadway, and the increasingly marginal role played by Berlin's kind of music in the '50s and afterward. ''The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin'' is an essential volume for anyone who loves American popular song.

Songs and Their Singers, Part Three

In commenting on Wilfrid Sheed's book, I pointed out that he had omitted Kurt Weill. This review, which originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, makes the case for Weill.

KURT WEILL ON STAGE: From Berlin to Broadway
By Foster Hirsch
Limelight, 416 pp., $20 paperback

Kurt Weill led two lives, and Foster Hirsch looks at both of them in ''Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway.'' There was Weill the classically trained composer, who teamed up with Bertolt Brecht in the avant-garde of the Weimar Republic and gave the world ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Mahagonny.'' And there was Weill the Broadway composer, whose musical collaborations with the likes of Maxwell Anderson, Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash and Alan Jay Lerner paved the way for the achievements of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

For once, Fitzgerald's much-quoted line about there being no second acts in American lives doesn't seem to apply. Weill's second act was his life in America, which he embraced with the enthusiasm of someone who had found the promised land: At his death in 1950 he was planning a series of musical works drawn from American literature and had started work on songs for a musical version of ''Huckleberry Finn.'' (I think maybe I'm glad we were spared Weill's proposed musical based on ''Moby-Dick.'')

In 1946, Weill had written a letter in protest when Life magazine referred to him as a ''German composer.'' But there were those who thought the move to America in 1935, and the subsequent involvement with Broadway, deprived music of a serious composer. (On the other hand, remaining in Europe would likely have deprived music entirely of Weill, who was Jewish.)

Virgil Thomson was among those who thought Weill was slumming. In an article for the New York Herald-Tribune in 1941 about Weill's biggest American hit, ''Lady in the Dark,'' Thomson lamented that Weill was no longer working with writers of the quality of Brecht, and even suggested that the strengths of ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Mahagonny'' had been Brecht's words, not Weill's music. In those works, Thomson noted, Weill was ''parodying cheap sentiment,'' but Thomson found his music for ''Lady in the Dark'' ''just as banal as before, but its banality expresses nothing.'' (It may be worth noting that Thomson had also panned ''Porgy and Bess'' -- he was not particularly tolerant of composers straying from what he saw as their proper spheres.)

In the new book, Hirsch aims to rehabilitate Weill's post-Berlin reputation -- not without some difficulty. For none of Weill's works for the American theater has been as enduring as the mordant ''Threepenny Opera,'' which, in Hirsch's words, ''is one of the great theatre works of the twentieth century.'' In contrast, Weill's most successful Broadway show, ''Lady in the Dark,'' Hirsch admits, ''has slipped into a historical limbo from which it is likely never to emerge.'' Still, the fault is not Weill's: The book for the show, by Moss Hart, has dated badly -- it's filled with Hart's naive enthusiasm for the wonders of psychoanalysis and a sexist condescension toward career women.

Most of us will never see a Weill show -- ''Johnny Johnson,'' ''Knickerbocker Holiday,'' ''One Touch of Venus'' and ''Love Life'' have fallen into that limbo of theatrical non-performance with ''Lady in the Dark.'' Only ''Street Scene'' and ''Lost in the Stars'' are occasionally revived, usually in the opera house. (Weill, who was bowled over by seeing ''Porgy and Bess'' shortly after arriving in America, wanted to create American operas that existed, as Gershwin's does, on the boundaries between the operatic and musical stages.)

Still, Hirsch argues that Weill's artistry remained high and his influence was profound: ''No other Broadway composer except Stephen Sondheim has been to so deep and true a degree a collaborative dramatist, and no other Broadway composer except Leonard Bernstein (with a leaner catalogue) has so successfully closed the distance between the concert hall and the musical theatre.'' (Um, well, what about George Gershwin?)

Today, Weill's reputation rests not on the shows but on the songs he wrote for them. We may have forgotten ''Knickerbocker Holiday,'' but almost everyone knows at least one number from it: ''September Song,'' probably in one of the three near-definitive renditions of it by Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra

The most famous interpreter of Weill's songs was his wife, Lotte Lenya. Hirsch reports that Lenya was once asked how her husband's music should be sung. '' 'The way I sing it,' she snapped.'' But wonderful as Lenya's performances are -- her vibrato sets up a buzz in the brain -- Weill's songs have been persuasively performed by an impressive variety of artists, from opera singers such as Teresa Stratas and Dawn Upshaw to non-singers like Walter Huston and Gertrude Lawrence, the star of ''Lady in the Dark,'' whom Hirsch describes as ''the poorest singer who ever became a major musical-theatre star.''

