Saturday, January 30, 2010

February 2

It's Groundhog Day! (By the way, I can't believe that PETA is proposing that Punxsatawney Phil be replaced with a "robot groundhog." Or rather, I should say, I can believe it: typical media bait.)

The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, ashamed of an unsupported observation he once committed to print, reminded himself that "I should never generalize, even for a moment, about any author, *all* of whose works are not clearly in my mind." It's a very tough standard; even if one has experienced all or almost all of a creator's works (a rare enough occurrence in itself), are they all clear in one's mind? Even if one relaxed Brooks's standard to 75% of a creator's works, still, there is almost no one I should be generalizing about, ever. I can't live within that stricture, of course, but I should try not to forget it, either. And I admire Brooks for raising the issue, at his own expense.

This is kind of an interesting concept -- the Thirty Best "Long Tail" Films of the Decade:

There is a new film coming out of a relatively obscure posthumous Philip K. Dick novel, Radio Free Albemuth:

Bas Jan Ader is new to me: a Dutch conceptual artist who died in 1975 as part of a performance piece. Unintentionally, but still. Chris Burden had himself shot, starved, and crucified, but he never died.

Mid-20th century American composer Henry Cowell, who had a dizzying array of sonic interests, is due for rediscovery and may actually be getting it:

There's currently a show in New York dedicated to another rediscovery candidate, Mary Webb, whose memory is being kept alive by an enthusiastic couple, Mary and Bruce Crawford. This New York Times piece shows that there is plenty of meaningful work that "amateur literary historians" can undertake:

Among notables born on this date are violinists Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, novelist James Joyce, poets James Dickey and Pavol Hviezdoslav (Slovakia), musical theater composer Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow), jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, comedian Tom Smothers, singer Eva Cassidy, rocker Graham Nash, conductor Andrew Davis, and actors Elaine Stritch, Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead), and Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation). I remember the first time I heard Kreisler's 1926 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (he made another in 1936), and it not only took my breath away, it actually made me cry, it was so damned beautiful.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

February 1

Dear South Carolina: Would you please secede from the United States again? No one will stop you this time. Promise.

More politics: Although I haven't been President Obama's biggest fan lately, I must admit that his appearance at the Georgetown/Duke basketball game on Saturday was strategically brilliant. POTUS has been seeming a little distant lately, so what better way to recapture his regular guy vibe? We know he loves hoops, so there was nothing overly forced about this excursion; but it was very well staged, with the crowd-mingling, the commentary for CBS, and the array of other notables present -- Rahm Emanuel, Adrian Fenty, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod. Having Obama and Joe Biden sit side by side must have given the Secret Service palpitations, but they looked relaxed and like they were having a great time, and given the national gloom of late, putting that image out there is worth the security nightmare. It was a photo op, yes, but it was also the first time recently that I've gotten the sense that the President's team knows what they're doing. Now if they could just get Tim Geithner to stop appearing before Congressional committees....

The New Zealand crime fiction blog Crime Watch has an interesting post on pioneering Kiwi mystery writer Fergus Hume and his once best-selling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab:

A Journey Round My Skull has discovered a Ukrainian painter and illustrator, Issachar Ryback, who has a nice hand with animals:

Carlin Romano at the Chronicle of Higher Education pays tribute to two recently departed philosophers, Stephen Toulmin and John E. Smith:

Among notables born on this date are novelists Muriel Spark, Reynolds Price, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (Russia), poets Langston Hughes, Galway Kinnell, Gunter Eich (Germany), and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Austria), humorist S.J. Perelman, Monty Python member Terry Jones, soprano Renata Tebaldi, jazz pianist James P. Johnson, jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, film directors John Ford and George Pal, composers Victor Herbert and Camargo Guarnieri (Brazil), and actors Clark Gable, Sherilynn Fenn, Linus Roache, and Michael C. Hall. In addition to his well-known prose pieces, S.J. Perelman wrote a wonderful play, The Beauty Part, which starred the incomparable Bert Lahr in multiple roles and premiered on Broadway in 1962. It had the misfortune to open (and close) during a four-month-long New York newspaper strike, effectively putting the kibosh (as Perelman himself might say) on a now-legendary production, which got no reviews in the halted papers and could not place ads in them either. The text can be read in Marilyn Stasio's superb compilation Broadway's Beautiful Losers, which gathers five excellent plays that failed on Broadway, along with Stasio's essays on them. Three of the plays are masterpieces -- The Beauty Part, Saul Bellow's The Last Analysis, and Jack Richardson's Xmas in Las Vegas.

January 31

Concept for an animated series:

The Legal Beavers -- Two litigating rodents represent the animals of the forest in environmental class action suits and other matters, assisted by their trusty para-weasels!

I had this idea some 25 years ago, actually, and a friend who was an amateur cartoonist did a concept sketch for me of a pinstriped beaver carrying a briefcase. It looked great.

Speaking of cute titles, how about a new German novel called Axolotl Roadkill? I eagerly await the translation:

Here is one of the more offbeat ten best films of the decade lists that I've seen:

The Millions, in its "Difficult Books" series, offers a helpful reading by Garth Risk Hallberg of Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor. Loving Nabokov's Pale Fire as I do, I really ought to tackle this novel:

Animalarium brightens my day with bird art:

Levi Stahl at I've Been Reading Lately ponders the subtleties of translation by concentrating on different versions of one short phrase in War and Peace. I really liked this:

Among notables born on this date are baseball players Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Nolan Ryan, singers Eddie Cantor and Mario Lanza, bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, composers Franz Schubert, Francois Devienne, and Philip Glass, monk and memoirist Thomas Merton, graphic novelist Grant Morrison, Western novelist Zane Grey, folk musicologist Alan Lomax, film director Derek Jarman, Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten, novelists John O'Hara, Norman Mailer, and Kenzaburo Oe (Japan), and actors Tallulah Bankhead, Carol Channing, Lynn Carlin, Jean Simmons, Suzanne Pleshette, and Anthony LaPaglia. A lot of favorites of mine today! I saw a reference the other day, in Louis Auchincloss's Times obituary, to the greatly gifted and enormously cranky John O'Hara, who tended to get very cross when he felt people were not giving him his due, which was always. You could have given the guy the Nobel Prize for Literature every week and that wouldn't have satisfied him; why didn't you give it last year? Auchincloss, who worked similar socio-economic turf to O'Hara, gave the older novelist offense:

Some critics compared [Auchincloss] with other modern novelists of manners like John O'Hara and J. P. Marquand. In an essay in The Nation in 1960, Mr. Auchincloss said both O'Hara and Marquand had illusions about the resiliency and endurance of American social classes and hierarchies. O'Hara wrote him, saying: "You obviously have not read all my novels, and I have not read one of yours. I don't know anything about your importance as a lawyer, but in my league you are a still a batboy, and 43 is pretty old for a batboy." Over the years Mr. Auchincloss would send his reviews to O'Hara with a cover letter signed, "Batboy." O'Hara was not amused.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 30

I like Elie Mystal of Above the Law's comment on New Orleans: "City still recovering from tragedy + Beloved football team + Superbowl - Open container laws = Mass freaking hysteria."