Lotte Lenya in Die Dreigroschenoper

If you have doubts about Weill's gift as a composer of songs, listen to performances like the young Tony Bennett's ecstatic 1956 recording of ''Lost in the Stars.'' Or Lena Horne singing with a voice made of velvet about sails made of silk in ''My Ship.'' Or the wonderful melding of Carmen McRae's slight astringency of tone with the seductive vocal line of ''Speak Low.'' And Judy Garland, whose forte was heartbreak, never found a better vehicle for showing it off than ''It Never Was You.''

As the title suggests, the book is very much about Weill's life in the theater; Hirsch is particularly good about putting Weill's theatrical career in context -- he tells us what else was playing on Broadway alongside Weill's shows. But the composer's life apart from his work doesn't command much of Hirsch's attention. In part, this may be because Weill didn't have a particularly colorful private life. But he was surrounded with people -- Brecht, Anderson, Hart, Lawrence, Lerner, Elia Kazan and others -- who were colorful enough that the book never entirely bogs down into ''and then he wrote'' cataloging.

Weill's relationship with Lenya, his one and only wife, could be fractious -- each had extramarital affairs. But they were devoted to each other in their fashion, so much so that Hirsch's book goes on well beyond Weill's death to document Lenya's efforts to keep his music alive until her own death in 1981.

Hirsch has picked up the torch from her, and I think he's succeeded. If you're like me, his book will send you in search of forgotten and previously unheard performances.

Songs and Their Singers, Part Two

This review originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

STARDUST MELODY: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
By Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford, 432 pp., $19.95 paperback

STARDUST MELODIES: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs
By Will Friedwald
Chicago Review Press, 397 pp., $16.95 paperback

Two books, good ones, with almost the same title: ''Stardust Melody,'' a biography of Hoagy Carmichael, and ''Stardust Melodies,'' a look at a dozen classic American popular songs. Don't publishers read each other's catalogs?

Both titles allude to Mitchell Parish's lyrics to Carmichael's ''Star Dust'' -- a song about the way music takes hold of memory. And both books put Carmichael squarely at the center of the great flowering of American popular song that took place from 1920 to 1950. There were composers of the period who were more skilled (George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington), more prolific (Irving Berlin), more sophisticated (Cole Porter). But Carmichael songs like ''Star Dust,'' ''Georgia on My Mind,'' ''Skylark'' and ''The Nearness of You'' stand up to their best.

At an age when other composers were doing apprenticeships on Broadway or Tin Pan Alley, Carmichael was a jazz-mad Kappa Sig at Indiana University, a piano-pounder seeking out any gig he and his cronies could get at Prohibition-era parties -- the Jazz Age in full Midwestern flower. It's the Midwestern character of his music that sets him apart from other major American songwriters of the period: He wasn't Jewish or black or a New Yorker. Even Porter, who like Carmichael was from Indiana, made his reputation by turning himself into the quintessential sophisticated New Yorker and by consciously attempting to write what he called ''Jewish music.''

Carmichael chose a different course: The laid-back quality of much of his music suggests small-town America, not Manhattan. In Richard Sudhalter's view, ''Hoagy Carmichael's songs can evoke place and time as vividly as the work of Edward Hopper or Sinclair Lewis, the essays of H.L. Mencken, or the humor of Will Rogers. But they're not period pieces. They deal with eternal things: youth and age, life and death, a longing for home.''

Carmichael occasionally got sidetracked into Norman Rockwelliana -- saccharine, nostalgic songs like ''Little Old Lady'' and ''Can't Get Indiana off My Mind'' -- and even some of his good songs, like ''Rockin' Chair'' and ''Lazybones,'' now offend many people with their racial stereotypes -- a reminder that Carmichael was of an age when minstrelsy still informed white Americans' images of black people. But his great strength as a songwriter was in his ability to write songs that told stories.

He wasn't restricted by the need to pigeonhole his songs into the plot of a Broadway show -- his one Broadway song score was for a 1940 flop, ''Walk With Music'' -- so he could regularly follow his storytelling instincts. He didn't write simple love songs, Sudhalter observes: ''excepting 'The Nearness of You,' the only love songs for which Hoagy Carmichael is known include a song about a song about love ('Star Dust'), about love as symbolized by a bird ('Skylark'), about the memory of love ('I Get Along Without You Very Well'), and about the effects of a wayward eye on an avian love relationship ('Baltimore Oriole').''

Sudhalter asserts that ''Except for Duke Ellington, whose primary activity was not songwriting, Carmichael is arguably the only major tunesmith whose musical roots are discernibly in jazz.'' ''Arguably'' indeed: Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen also come to mind. But as a jazz musician himself, Sudhalter is well qualified to analyze Carmichael's music, and he fills ''Stardust Melody'' with authoritative technical discussions of it.

Sudhalter is a solid biographer, too. Though he's working under the watchful eye of Carmichael's two sons, he doesn't let them turn his book into either a heart-tugger or a Daddy Dearest tell-all. You learn about Carmichael's feckless father and doting mother, and about his sometimes hand-to-mouth childhood -- he once referred to his family as ''poor white trash.'' And that he could be a crabby and difficult parent and wasn't the easiest person to be married to. But Sudhalter isn't interested in draining the swamp of Carmichael's psyche. His main interest is how, when, where and with whom Carmichael wrote music.

Of ''Star Dust,'' the song that links these two books, Sudhalter says, ''No other song even begins to challenge its unique primacy as a kind of informal national anthem.'' Will Friedwald says ''its construction, its history, and its unique place in the celestial firmament of essential American music stamp it as a song like no other.''

The construction, history and place in what he calls the ''celestial firmament'' (is there any other kind of firmament?) of 12 great popular songs is the subject of Friedwald's informative and witty book. In addition to ''Star Dust,'' he discusses ''St. Louis Blues,'' ''Mack the Knife,'' ''Ol' Man River,'' ''Body and Soul,'' ''I Got Rhythm,'' ''As Time Goes By,'' ''Night and Day,'' ''Stormy Weather,'' ''Summertime'' and ''Lush Life.''

Friedwald's other books include ''Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art'' and ''Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond,'' and he was co-author on Tony Bennett's memoir, ''The Good Life.'' So naturally this book contains critiques of recordings by the greats -- Bennett and Sinatra, as well as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and others.

He also pays attention to such undervalued performers as Bobby Darin (whose ''Mack the Knife'' Friedwald calls ''one of the great pop records of all time''), Martha Raye (yes, she of the denture cream commercials -- he cites her recording of ''Ol' Man River,'' though he surprisingly overlooks her intense ''Body and Soul''), Kate Smith (for her ''especially frisky'' 1930 version of ''I Got Rhythm'') and Vic Damone (a ''master'' who unfortunately leaves songs ''bereft of irony or the deeper meaning that Sinatra always finds,'' but whose ''My Funny Valentine'' is ''the best pop version after Sinatra'').

Bobby Darin

And he likes to raise a few hackles. Barbra Streisand lovers will wince at his faint praise for her recording of ''As Time Goes By'' made in 1964 -- ''back in the days when she still knew what a good song was (and was able to convince us that she also knew what things like sighs and kisses were).'' And he has no taste for rock singers reworking the classics: U2's ''overlong and overbaked treatment'' of ''Night and Day,'' he says, ''seems deliberately designed to camouflage the inescapable fact that nobody involved in the production can sing or play an instrument.'' And of Janis Joplin's ''infamous'' version of ''Summertime'' he comments, ''Joplin's sound is raw and powerful -- but, then, the same thing could be said about a sledgehammer.''


Janis Joplin

The criticisms are just, but while neither version is one I'd want to have on a desert island -- that would be Astaire's or Fitzgerald's ''Night and Day'' and Vaughan's or Leontyne Price's ''Summertime'' -- I have to admit that I enjoy the obsessive-propulsiveness of U2's rendition and the sheer intensity of Joplin's. But then arguing with the criticisms is most of the fun of books like this one.