The Neglected Books Page, a truly excellent website, draws my attention to a project by science fiction novelist Jo Walton to uncover worthy but obscure science fiction and fantasy:

In a lengthy two-part essay at The Quarterly Conversation, John Domini discusses the lack of respect that mainstream American critics pay to non-conventional American fiction (they're a little more forgiving with foreigners) and offers three examples of helpful approaches to specific non-realist novels. This is an attractive piece, written in good spirits and crucially not using "experimental" fiction as a cudgel to bash conventional realist fiction (although many supporters of the conventional have done the reverse, as the essay details). "I come in peace," Domini writes; "my analysis intends to reveal how John Barth and Tom Wolfe might shake hands."

British novelist Tiffany Murray offers a nice list of the Top Ten Rock'n'Roll Novels, several of them unfamiliar to me. Props to Murray for including Wuthering Heights on the grounds that Heathcliff is "flinty, elemental, feral, beautiful, violent, mad, gothic, and so very, very rock n' roll." I'll buy that.

A Journey Round My Skull highlights the work of artist/musician Graham Lambkin. It is worth clicking through to the earlier posts on Lambkin at the same blog, and from all the posts to the various Lambkin links:

The New York Times tries to explain what's up with the foreign language Oscar. I think they run a variant on this article every year:

Among notables born on this date are composers Thomas Tallis, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Charles Martin Loeffler, historian Barbara Tuchman, theatrical producer Hal Prince, German architect Johann Baltasar Neumann, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, novelists Richard Brautigan, Shirley Hazzard (Australia), and A.H. Tammsaare (Estonia), poets Adalbert von Chamisso (Germany), Les Barker (England) and Nikolai Glazkov (Russia), children's author Lloyd Alexander, science fiction novelist Gregory Benford, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge, actors John Ireland, Gene Hackman, and Vanessa Redgrave, and golfer Payne Stewart. Stewart, who died bizarrely in a 1999 incident in which a private jet lost cabin pressure, is one of my sartorial heroes for his unique, impeccable, and historic fashion sense on the golf course. He revived the tradition of wearing plus-fours and flat caps and gave it his own additional spin through spirited color coordination. The PGA now gives an annual award in his name to "a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, commitment to uphold the game's heritage of charitable support and professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct."

January 29

Duncan Sheik's and Kyle Jarrow's new musical Whisper House, premiering in San Diego, sounds precisely to my taste. A historical ghost story set in a lighthouse? I'm there (or would be, if I lived in San Diego):

Elsewhere in the Southern California musical theater scene, the Long Beach Opera -- which sounds like a truly enterprising company along the lines of the great Chicago Opera Theater -- has revived Robert Kurka's The Good Soldier Schweik, based on the classic Czech novel by Jaroslav Hasek:

Would you believe that there is a new film of The Donner Party with Crispin Glover in the lead? This makes all kinds of sense to me. In my Donner dreams, Crispin always appears:

Levi Asher of the blog Literary Kicks doesn't think the New York Times is serious about its proposed paywall:

RIP: J.D. Salinger. What can one say? The Catcher in the Rye holds up beautifully, and will always boast one of the greatest uses of first-person narration in world fiction. Who was it that said that Dickens's characters were "realer" than many real people you meet? Holden Caulfield is like that. The Salinger saga got murky as time went on, of course -- did he lose his inspiration? was he just impossibly eccentric? It will be interesting to see if any of the writing he had reportedly been working on privately for decades comes to light; I wouldn't count on it (he probably left provisions concerning this in his will), but you never can tell.

Among notables born on this date are Russian playwright and story writer Anton Chekhov, Founding Father Thomas Paine, President William McKinley, composers Frederick Delius, Havergal Brian, Daniel Auber, and Luigi Nono, Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, painters Barnett Newman, Colin Middleon (Ireland), and Julio Peris Brell (Spain), poet Muna Lee, playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, novelists Edward Abbey, Vicente Blasco Ibanez, and Romain Rolland, broadcaster Oprah Winfrey, critic Germaine Greer, and actors W.C. Fields, Victor Mature, John Forsythe, Tom Selleck, Terry Kinney, Edward Burns, and Heather Graham. There is a first-rate website devoted to the work of Julio Peris Brell (1866-1944), with a wonderful image gallery and even an apt guitar soundtrack. The text is all in Spanish, but is not difficult to make out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 28

Matt Taibbi vs. David Brooks, Round 17 or 18, I don't know, but I think Taibbi scores a knockout here:

The Onion AV Club is doing a nice job of covering Sundance with critics Noel Murray and Nathan Rabin:

The 28-year-old mandolinist Chris Thile, who plays with and across musical genres, sounds like an exciting talent in this review (and a little exploration on YouTube readily confirms it):

The Los Angeles Times keeps exposing me to artists I want to know more about -- in part because the paper's critics write of them with such enthusiasm. Painter/sculptor Tom LaDuke has a new gallery show reviewed here:

More of LaDuke's work is at the gallery's website:

Over on the other side of the continent, the New York Times is impressed by the work of Indonesian-born Dutch painter Fendry Ekel, who has a show at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art:

Neither the Times nor (perplexingly) the HVCCA website presents enough of the visual evidence for Ekel's distinction. However, the Priska C. Juschka Fine Art gallery in NYC makes up the lack:

RIP: Louis Auchincloss. Auchincloss, who dies at 92, was an underappreciated novelist of manners, concentrating on the New York upper crust and the legal profession (his own milieux). He was also a fine literary appreciator in volumes such as The Man Behind the Book. Naturally I have a friendly feeling towards Auchincloss as a fellow Yalie (his son John was in my Yale class, 1980), and I enjoyed a quotation the New York Times used in its obituary:

I used to say to my father, ‘Everything would be all right if only my class at Yale ran the country.’ Well, they did run the country during the Vietnam War, and look what happened!

No one who enjoys clear, thoughtful social fiction will go amiss by picking up an Auchincloss volume -- he was prolific and there are many -- at the library this week.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Colette, David Lodge, Valentin Katayev (Russia), Marthe Bibesco (Romania), and Ismail Kadare (Albania), Cuban poet Jose Marti, German dramatist Johann Elias Schlegel, Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, painter Jackson Pollock, sculptor Claes Oldenburg, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, film directors Ernst Lubitsch, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Frank Darabont, theologian Thomas Aquinas, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, actor Alan Alda, rapper Rakim, and composer John Tavener. When I was reading Russian literature in college, one of my most enjoyable discoveries was Katayev's Time, Forward!, about a Soviet industrial competition. How a factory novel can be sprightly may be hard to imagine, but this one surely is.

January 27

Michael Winterbottom's version of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is kicking up a ruckus at Sundance (scroll down for links to reviews):

Without having seen the film yet, obviously, it seems to me that the reviews suggest that everyone likes their movie psychopaths except when they are actually psychopathic. Although I admired Mary Harron's film version of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho quite a bit, there is no doubt that she shied away from making Ellis's brutal descriptions literal on the screen. Winterbottom doesn't seem to have taken that evasive approach with Thompson, so naturally, people are aghast. This will be a hotly debated movie. (By the way, there was an earlier film version of Thompson's novel in 1976, starring Stacy Keach, directed by the usually genial Burt Kennedy.)