Ella Fitzgerald

Sarah Vaughan

I wish ''Stardust Melodies'' had musical notation and the full text of the lyrics, and an index would be nice -- it's not just that it's frustrating to comb back through the book in search of comments on a performer, but Friedwald's book is so full of good stuff that I kept being distracted and forgetting what I was looking for.

And in the end, it occurs to me that the look-alike titles of these books are so appropriate as to be almost inevitable. For the best popular music is both elemental and ephemeral -- like stardust.

Songs and Their Singers, Part One

One of the things I miss about being a book section editor is getting to assign myself books about things that particularly interest me. One of them is the classic American popular song. Fortunately, I was able to persuade Fritz Lanham at the Houston Chronicle to let me review this very good book on the subject.

THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty
By Wilfrid Sheed
Random House, 335 pp., $29.95

What could be nicer than a book with its own soundtrack? Even if you have to play it in your head.

Wilfrid Sheed’s “The House That George Built” is a celebration of what Sheed calls “far and away our greatest contribution to the world’s art supply in the so-called American Century.” And by the time you’ve read through his book and listened to – if only in memory – the hundreds of songs he alludes to, you’ll have to admit that the American popular song, the “standards, which were almost all written from 1925 to 1950,” constitutes a formidable cultural legacy.

Sheed devotes chapters to the “big five” – Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers – as well as to the man many of us think of as the big sixth, Harold Arlen. And to Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane and Cy Coleman, taking in many other music masters along the way. Sheed’s approach to them is loosely biographical, which keeps the book from being an unabashed celebration, especially since so many of these lives were often contradictory to the spirit of the music they wrote. Rodgers, for example, was a dour, gloomy, sometimes malicious man, not at all the kind to grow mushy about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. (In fact, the Rodgers dealt with in the book is mostly the one who composed for the sharply witty Lorenz Hart, not the one who added sweet sounds to Oscar Hammerstein’s often saccharine lyrics.)

But this is also an informal cultural history of the golden age of the American popular song, a splendid edifice whose framework was raised by Gershwin, using the tools of his training in classical music, atop the foundation laid by Berlin in Tin Pan Alley. There were, in fact, twin towers of popular song: One rose on Broadway, the other in Hollywood, and Sheed is shrewd and eloquent in discussing how the two environments shaped the music.

Sheed is always eloquent, of course. He has been so through nine books of fiction and 12 volumes of history, biography and criticism. And he needs to be particularly eloquent in writing about these musicians and their songs. No one can really top the eloquence of the lyrics of Berlin, Porter, Mercer, Hart, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields and so on. Yet Sheed has a special gift for putting into words exactly what distinguishes a given songwriter. For example, he asserts that “Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it.” It’s easy to find the division in Carmichael’s soul in a song like “Georgia on My Mind,” which elicits so many different emotions from so many different singers: Billie Holiday makes it seductive, “a song of you”; Ray Charles emphasizes the anguish, “no peace I find”; Willie Nelson turns it obsessive, repeating “on my mind” again and again.

Sheed is an enthusiast of the genre, and that sometimes causes him to turn cheerleader, to make bold pronouncements. Some of them are hard to argue with: Berlin is “perhaps our most gifted original musician.” Others are shrewd: On Gershwin’s reception in Europe, he says, “If the Old World wanted anything from us at all it was modernity, and Gershwin was as modern as a skyscraper.” Some are merely interestingly impressionistic: “Whatever the essence of this music is, Harold Arlen had the most of it.” And sometimes Sheed wanders into contradiction. In the chapter on Kern, he says that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is “perhaps his greatest song ever.” Yet only seven pages later, he calls “All the Things You Are” “this greatest of American songs.” But like another enthusiast, Walt Whitman, Sheed is entitled to contradict himself.

Any lover of the genre is likely to find flaws and quibble with any book by another lover of the genre. So it’s possible to say that Sheed doesn’t do enough to credit the singers who established these songs in our heads and hearts. He does single out the two most obvious ones: Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and Kern would have found greatness without Astaire, but he made it easier for them, just as he made everything look easy. And Sinatra carried on the tradition, giving Van Heusen a boost in the process. (Van Heusen returned the favor: As Sheed puts it, Sinatra’s “singing seemed to get wiser as his life got sillier and more childish.”) But one could wish that Sheed had turned more of his eloquence to the contributions made by others, such as Ethel Merman for Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, or Judy Garland for Arlen, who provided the anthems that bracketed her career: “Over the Rainbow” at the beginning, “The Man That Got Away” near the end.

And there’s one signal omission from the book: Kurt Weill. Perhaps it’s because Weill began his career as a “serious” musician in Germany, then moved into cabaret theater in his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, and didn’t make it to America and Broadway until after the rise of Hitler. But surely Weill’s American songs – including “September Song,” “Speak Low,” “Lost in the Stars,” “It Never Was You” and “My Ship” – are as sturdy as any of the other standards in the book. Plus Weill worked with such echt American lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner and Ogden Nash. And if anything validates Sheed’s assertion of the powerful international cultural contribution of American popular music, it’s Weill’s “Morit’at,” which infused American jazz into “Die Dreigroschenoper,” composed in 1928 Berlin, then came back across the Atlantic to be transformed into “Mack the Knife,” a 1950s hit for the all-American likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.

But the main point to be made about Sheed’s book is that there’s richness in it, and it will have you humming, whistling or downloading tunes while you read.
To illustrate what I said above, here are three versions of "Georgia on My Mind." I couldn't find a video of Billie Holiday's version, but I doubt that anyone will object to Ella Fitzgerald's:
Ray Charles
Willie Nelson

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

(Almost) All You Need Is Love

After I posted about Heroes last night, I realized that what I really meant to say is that I feel that the creators of TV shows like it demonstrate a kind of commitment to the material that I often don't sense from the creators of Hollywood action movies. The commitment you sense in such movies almost always seems to come from the actors -- I think especially Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean series -- who succeed when they manifest a love of the character. But too often the directors either don't share this love or give their actors the room to show it off. In Heroes I sense a commitment on the part of actors, directors, and especially writers -- that they really love these absurd, improbable characters they're creating.

The artist's love for his or her creation is what makes, for example, Dickens superior to Thackeray: Dickens loved his characters; Thackeray treated them -- even referred to them -- as puppets. You can feel this kind of love at work in the movies of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, John Ford, Steven Spielberg and (at his best, as in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby) Clint Eastwood. In Hitchcock's movies it's often a perverse love -- but it's still love.

When it's not there, the movie or the TV show or the novel feels mechanical and inert. It may amuse or entertain nevertheless, but it doesn't get at the essence of art. Which is not to say that loving your characters automatically produces great art. Sometimes it devolves into sentimentality, which is what some people fault Dickens for -- and what I fault, say, Frank Capra for. Sometimes the creators love the characters well but not wisely, which produces a sloppy mess of a show like Grey's Anatomy.

And of course I wouldn't call Heroes great art, but the feeling of affection for the characters that I get from the show lifts it above the routine. It helps me get over the show's often loopy exposition. How the hell, for example, did Hiro ever get Adam into that casket? Maybe we'll find out when the show resumes, though I suspect the explanation will be less than satisfactory.

Meanwhile, I don't believe for a moment that Nathan is really dead. The show loves him too much. Maybe Matt made him wear a Kevlar undershirt.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Now, Voyager

This review appeared recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words
Edited by Michael Hoffman
New York Review Books, 512 pp., $24.95

Malcolm Lowry has a reputation as a one-book wonder, even though he published two novels in his lifetime, and volumes of stories, poems, letters and uncompleted novels followed his death. But as he wrote in a poem titled “After the Publication of ‘Under the Volcano,’” “Success is like some horrible disaster.”

If Lowry regarded the success of “Under the Volcano” as a disaster, it was because he dreamed of a larger success, in which that great novel would become part of a multi-volume magnum opus based – at least in one of his imaginings of it – on Dante’s “Divina Commedia.” “Under the Volcano” would be the “Inferno,” to be followed by a “Purgatorio” and a “Paradiso.”

But Dante’s epic was a voyage with an end in view. Lowry’s voyage, as the title of Michael Hoffman’s artfully selected collection of stories, poems, drafts and letters suggests, was not the kind to have an ending. Even Lowry’s death in 1957, when he was only 48, has something inconclusive about it: The coroner ruled it a “death by misadventure,” unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally.

In two of the stories Hoffman includes in this collection, Lowry alludes to a now mostly forgotten play by Sutton Vane, “Outward Bound,” which takes place on board a ship. An alcoholic young man is the first to recognize that he and the other passengers are all dead and facing a judgment whether their voyage is to heaven or to hell. Vane’s sentimental fantasy seems to have stuck with Lowry as a metaphor for his own wanderings, which took him not only to the Mexico that provided the phantasmagoric background for “Under the Volcano,” but also to a beachfront shack near Vancouver, where he did the finishing work on that novel.

Many of the stories in Hoffman’s book are about journeys, including the original “Under the Volcano,” a short story that was reworked into Chapter VIII of the novel, in which Hugh, Yvonne and the Consul take a harrowing bus ride through the Mexican countryside. In the story “Through the Panama,” the novelist Sigbjørn Wilderness, Lowry’s improbably named alter ego, travels from Vancouver to Rotterdam via the Panama Canal; in the Atlantic, the ship is caught in a terrible storm, and much of the voyage is narrated with side-notes in the manner of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

But the story titled “China” perhaps best underscores the sense of futility that underlies so much of the restless journeying in Lowry’s stories. The young narrator is obviously modeled on the young Malcolm, who postponed his entrance to Cambridge University to work as a deck hand on a ship bound for Asia. He tells us “I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. … Haven’t you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else … it is always you.”

For Lowry, the means of breaking down the wall between the self and the world was alcohol. He disastrously came to rely too much on the muse in the bottle, but not before she inspired him to literature’s best-known portrayal of the D.T.’s – or as Lowry put it, in one of the Joycean puns he delighted in, “delowryum tremens.” (He also referred to one of his journeys as a “tooloose-Lowry-trek.” ) But the alcoholic writer is caught in a bind, as Lowry himself observed: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can’t put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. … When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”

Lowry did find a brief spell of peace and stability in the middle of his life, when he and his wife, Margerie, settled in a shack on a coastal inlet near Vancouver. The experience there is beautifully recounted in the story “The Forest Path to the Spring,” an idyll that evokes Thoreau and, in its fascinated and lyrical observation of nature, D.H. Lawrence – without Lawrence’s incessant sermonizing. The story contrasts remarkably to the tragic course of “Under the Volcano.” Lowry’s narrator says that he writes about the experience “in the Montaigne-like belief … that the experience of one happy man might be useful.”

One doesn’t usually think of Lowry as a happy man. But thanks to Hoffman’s collection, we can now think of him as sometimes just that. And also as a deeply insecure man, fretting about the fact that another novel about alcoholism, Charles Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend,” had appeared before the publication of “Under the Volcano,” or boasting in a letter asking his brother, Stuart, for money that he was “the only Canadian writer ever to be placed in the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He was English and never became a Canadian citizen. It may have pleased him to be a big fish in what was then a very small literary pond.) He could be proudly defensive, as in his long, brilliant letter to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape, in which he responds to the criticisms of the manuscript of “Under the Volcano” set down by one of the publishing house’s readers. It’s an essential companion to reading that novel.

But most of all this anthology reveals Lowry as writer – a witty, tormented, frustrated, keenly observant writer, engaged with the world and always compelled to account for his painfully uneasy place in it.

Monday Night on the Tube

The hemi-season finale of Heroes -- or the full-season finale if the writers' strike doesn't get settled -- reminded me oddly of why I don't go to the movies anymore. For the movies have become so dominated by digital special effects that such niceties as plot and characterization get lost. Heroes keeps us hooked with its characters, even though most of them don't make a lot of real-world sense. And because, unlike most movies, it doesn't have to worry about telling a complete story in two hours, it can afford genuine suspense and surprise: Sylar's got his mojo back! Nathan's dead! Adam's buried alive!

The second night of Tin Man was for me rather more engaging than the first, largely because we didn't have to spend so much time spotting parallels with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (Though there was a nicely witty spin on the MGM version's "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" and the Toto-shapeshifter character was a clever idea.) Alan Cumming is, as usual, terrific, and Neal McDonough is quite moving as the tormented "tin man." Still, the miniseries seems a little padded out, and I still don't understand what the point of translating one fantasy into another is.