The Times (U.K.), as if on cue, just posted a list of film's Top Ten Serial Killers:

The Rap Sheet has put together an excellent tribute to the late Robert B. Parker, consisting of a thoughtful assessment and comments from dozens of crime writers and mavens:

Following up on my birthday comments on Placido Domingo the other day, here is a New York Times salute that compares him to (of all people) Elaine Stritch:

The New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, offers a penetrating article and slideshow on the drawings of the 16th century Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino, all currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum:

Among notables born on this date are composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Edouard Lalo, Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, and Jerome Kern, children's writer Lewis Carroll, novelists Ilya Ehrenburg (Russia), Mikhail von Saltykov-Shchedrin (Russia), Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Germany), and Mordecai Richler (Canada), dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, graphic novelist Frank Miller, broadcaster Keith Olbermann, theater historian Ethan Mordden, French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, American jurist Learned Hand, Ukrainian landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzi, fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, and actors Donna Reed, James Cromwell, and Ingrid Thulin.

When I worked at the record counter at the Doubleday Books at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan in the early Eighties -- the narrow store with its spiral staircase was famously featured in the Barbra Streisand/George Segal movie The Owl and the Pussycat -- Ethan Mordden was a regular and would hang out and chat with all of us. He was writing a column at the time for a New York weekly, and wrote up the store because we carried international musical theater and opera LPs that no one else in town had. All us clerks got shouted out: I was "Ivy League and literary" (which of course pleased me, and was also true).

Arkhip Kuindzi is not nearly well enough known for his landscapes (at least outside eastern Europe) as he ought to be. Here is a fine example, Night on the Dnieper:

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 26

The funniest review in any of Leonard Maltin's movie guides:

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987). Crude live-action kiddie film "inspired" by the popular and controversial bubble-gum cards which feature creatures with names like Greaser Greg and Valerie Vomit. They all live in a garbage pail, where they are destined to be joined by the negative of this movie.

The blog Animalarium offers a tribute to the giraffe:

The New York Times considers Brian Dennehy's quarter-century of work on the Chicago stage:

I remember the first time I saw Dennehy on film, as the bartender in Blake Edwards's "10", and he just glowed. You could tell right away that he was a considerable talent.

The Times also introduces me to the Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan. Be sure to click on the slideshow, it's good (and easy to miss -- the Times should make these sidebars more prominent):

Baan has his own website:

Over at the Los Angeles Times, here is a blog post on a gallery show of drawings by Ginny Bishton that demonstrate an interesting visual sensibility:

The arts blogging at the Los Angeles Times is first-rate in general; I pick up a lot of knowledge from it.

You can see a lot more of Bishton's work at the gallery's website (click on "Images"):

Among notables born on this date are children's author Mary Mapes Dodge (Hans Brinker), cartoonist Jules Feiffer, science fiction novelist Philip Jose Farmer, fantasy novelist Jonathan Carroll, conductors Karl Ristenpart and Gustavo Dudamel, cellist Jacqueline du Pre, film directors Roger Vadim and Henry Jaglom, poets Achim von Arnim (Germany) and Francois Coppee (France), Dutch novelist and essayist Menno ter Braak, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, singer Anita Baker, hockey player Wayne Gretzky, and actors Scott Glenn, David Strathairn, and Paul Newman.

Since there was a lovely illustrated copy of Hans Brinker in my home when I was growing up, it became a favorite book of mine, and I was very taken with its picture of 19th century Holland (the novel was originally published in 1865). Wouldn't you know, Mary Mapes Dodge had never been to Holland when she wrote it -- but she did a lot of research to ensure accuracy, and it certainly feels authentic. Dodge had the kind of pluck she wrote about in her child heroes and heroines; she took up writing to support her family after her lawyer husband committed suicide.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

January 25

In an interview at the website Mortgage Calculator, financial blogger Steve Waldman has plenty interesting to say about the U.S. housing market, the fetishization of home ownership, and the morality of defaulting on loans. His arguments deserve extended quotation:

"A social order that routinely demands heroic sacrifice of people in the name of virtue will fail. Clever hypocrites will be rewarded while naive saints pay, and the overall tenor of society will not be virtuous...There’s a kind of hygiene we have to attend to, in order to ensure that doing well and being good are not terribly inconsistent. Over the past few decades we’ve failed to attend to that hygiene, in large part I think because we let simplistic economic ideas persuade us that we didn’t have to, and that the pursuit of wealth yields virtue automatically and dirty is the new clean...

The financial industry has changed the economic and legal landscape surrounding consumer lending so that it simply bears no resemblance at all to interpersonal loans among people of good will in continuing relationships. But those are the norms they ask borrowers to adopt with respect to repayment. That act, demanding others act in accordance with standards from which one exempts oneself, is morally offensive...It is clear that, in general, banks and the special purpose entities that increasingly replace them treat their transactions with borrowers as hard-nosed business arrangements which they are willing to pursue on adversarial terms when doing so is in their interest. Borrowers should do the same. To do otherwise is to reward the cynical immorality of others, which serves no social good."

After reading all that, you need a little cheering up, right? How about a cartoon? Leonard Maltin in his history of animation Of Mice and Magic mentions that the 1965 Chilly Willy cartoon Half-Baked Alaska is outstanding, but when I first read that reference years ago, it was hard to find specific cartoons. Now, between DVDs and YouTube, it's often a snap. Maltin was right about Half-Baked Alaska -- it's great:

Among notables born on this date are poet Robert Burns, novelists Virginia Woolf and Somerset Maugham, composers Antonio Carlos Jobim (Brazil) and Witold Lutoslawski, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, singer Etta James, Filipino politician Corazon Aquino, Scottish punk poet John Cooper Clarke, Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, and film director Tobe Hooper. When I was first delving into contemporary classical music as a teen in the early Seventies, Lutoslawski and his compatriot Krzysztof Penderecki were the vanguard composers of Poland, and I listened to everything of theirs that I could find. Since no one had ever taught me that this or any other modern music was "difficult" or "unlistenable," I not surprisingly found it thrillingly communicative and absorbing, and still do.

January 24

The blog The Beiderbecke Affair highlights a extremely interesting biographical debate about one of my artistic heroes, jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931):

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has landed its first piece by the startling 18th century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. One glance tells you it's a masterpiece:

The news out of Mexico is so bad these days, with drug traffic deaths piling up and a general state of terror existing in many towns, that it pays to be reminded how beautiful and joyous a country it is at its best. Jim & Carole's Mexico Adventure visits the small city of Colima, and the results are delightful:

I just watched the acclaimed film Moon. Director Duncan Jones and his collaborators deserve great credit for crafting a fine-looking science fiction film on an indy budget, and Sam Rockwell's strong performance makes the movie worth seeing. Unfortunately, both dramatically and visually it feels very second-hand, derived from 2001, THX 1138, and many other sf films of the 1965-1985 period. Decent first feature for Jones, though; he merits encouragement.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Edith Wharton and Santha Rama Rau, German story writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, poet Keith Douglas, playwrights William Congreve and Pierre Beaumarchais, Russian painters Vasily Surikov and Konstantin Bogaevsky, American painter Robert Motherwell, composer Norman Dello Joio, pop musicians Warren Zevon, Neil Diamond, Aaron Neville, and Doug Kershaw, ballerina Maria Tallchief, anthropologist Desmond Morris, film director Henry King, and actors Michael Ontkean, Daniel Auteuil, Natassja Kinski, and John Belushi. It has been a great pleasure in recent years to see Edith Wharton taking her rightful place in public estimation as one of the greatest American novelists; as the critic Martin Seymour-Smith said, her writing is not simply pleasurable, but profound in its insights. Because Wharton was quite prolific, there is still plenty of her output for most readers to discover beyond the well-known, movie-adapted novels; I would single out The Children as a particular joy. It has to do with proto-jet setters of the Roaring Twenties who marry, procreate, divorce, and re-marry with dizzying speed, creating a mixed family of half- and step-siblings who cling to each other because the adults in their lives are completely undependable.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 23

Leave it to the dependable John Kenneth Muir to come up with a much-needed appreciation of Open Water, one of the most under-rated (and bleakest) films of the past decade. I mean, a 5.9 rating at the IMDB? What's up with that? This film still gives me nightmares, quite literally:

The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 27 to February 7. Full information in English is here:

The blog Limitless Cinema, which is indeed limitless and talks about films I have never heard of otherwise, offers an intriguing "Rotterdam Wish List":

The History Blog alerted me to a fascinating project, "A History of the World in 100 Objects" (sounds like Peter Greenaway should have thought of it), co-sponsored by BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum:

A Journey Round My Skull never runs out of great international children's book illustrations:

The New York Times enterprisingly draws on two recent auctions to discuss "Photography's Early and Unsung Pioneers":

Among notables born on this date are novelists Stendhal and J.G. Farrell, poets Derek Walcott and Louis Zukofsky, Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, film director Sergei Eisenstein, painter Edouard Manet, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, Founding Father John Hancock, composer Muzio Clementi, television comedian Ernie Kovacs, and actors Dan Duryea, Jeanne Moreau, Rutger Hauer, and Randolph Scott. Perhaps the moment I am proudest of in my brief career as a professional movie reviewer in the early Eighties is writing a rave review for Blade Runner when it was generally not getting that kind of love. Rutger Hauer's "tears in the rain" speech was the highlight of highlights in a truly great film.

January 22

Since I find most contemporary English-language poetry that I read to be somewhat weak, I was interested to encounter the argument at the PoemShape blog that poetry needs to "die" to be reborn again:

What poetry needs, besides talented practitioners, is vigorous criticism of the sort that Joan Houlihan practices here:

Houlihan's review is genuinely helpful to a common reader like me, especially in being able to talk about the poetry's technical features without losing one not highly trained in them; and when I encounter such help, in literary, music, or art criticism, I am always grateful.

Here is another excellent list of books on Haiti, from Amy Wilentz, who has written one herself:

Actor Jon Hamm of Mad Men has good taste in reading:

Among notables born on this date are essayist Francis Bacon, poets Lord Byron and Howard Moss, dramatists Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and August Strindberg, choreographer George Balanchine, French philosophe Pierre Gassendi, sociologist Beatrice Webb, composer Henri Dutilleux, painter Francis Picabia, soprano Rosa Ponselle, conductor Myung-whun Chung, singer Sam Cooke, film directors D.W. Griffith and Jim Jarmusch, Sex Pistols promoter Malcolm McLaren, pulp writer Robert E. Howard, Gujarati novelist Harilal Upadhyay, crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, and actors Conrad Veidt, Ann Sothern, Balthazar Getty, Seymour Cassel, John Hurt, and Piper Laurie. Quite the array of talent there! I have to pay special tribute to Strindberg, whose plays have profoundly affected me ever since I discovered them in high school. He was a fine novelist and painter, too; no comprehensive history of modernism in the arts could possibly leave him out. I like what Ingmar Bergman said of him, that reading Strindberg can "make your hair stand on end."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21

The blog Pigtown Design, about architecture and design in the greater Baltimore area, is one of the most charming and visually pleasurable sites I've encountered. Here is a post on a refurbished and reopened classic hotel:

The New York Times ran a nice piece on designer Hella Jongerius and her use of color in industrial design:

The blog Curious Pages, which covers "recommended inappropriate books for kids," alerted me to a new edition of The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Graham Rawle, which, Oz-phile that I am, I am delighted to know about. It looks smashing:

Among notables born on this date are literary critics R.P. Blackmur and Louis Menand, Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin, Russian choreographer Igor Moiseyev, French composer Henri Duparc, actors Paul Scofield and Geena Davis, operatic tenor Placido Domingo, golfer Jack Nicklaus, cinematographer and film director Rudolph Mate, Hungarian poet Imre Madach, German novelist Ludwig Thoma, folk singer Richie Havens, and artist Jeff Koons (giant puppies, yeah!). Domingo turns 69 today and is going incredibly strong, singing, conducting, and running two opera companies, the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera. He recently premiered in his first baritone role, Verdi's challenging Simon Boccanegra, which according to Wikipedia is his 128th operatic role -- more than any tenor in history.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January 20

It is David Lynch's 64th birthday today, and frankly, I wouldn't even know where to begin to talk about what Lynch's work has meant to me; friends will know exactly what I mean. David Cairns at Shadowplay offers a fascinating visual essay on Lynch's cinematic influences: has prepared a helpful "cheat sheet" for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival:

A few days after I mentioned Cecil Beaton's diaries, The Diary Junction has an informative post on the subject:

The blog Adelaide in Photos -- yes, there truly is a blog for everything -- brightened my day with a picture of a rare albino kangaroo. I am a sucker for cute animals:

RIP: Robert B. Parker, 1932-2010. Although I fell behind in my Parker reading a while ago and need to catch up -- he could write faster than I could read -- I have always considered him, as I think any reasonable crime fiction fan would, as one of the most significant of modern detective novelists, with a completely engaging voice and a terrific sense of place. I checked my files and noted that I had read the first 11 Spenser novels (from The Judas Goat through Valediction), and of those, the sixth and seventh, Looking for Rachel Wallace and Early Autumn, stand out as especially accomplished and affecting novels (and those two titles were specifically shouted out in some of today's obituaries). Parker was a fine author, his own man, and it is clear from the outpouring in the blogosphere that he will be greatly missed.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Eugene Sue (France) and Johannes Jensen (Denmark), Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, choreographer Ruth St. Denis, pianist Josef Hofmann, violinist Mischa Elman, composers Ernest Chausson, Walter Piston, and David Tudor, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, trumpeter and big band leader Ray Anthony, comedian and commentator Bill Maher, actors Patricia Neal, George Burns, and DeForest Kelley, and film director Federico Fellini. Although Fellini is probably best known these days for his late, fascinating mannerist period, when there was no doubt the director was the star -- I once cheekily dubbed Intervista "Fellini's Fellini" -- there was another side to him in his early days: I Vitelloni remains one of the funniest, tenderest depictions of young adulthood and small-town life ever put on screen. It's no wonder that both Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese have cited it as a favorite film and a formative influence.

January 19

On the Avatar beat, charges of plagiarism from Russian readers of the famous Strugatsky Brothers, who apparently wrote a number of novels about a planet called Pandora inhabited by a race of humanoids called the Nave. Hmm...The Strugatskys are great authors, whose mesmerizing novella Roadside Picnic was freely adapted as Stalker by director Andrei Tarkovsky (and the brothers themselves as screenwriters).

While we're on science fiction: I was interested to discover that SFSite runs periodic lists of odd and overlooked speculative fiction. Here is the latest:

The blog reproduces one of Dudley Fisher's teeming Right Around Home comics, which he created from 1937 to 1951 for the Sunday newspaper market:

Among notables born on this date are some very fine fiction writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Patricia Highsmith, Julian Barnes, and Edwige Danticat. Also born on this date are Algonquin Round Table regular Alexander Woollcott, rockers Janis Joplin, Phil Everly, sand Robert Palmer, opera singer Hans Hotter, conductor Simon Rattle, Scottish inventor James Watt, sociologists Auguste Comte and Werner Sombart, painter Paul Cezanne, photographer Cindy Sherman, poets Rex Ingamells (Australia) and Dragotin Kette (Slovenia), film director Richard Lester, broadcaster Robert MacNeil, and actors Jean Stapleton, Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos), Fritz Weaver, and Tippi Hedren. Drea de Matteo was a very deserving Emmy winner in 2004 for her portrayal of doomed mob girlfriend Adriana La Cerva, whom a viewer might first take for just another bimbo, but as we come to know her, we recognize as both a heartbreaking character and a breathtaking performance.

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18

Michael Orthofer at The Literary Saloon speculates on "the death of the slush pile":

I think that Orthofer is quite right to say that "The death of the slush pile...will just accelerate the move to self-publishing (and, indeed, self-published books already form a new sort of slush pile, from which conventional publishers occasionally pluck out something), and leave great opportunities for nimbler small publishers who actually care what they put their imprint-name on." I also think that, as "mainstream media" abandons the professional reviewing function, this will put great responsibility on "amateur" reviewers to sift the "slush pile" of self-publications in order to bring what is worthy to attention. We've all got a lot of work to do, folks!

Blake Morrison at The Guardian reviews Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter. Theirs was one of the more high-powered and interesting literary pairings of modern times, since it's not a match that would have occurred to anyone as obvious -- yet it seems to have worked.

A Journey Round My Skull offers a delightful visual survey of French children's book illustrations from the 1900-1949 period:

Among notables born on this date are poets Austin Dobson, Jon Stallworthy, and Ruben Dario (Nicaragua), American statesman Daniel Webster, French political philosopher Montesquieu, children's writer A.A. Milne, British lexicographer Peter Mark Roget, film directors John Boorman and Takeshi Kitano, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, French composer Emmanuel Chabrier, German novelist Arno Schmidt, actors Oliver Hardy, Danny Kaye, Kevin Costner, and Cary Grant, and Maryland governor (and former Baltimore mayor) Martin O'Malley. O'Malley is unquestionably the only governor who fronts a Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March. He is also, if I may indulge myself, a distinctly handsome politician:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 17

The Epicurean Dealmaker, an investment banker himself, offers an interesting take on why bankers (including the banking CEOs who appeared before Congress this week) are smart but not thoughtful. He sees them as "men of action" who have no time or inclination to ruminate:

It's just not in their genetic makeup to be reflective, introspective, or speculative in an intellectual sense. Investment bankers have almost no interest in why things are the way they are. Rather, they spend all their considerable intellectual and psychological resources on understanding how they can take advantage of the way things are.

This is true as far as it goes, and it is consonant with an observation in Jonathan Dee's new novel The Privileges:

In the world of finance, the most highly evolved people were the ones for whom even yesterday did not exist.

Our bad, though, as a species, for privileging these types. I'm reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald's comment in The Great Gatsby, that Tom and Daisy Buchanan, quite like our current crop of bankers, were "careless people" --

...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

-- and also reminded of someone's cheeky line that the human race were just a bunch of evolved monkeys in way over our heads. That seems to have been Fitzgerald's conclusion; it was certainly the increasingly misanthropic Mark Twain's conclusion (in late works such as The Mysterious Stranger); and I fear it is my conclusion, too.

The also gloomy Woody Allen, in Conversations with Woody Allen, opines that visitors from space wouldn't waste any time admiring our trivial artistic or intellectual achievements; they would simply be appalled by our bloody brutality. Still, those achievements do give me some personal solace, and I'll continue to concentrate on them. Otherwise I'd turn into the Daily Doomster (and there's no need, because James Howard Kunstler has that covered).

Among notables born on this date are Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, Irish statesman Douglas Hyde, First Lady Michelle Obama, novelists Anne Bronte, Nevil Shute, Ronald Firbank, Tomas Carrasquilla (Colombia), and Compton Mackenzie (Scotland), Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, poet William Stafford, ventriloquist Shari Lewis, boxer Muhammad Ali, composers Alexander Taneyev (Russia), Jean Barraque (France), and Henk Badings (Netherlands), singer/songwriters Stephin Merritt and Steve Earle, singers Francoise Hardy and Eartha Kitt, filmmakers Mack Sennett and Lukas Moodysson, journalist Sebastian Junger, actors James Earl Jones, Jim Carrey, Betty White, and Sylvie Testud, comedian Andy Kaufman, Japanese pop musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Assamese writer and film director Jyoti Prasad Jagarwala. Recently, when teaching basic concepts of post-modernism to my senior English class, I put Andy Kaufman forward as Exhibit A, using clips from David Letterman and the infamous skit-breaking-down-into-a-fistfight from Fridays as examples of his post-modernist "slipperiness": since Kaufman declined to go out of character (and actually, with singer "Tony Clifton," multiplied the personae), it was impossible -- right up to and including his death -- to determine how "real" Kaufman was being at any given moment. He is startlingly akin to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under a bewildering variety of "heteronyms," each with an individual biography, presented as authentic personalities. He is certainly as serious and absolutely committed an artist as Pessoa.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

January 16

James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario speculates as to whether the sort of glitches consumers routinely run into are the result of (descending the ladder) incompetence, unconscious inattention, conscious inattention, or sinister design. Call me paranoid, but I opt for sinister design:

The Daily Beast offers a helpful primer of books and other materials on Haiti:

John Kenneth Muir has written a truly interesting review of Rob Zombie's Halloween 2:

The Diary Junction introduced me to the Australian artist and diarist Donald Friend (1915-1989), whose work (like that of British novelist Norman Douglas, 1868-1952) raises the interesting question, what do you think about an obviously gifted individual who is also clearly a pedophile? My take is that if I had to start approving of artists' lives, behaviors, and beliefs in order to like or be interested in their work, pretty soon there would be no one left for me to like.

Among notables born on this date are novelist William Kennedy, critic Susan Sontag, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, poet Laura Riding, film director John Carpenter, theatrical jack-of-all-trades Edward Gordon Craig, zoologist Dian Fossey, French memoirist Duc de Saint-Simon, singer Ethel Merman, and avant-garde composers Gavin Bryars and Brian Ferneyhough. Although I like Susan Sontag just fine, I must admit that Camille Paglia's denunciation of her former heroine, "Sontag, Bloody Sontag" (in the collection Vamps and Tramps), makes highly amusing reading. These two women were made for MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch, which never scheduled this obvious bout, probably because it would have mystified their core demographic. It would have made a good show, though.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January 15

The Independent has the low-down on the new ten-volumes-in-one (and extraordinarily expensive) Stanley Kubrick film book, Napoleon: The Greatest Film Never Made:

The narrowest house in New York City, with quite a cultural pedigree, recently sold for $2.1 million. It looks terribly cute in photographs, but I'm not sure about actually living there:

Albert Mobilio in Bookforum has a consideration of Umberto Eco's The Infinity of Lists, an appreciation of list-making that seems the most incredibly timely book for December 2009-January 2010:

Speaking of lists, here are the Comics of the Decade from Omnivoracious. Lots to follow up on:

Among notables born on this date, the Ides of January, are quite a number of creative writers: poets Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), Odip Mandelstam (Russia), Xu Zhimo (China), Ivor Cutler (Scotland), Mihai Eminescu (Rumania); fiction writers Ernest J. Gaines, Arsen Kotsoyev (Ossetia), Mazo de la Roche (Canada), William Heinemann (Faroe Islands); and playwrights Moliere and Prosper Crebillon (France), Franz Grillparzer (Austria), and Stanislaw Wyspianski (Poland). Also born on this date are actors Margaret O'Brien and Lloyd Bridges, SCTV alumna Andrea Martin, rocker Captain Beefheart, French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Welsh singer Ivor Novello, jazz drummer Gene Krupa, and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking, on the life of the Orientalist, forger, and scoundrel Sir Edmund Backhouse, is as absorbing and entertaining a historical biography as one could ever hope to read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 14

A.O. Scott pens a lovely tribute to the late Eric Rohmer:

Scott always comes across as a very appealing guy, unlike his self-important New York Times-mate Dave Kehr (whose blog post on Rohmer's death was ungenerous, although the official obituary he wrote was better).

For those who are not completely "listed out," the Guardian offers an interesting ranking of the top 50 television dramas of all time, equally weighted toward the US and UK. Some of the British series are not that familiar to me and undoubtedly worth following up on. (But how, I wonder, could they leave out Upstairs, Downstairs? It would be in my top five.)

The blog Victorian Geek has an interesting piece on the popular Victorian novelist Ouida, who sounds pretty wacky:

Here is a good reading list of novels set in the Arab world and available in English, courtesy of crime novelist Matt Rees:

Among notables born on this date are French painters Berthe Morisot and Henri Fantin-Latour, humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, children's writers Hendrik Willem Van Loon and Hugh Lofting (creator of Doctor Dolittle), film directors Joseph Losey, Stan Brakhage, Steven Soderbergh, and Lawrence Kasdan, short story writer Tillie Olsen, early pop singer Russ Columbo, novelists John Dos Passos, Yukio Mishima, Anatoly Rybakov, and Pierre Loti, actors Faye Dunaway and Jason Bateman, theater director Trevor Nunn, photographers Cecil Beaton and Garry Winogrand, operatic tenor Ben Heppner, broadcaster Shepard Smith, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. I remember seeing bon vivant Cecil Beaton interviewed on a PBS show in the early Seventies -- it must have been before his stroke in 1974 -- and being impressed and inspired by how he seemed to have known everyone in mid-20th century culture and society. He had much to say about them in his diaries, which were published carefully edited in his lifetime, unexpurgated after his death.

It amuses me to think of myself at 14 or 15, enthralled by Cecil Beaton and by Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, reading everything in sight, borrowing Mahler symphony LPs by the armful from my local public library. My interests were close to fully formed by that point, I'd say.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 13

This piece on the CNN website, "Audiences experience Avatar blues," could word-for-word be an Onion parody article. How do you tell the difference these days?

James Cameron's completely immersive spectacle "Avatar" may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora...Other fans have expressed feelings of disgust with the human race and disengagement with reality...Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing "Avatar" video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.

Jay Stringer at the crimefic blog Do Some Damage has a thoughtful consideration of crime comics:

I referred to the new DVD of Alexander Alexeieff's animation back on December 31. Here, thanks to the wonderful blog A Journey Round My Skull, is a sample of Alexeieff's book illustration work:

Matt Wolf in the New York Times offers thoughts on a "changing of the guard" in British theater:

Among notables born on this date are actors Robert Stack, Orlando Bloom, and Ian Hendry, novelists Edmund White, Jay McInerney, and A.B. Guthrie, short story writer Lorrie Moore, fantasist Clark Ashton Smith, children's authors Horatio Alger Jr. and Michael Bond (creator of Paddington Bear), Danish playwright Kaj Munk (Ordet), Greek poet Kostis Palamas, and Russian composer Vassili Kalinnikov.

I really like Stack; it's too bad that no one but Douglas Sirk took him seriously. It's worth noting that in the Phil Karlson-directed The Scarface Mob, the pilot for The Untouchables, the script allows Stack to make lawman Eliot Ness multi-dimensional: human, humorous, and emotional. That would not continue to be true in the series; although it is an excellent series for what it does, it reduces Ness to his humorless, mob-busting functionality (he no longer has a wife, as he did in the pilot), and it defined Stack in a way that he was playing with (Unsolved Mysteries) or playing against (Airplane!) for the rest of his career.

January 12

A blog new to me, The Hollywood Interview, has a first-rate discussion with Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne:

The blog is very good in general, featuring interviews with people you wouldn't expect, such as Police, Adjective director Corneliu Porumboiu.

Very cool to read about a tribute show to Desi Arnaz and his orchestra conceived by his daughter Lucie Arnaz, with her brother Desi Arnaz Jr. as a percussionist and no less than Raul Esparza as a featured singer. I have always felt that Desi Arnaz is a terrifically underrated performer, even though his gifts as a television producer are more widely acknowledged. I Love Lucy benefited enormously from his presence in front of the camera as well as behind it.

On that very point, by the way, Douglas McGrath published a wonderful appreciation of Arnaz in the New York Times in 2001, the anniversary year of I Love Lucy:

Among notables born on this date are novelists Jack London and Haruki Murakami, crime novelist Walter Mosley, Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, double Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer (who celebrates her 100th birthday today), film directors Jean Delannoy, Wayne Wang, and Rob Zombie, radio personality Howard Stern, mentalist The Amazing Kreskin (which is his legal name, by the way), Russian avant-garde writer Daniil Kharms, folklorist Charles Perrault, statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke, Founding Father John Hancock, country singer Tex Ritter, painter John Singer Sargent, composers Morton Feldman and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. TCM is celebrating Rainer's 100th by playing seven of her films today, including her Academy Award turns in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth.

Monday, January 11, 2010

January 11

Now this is an interview (Lord, those British newspapers run great stuff): David Peace, author of the Red Riding novels recently adapted for British television, converses with James Ellroy, the nonpareil author who has made a unique contribution to crime fiction -- hell, to fiction in general. The amazing trilogy that began with American Tabloid and continued with The Cold Six Thousand, is now complete with Blood's a Rover:

This piece by Edward Jay Epstein on "Why Journalists Don't Understand the Business of Hollywood" is exceptionally interesting, and whets the appetite for his forthcoming book on the subject. Epstein has been writing insightfully about media since the mid-Sixties:

David Cairns at Shadowplay is saddened by the decline of film critic David Thomson:

Cairns is one of the better film bloggers around -- his yearlong Hitchcock series, 52 films in 52 weeks, was well worth reading, and it's by no means easy to say arresting new things about Hitchcock.

Among notables born on this date are Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, philosopher William James, stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, sculptor Alexander Calder, golfer Ben Crenshaw, Mexican film director and actor Alfonso Arau, conservationist Aldo Leopold, Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, saxophonist and Bruce Springsteen collaborator Clarence Clemons, novelists Alan Paton and Jasper Fforde, Italian painter Parmigianino, and composers Christian Sinding (Norway), Maurice Durufle (France), and Reinhold Gliere (Russia). William James is one of those giants that Camille Paglia was thinking of when she wrote, "You read major figures not because everything they say is the gospel truth but because they expand your imagination, they expand your IQ, they open up brain cells you didn't even know you have." He is endlessly rewarding.

January 10

Kind of an interesting idea: John Cassavetes's Husbands is being performed as a theater piece in Manhattan:

For those who like literary feuds, this one, between French novelists Camille Laurens and Marie Darrieussecq, is a doozy:

Among notables born on this date are poets Robinson Jeffers and Philip Levine, historian Lord Acton, architect John Wellborn Root, English sculptor Barbara Hepworth, jazz drummer Max Roach, German poet Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, operatic baritone Sherrill Milnes, conductor Jean Martinon, Steely Dan member Donald Fagen, singer-songwriters Shawn Colvin and Rod Stewart, Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina, film director Walter Hill, and actors Ray Bolger and Sal Mineo. The career of Walter Hill is a true Hollywood mystery to me. He started on a roll with five excellent films in a row -- Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, and Southern Comfort. Then he appeared to sell out a bit with the Eddie Murphy vehicle 48 Hrs, and he hasn't made a uniformly well-regarded film since. Admittedly, the Eighties were hard on a lot of American film-makers, but I can scarcely think of anyone who tanked so badly (well, maybe Alan J. Pakula), to the extent that essentially nothing he has done for thirty years has aroused even a minority of cineastes. John Carpenter and Brian De Palma have had fallow periods, but nothing like such a permanent eclipse, and they have always had passionate defenders. Not so Hill.

January 9

Department of Creative Misreading: One of my freshmen, reading lines from The Iliad aloud, construed "I bow my head before you" as "I blow my head before you." Much merriment ensued.

Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading offers his take on the Three Percent Best Translated Fiction longlist (which he voted on) and mentions some worthy titles that didn't make the list:

The litblog Squandermania and Other Foibles has a nice post about daybooks:

Among notables born on this date are President Richard Nixon (well, he's notable), adventurer Richard Halliburton, Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek, Guatemalan activist and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, Croatian poet Ivan Gundulic, rockers Jimmy Page, David Johansen, and Dave Matthews, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, Hebrew poet Naim Nahman Bialik, cartoonist Chic Young (Blondie), science fiction novelist Algis Budrys, Irish playwright Brian Friel, actors Susannah York, Joely Richardson, and Imelda Staunton, French novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, English playwright Thomas William Robertson, South African writer Eugene Marais, Italian writer Giovanni Papini, German writer Kurt Tucholsky, English poet Lascelles Abercrombie, singer-songwriters Joan Baez and Scott Walker, Australian novelist Robert Drewe, film director Sergei Paradjanov, and Wagnerian soprano Waltraud Meier (whom I have been lucky enough to hear in the opera house, and she is electrifying). Brian Friel, universally considered Ireland's greatest living playwright, turns 81 today and is still a legitimate candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I would love to see him get. His 1979 play Faith Healer is easily one of the best plays I have ever read. James Mason, Donal McCann, and Ralph Fiennes are among those who have played the lead role on stage. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, who reviewed the McCann and Fiennes productions, unequivocally called Faith Healer a "great play" and the McCann production "one of the transcendent experiences of my theatergoing life."

January 8

The science fiction website io9 offers an amazing slideshow on "The Grandiose Decay of Abandoned Detroit":

Deena Drewis at The Millions gives interesting consideration to the relations between writers and editors, focusing particularly on the fraught case of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish:

Chad Post at Three Percent writes about the French Voices program to promote new French fiction:

I like this list of books on Victorian crime from novelist James McCreet. I heartily second his recommendation of Kate Summerscale's non-fiction account of a celebrated Victorian murder, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which I just finished reading a few days ago:

Here is a sharp comment by James Kwak at the economics blog The Baseline Scenario about "a problem that goes far beyond Wall Street, and something I always found particularly distasteful about Corporate America: CEOs, and business people in general, saying things they want to be true, without bothering to find out if it actually is true."

Among notables born on this date are scientists Alfred Russel Wallace and Stephen Hawking, psychologist Carl Rogers, composers Giacinto Scelsi and Benjamin Lees, novelists Wilkie Collins and Storm Jameson, painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, actor Jose Ferrer, poets Charles Tomlinson and Ko Un (of Korea), film director Jean-Marie Straub, and singers Elvis Presley and David Bowie. Somehow or other, despite being a Victorian novel enthusiast, I had managed to go all these years without reading a Wilkie Collins novel, but I just remedied that by finishing The Woman in White. He is an extravagantly gifted and gripping writer; it's easy to see the reasons for his popularity. Besides, any buddy of Dickens is a buddy of mine.

January 7

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson has put up his annual DVD Wish List, along with a perceptive discussion of how the DVD industry is changing:

I am all for more "burn on demand" programs; I've been very satisfied with the disks I've gotten from the Warner Archive so far.

Among notables born on this date are cartoonist Charles Addams, painter Albert Bierstadt, animal writer Gerald Durrell, French poet Charles Peguy, French composer Francis Poulenc, 30s singer Al Bowlly, harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, conductor Gunter Wand, Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, broadcaster Katie Couric, actors David Caruso and Jeremy Renner, and novelists Nicholson Baker and Zora Neale Hurston. One of the regrets of my leaving my teaching position at the semester break this year -- long story! -- will be not getting to teach the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston's great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in my American Literature class. Hurston is such an inspiration to me; reading Valerie Boyd's magnificent biography Wrapped in Rainbows left me with renewed admiration for her achievement against formidable odds. It saddens me that she ended her life in near-destitution. But you can't remain sad for long thinking about the irrepressible Zora, who once said, "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It simply astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company!"

January 6

Three Percent has announced the 25 book longlist for its annual Best Translated Fiction award. Clicking on any of the titles brings you to a description. There are some great-sounding books here. Since the literary world can't highlight its best work through festivals the way that the film world can, the many international prizes serve that function and are followed intensely by book enthusiasts:

January Magazine has a detailed Best Fiction of 2009 list:

As well as a Best Crime Fiction list in two parts:

Tales from the Reading Room offers a very nice review of Curtis Sittenfeld's acclaimed novel American Wife, based loosely on the Bush family:

Among notables born on this date are French artist Gustave Dore; composers Alexander Scriabin (Russia), Giuseppe Martucci (Italy), and Max Bruch (Germany); poet Carl Sandburg; cowboy silent film star Tom Mix; novelists Wright Morris, E.L. Doctorow, and Juan Goytisolo (Spain); bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs; Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd; folk singer Sandy Denny; British comedian Rowan Atkinson; Argentine political writer Jacobo Timerman; and film directors Anthony Minghella and John Singleton. The Nebraska-born Wright Morris (1910-1998) was the subject of my senior essay in American Studies at Yale; author of about twenty excellent novels and many other books, an accomplished and important photographer as well as novelist, he gets less attention than he ought to these days. He is overdue for revival and awaits a biography, but of course plenty of creators go through a period of comparable non-appreciation.

January 5

The Auteurs has a good summing-up of film festival possibilities this year. The two blog entries by Fionnuala Halligan that it mentions are worth clicking through to as well:

In similar vein, The Millions offers a summary of the highly expected books of 2010:

Among notables born on this date are Italian philosopher and novelist Umbert Eco, Russian composer Nikolai Medtner, Swiss novelist and playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, explorer Zebulon Pike, choreographer Alvin Ailey, broadcaster Charlie Rose, French painter Yves Tanguy, Russian painter Nicolas de Stael, Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and actors Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, George Reeves (TV's Superman), Jean-Pierre Aumont, and January Jones (Mad Men). A true birthday oddity is that three supremely gifted pianists, Alfred Brendel, Arturo Michelangeli, and Maurizio Pollini, were all born on this date. Any reasonable list of the 20th century's greatest pianists would without question include all three of those men. It's an interesting coincidence -- I wonder how an astrologer would interpret it!

January 4

Jason Klorfein at The House Next Door has am interesting essay on a director I'd not heard of, Lee Yoon-ki:

But if your tastes run to less ambitious forms of expression, check out "The Worst Theatrical Movies of 2009":

Peter Rozovsky at the excellent international crime fiction blog Detectives Beyond Borders offers a round-up of worthy African crime fiction:

Among notables born on this date are Chinese novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, scientist Sir Isaac Newton, folklorist Jakob Grimm, Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James, film directors Carlos Saura and Harmony Korine, English story writer A.E. Coppard, composers Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Josef Suk, English painter Augustus John, French painter Andre Masson, Russian painter Aristarkh Lentulov, German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, film composer Lionel Newman, fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz singer Susannah McCorkle, opera singer Grace Bumbry, pop singer Michael Stipe, tuba player Don Butterfield, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and actors Dyan Cannon and Julian Sands. Sands is a most interesting fellow, always caught up in offbeat projects, from films such as Wim Wenders's The Million Dollar Hotel and Mike Figgis's Timecode and Hotel, to his current theatrical venture doing readings of Harold Pinter's poetry.

January 3

Here is the idiotic quotation of the day, from Mark Peranson, the editor of Cinema Scope: "Let me make a controversial statement: by and large, a film that most people have heard of is by its very nature less interesting than a film that only a few programmers or critics have seen." And I thought I was elitist. The great novelist and book critic Arnold Bennett taught a hundred years ago that there is no simple relationship between a work's fame and its quality; a famous book may be a good book or a bad book; an unknown book may be a good book or bad book. You would think that lesson would have sunk in by now. Peranson's thought is illuminating with respect to the recently announced TIFF Cinematheque best-of-decade list; his sort of preening -- "It's a better film if I've heard of it and you haven't" -- seems to have been a guiding principle for a number of the participants in that survey. I'm all for celebrating the less-known, but this sort of haughty attitude wins cinephilia no friends or converts.

Oh well, on to more positive thoughts! The excellent litblog The Mookse and the Gripes ran a very nice comprehensive feature on all the short fiction that ran in The New Yorker in 2009, and is running an ongoing discussion forum on New Yorker short fiction this year. This kind of effort is genuinely helpful, as opposed to divisive statements from the likes of Peranson:

Among notables born on this date are J.R.R. Tolkien -- I think you've all heard of him; actors ZaSu Pitts, Mel Gibson, Dabney Coleman, Robert Loggia, and Ray Milland; musician Stephen Stills; Ukrainian composer Borys Lyatoshynsky; opera librettist Metastasio; British Prime Minister Clement Attlee; Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero; Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson (like "George Eliot," a male pseudonym for a female author); poet John Gould Fletcher; English novelist and dramatist Douglas Jerrold; Expressionist painter August Macke; Maxene Andrews of The Andrews Sisters; Quebec dramatist Marcel Dube; film directors John Sturges and Sergio Leone; and the eccentric singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks. What a great crew!

January 2

Here is an interesting negative take on Avatar:

I know that some of my friends like this movie, but I can't seem to work up any interest in seeing it (which is usually the case with me and "blockbusters").

Remember Ken Jennings of the 74 consecutive Jeopardy! victories? He's got a charming blog (not to mention a sly sense of humor for a Mormon):

Among notables born on this date are Russian composer Mily Balakirev, English composer Michael Tippett, German sculptor and dramatist Ernst Barlach, playwright Christopher Durang, science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, historian John Hope Franklin (who pioneered the serious historical study of the African-American experience), novelist Robert Nathan, and film directors Dziga Vertov and Todd Haynes. I met someone once who was a production assistant on Velvet Goldmine and said that Haynes had a full-blown "auteur meltdown" on that project, swearing he would never direct a movie again. Happily, he changed his mind.

January 1

Well, there goes the worst decade of my lifetime. The Nineties and Oughties were about equally bad for me personally, but since the Oughties were so much worse for the world, the decade has to take the laurels. Marty Beckerman at The Daily Beast agrees with me:

It would be nice to have a pleasant decade sometime -- even a pleasant year. I think that maybe 1987 is the last year I can look back on as having been pleasurable most of the way through. 23 years ago -- that's sad.

Film Recommendation: Go Tell the Spartans, Ted Post. It's not unreasonable to consider Post in juxtaposition to Clint Eastwood, whom he directed in Hang 'Em High, Magnum Force, and many episodes of Rawhide. As any busy television director must, Post had a command of the classical style of film-making, and Go Tell the Spartans shows what that command can accomplish wedded to a subject and screenplay of significance. Based on Daniel Ford's novel Incident at Muc Wa and set in the early years of the Vietnam War, when American forces were still "advisory," this is a clear-eyed view of the tragedy that embeds it in the larger context of military history (as the title indicates). Never slow to recognize quality, Burt Lancaster makes the most of a plum part and, bless him, financed the film's completion out of his own pocket. Against the heady competition of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, this is the best Vietnam War film I have ever seen.

Among notables born on this date are the novelists E.M. Forster, J.D. Salinger, Maria Edgeworth, and Mariano Azuela (of Mexico); English poet Arthur Hugh Clough; Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi; English playwright Joe Orton; French playwright Ludovic Halevy; photographer Alfred Stieglitz; New Zealand architect Robert Lawson; controversial aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead (did he fly before the Wrights or didn't he?); American patriot and silversmith Paul Revere; conductor Artur Rodzinski; jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson; hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash; and actor Dana Andrews. John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere was one of my favorite paintings to visit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when I lived in Massachusetts: