Stuff I’ve been reading

This L.A. Times essay about Covid brain fog – and so much more – by Mary McNamara is a WILD ride, but it said a lot of the things I’ve been feeling about … everything, everywhere, all at once.

Arguably. A collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays. I’m reading one essay a day. I’ve read these countless times, and have pulled different ones up and out to read individually, since he’s such a good reference. He appears to have every quote he needs from every book he’s ever read at the ready. How did he do it? I’ve read a lot, but I don’t retain the way he did. It’s the reason I kept a commonplace book for so many years: it was an attempt to “nail down” the quotes I want to remember, not just in case I need to use them someday, but because they are good quotes and I like thinking about them. The depth/breadth of his subject matter is daunting. I am not sure it can be repeated. He has essays about Rebecca West, Hilary Mantel, and Graham Greene, and he has essays about the death penalty in America. He writes about Isaac Newton, and he writes about Saul Bellow. It’s de rigeur to say shit like “I don’t agree with everything he says” when it comes to people like Hitchens, or Camille Paglia or [insert controversial person]. However, I don’t say shit like that because you know why? I don’t agree with everything ANYONE says. From best friends to politicians (especially politicians): I do not experience 100% agreement with ANYone. “I absolutely loved the latest Gaga album.” “Really? I wasn’t crazy about it.” “I love Don DeLillo.” “I don’t care for him at all.” Boom. Not 100% agreement. And life moves on and nobody flips out. In fact, interesting discussions often ensue. Granted, I am not friends with people who say “The Nazis had a point” or “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” I have my limits. It’s best to engage with whatever it is with critical thinking intact. If you do that, then 100% agreement is irrelevant. You get to make up your own mind, and it’s okay if there’s someone out there who disagrees. I like writers who make me think deeper and longer about things, particularly when I think they are wrong. And Hitchens was often wrong.

Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, by Mark Lewisohn. I am not sure why I have not read this before. To say it’s “exhaustive” is to completely under-state the situation. This is volume 1. It is 800 pages long, with 200 pages of in-depth footnotes. It’s massive. Tune In was published in 2016 I think, and ends in the final months of 1962 – the “moment before” – with the word: “INTERMISSION”. Implying, of course, a Volume 2 – which, so far, has not appeared. I know so much about the Beatles: I’ve been a fan since Beatlemania swept my grade school (and this was long after the band had broken up). My parents had the first album in their record collection, so I knew the whole thing by heart (and, to this day, the track list is woven into my DNA.) But this book is so detailed I’m learning so much more, not just about all of the players – including folks like Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best, and Brian Epstein – but the coalescing process of this super group. It took forever (even though it was just a couple of years). As Geoffrey O’Brien observes in his great Sonata for Jukebox: “None of them ever did much except prepare themselves to be the Beatles.” It’s so true. I guess that’s what happens when you all meet (except for Ringo) when you’re all under 16 years old. What else could they have been doing in that short period of time? So in a lot of ways it happened “overnight” but reading it playing out in real-time is a fascinating experience. I kept thinking, “Jesus, WHEN will Ringo arrive? This is RIDICULOUS.” They suffered with Pete Best for years – (I mean, two years … it’s really not that long a time, but in Beatles-time it’s forever). And they all knew he wasn’t good enough but the situation was awkward, to say the least. Meanwhile, Ringo is touring with the Hurricanes to summer camps and American military bases, making up for lost time from being a sickly child staring at the world through the window. Getting rid of Pete Best was crucial, as cruel as it was (and as cruelly as they did it, leaving it up to Epstein) … and there was Ringo, waiting in the wings, shaving off his beard as requested. This process in the book takes up 500, 600 pages. Lewisohn is nothing if not THOROUGH. It’s also been fun to queue up the songs as they came into being: first, all the covers – which, of course, we have most of them now, on the Anthology or Live at the BBC … but also the Lennon-McCartney songs, many of which were written YEARS before (okay, two or three years: see again the weirdness of living in Beatles-time) they sat down to record them. And the strangeness of who they were as a “group” and how the concept of a “group” didn’t even exist until they came along. Wait, they all sing? There isn’t just one lead singer? Up until very late in the game, the people at EMI were wondering who would be the lead singer? The tradition was: Paul McCartney and the Beatles, or John Lennon and the Beatles, etc. It was … WEIRD to people, the idea of a GROUP. They were the Beatles, end-stop. Anyway, I’m having a blast with it and I’m 100 pages from the end – the final months of 1962 before all hell breaks loose.

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s my third time through. The conditions under which Bulgakov wrote the book – and then burned it – and then wrote it again from memory – knowing it would never be published (nor was it, not until decades later) – haunt every page, so much so that I am consistently surprised at the book’s hilarity, its insouciant jollity, all those people screaming and running around, making wild statements, and the cartoonish violence, etc. The cat lolling back on the bed sipping vodka, nibbling on a little sausage … You can just SEE this giant cat chillin’ out, and it’s absurd. I love cats but I HATE this cat. Every page has some crazy image like that: even a man’s severed head bouncing down a sidewalk has a humorous aspect. The humor and the horror are one and the same, of course. The book still feels dangerous. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” said Bulgakov. This whole book is about a forbidden manuscript, the buried actual story of the actual manuscript of Master and Margarita, the first version of which was ACTUALLY burned because it was too dangerous to even have around in Soviet 1930s. The whole book is such a perfect metaphor for the horror of those years. In a supposed athiestic country, if the Devil appeared – the actual Devil – how would anyone even recognize him? In a world where no one is allowed to speak outside an approved narrative, then how on earth could you get the message out that there’s an abnormally large cat lying on your bed sipping vodka out of a glass? Well, Ivan finds out what happens when you speak the truth. So does the Master. So do countless others. They are forced – at gunpoint practically – to parrot the accepted truth. *You did not see what you think you saw*. In that process, the cognitive dissonance is so extreme (Orwell’s 2+2=5 is the most perfect metaphor for this) that Ivan is “split in two”, the title of one chapter. The book is a stone-cold masterpiece. It’s fun to revisit because there’s so much to it I always forget, but so much is burned into my brain. The apricot juice. The cat lolling about with the vodka. The writers’ restaurant. The character with one black eye and one green eye. The apartment where every resident eventually disappears, never to be seen again. Pontius Pilate omnipresent. The headaches – everyone has splitting headaches. Of COURSE they do. That’s cognitive dissonance for you. An entire nation with a splitting headache.

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway. My father gave me this book decades ago, and I am so sorry to say I am only reading it now. Dad, I wish I had sat down and read it so we could discuss it. I love that he loved this book. Jill Ker Conway was from Australia, her parents owned a farm called Coorain – out in the desert, a tough tough life – and after her father died, she and her mother moved to Sydney where her real education began. Jill Ker Conway went on to be the first female president of Smith College. It’s a classic feminist text, about a homeschooled child who grew up doing hard labor in absolutely unforgiving conditions, who went on to rise to the tippity-top of her profession, with the example of her dogged tough-minded mother in front of her. Jill Ker Conway died in 2018. I am finally reading the work for which she will always be known. It’s lovely, and beautifully written.

“Enemy of Promise”, by Christian Lorentzen. Lorentzen is one of the few current writers where I will drop everything to read his latest dispatch. I met him one night years ago at the 92nd Street Y: he was on a panel for a screening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, curated by my friend Miriam Bale (who wasn’t my friend yet at the time). I was a little bit in awe of him, even though we are similar ages, because I had been reading him for years at that point. Even if I haven’t read the book in question, I devour his words about it. His latest is on the collection of Hitchens’ articles for the London Review of Books called A Hitch in Time. Commentary on Hitchens is often annoyingly reductive: people only remember his most controversial pieces, or – in my opinion – dumb pieces – like the one about how women aren’t funny. To throw out his entire body of work – which is massive – because of one bad take, a “hot take” if ever there was one – is ridiculous. Lorentzen is pretty even-handed about all of this (I love his observation that not so long ago the idea was to “expand” the canon to include more voices: now it’s about “cleansing” the canon, and REMOVING voices – a very different thing). Hitchens did indeed take a major swerve and paid a price for it, losing his gigs at The Nation and Harpers and presumably other outlets. He was an “apostate”. Some of that writing does not date well at ALL. But it’s part of a much larger story. He should be remembered and studied – not because his opinions were always “right” (eyeroll), but because – as Lorentzen points out – as a “stylist” he has “few rivals”. Ignore him at your peril.

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8 Responses to Stuff I’ve been reading

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    Re: the idea that two people should be in agreement 100 per cent of the time. In his review of Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, Stanley Kauffman noted that the two sometimes disagreed; that was fine, in Kauffman’s opinion, since if they always agreed, one of them would be redundant. I’ve always liked that line.

    I read the American version of Mark Lewisohn’s book a few years ago and loved it. Then I discovered this year that there was a British version that was significantly longer and got that one. It’s enormous and has so far intimidated me enough to keep from starting it. One of these days, though…

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh I did not know there was a British version. This American version is enormous as it is!! The footnotes are just crazy. “It cannot be confirmed that George was on the bus that day. He said he was, but there is evidence he was visiting his uncle, which couldn’t have happened on any other day, since his uncle was about to go on vacation.” I mean, I just made that up – but that’s not even an exaggeration.

      This is how you document your claims!!

      I’m nearly done. “Love Me Do” has been released – and so far it’s not doing much, mainly because it doesn’t sound like anything else. I think he does a very good job of setting up what else was on the radio at that time – just to establish how DIFFERENT this sounded.

      I wasn’t alive, so I don’t know. I need that context to be provided for me. I grew up in a world where the Beatles had already happened.

      I’m really enjoying it!

      • Bill Wolfe says:

        I was four-and-three-quarters years old in February of 1964. The Beatles are my first memory. Hearing their music, listening to the grown-ups talk about how strange they were, and simply being aware of a new kind of electricity crackling in the air. My friends down the street and I put on a show for our parents, singing Beatles songs. I was Ringo, playing bar stools for drums. I’ve always been happy to have that as my first memory.

  2. mutecypher says:

    Your rereading of The Master and Margarita prompted me to visit the Wikipedia page. I didn’t realize there were so many filmed versions. And many unreleased or unavailable. An unfortunate mirroring. Then I got to the bottom of the list and saw that Baz Luhrmann had optioned the book in 2019. And visiting IMDb it appears to be what he’s working on next. I really hope he makes the film.

    In my version of what I’ve been reading I’ve read Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem and Poem Without a Hero. Just majestic. Sometimes people say an athlete puts his team on his back. She’s carrying so many people with her memory and observation and language.

    • sheila says:

      It would be fantastic for Baz. The whole thing is so fantastical already – a circus, hocus-pocus, a carnival – it can’t be done realistically. It would make a great animated film too. There is a graphic novel of it and the illustrations are just haunting and funny and bizarre. I hope Baz makes the film too although he’s been just a WEE BIT BUSY lately.

      // She’s carrying so many people with her memory and observation and language. //

      It’s just amazing, isn’t it. Horrible. Clive James said something like “I’d like to live in a world where a woman like Anna Akhmatova wasn’t required to be a hero or a martyr.”

  3. Marc Murdock says:

    Usually listening to the Stones in the summer and the Beatles the remainder of the year (and, of course, listening to a lot else). Beatles before, say, 1965, what do I care? THANKS for writing about the Lewisohn book! You put the book solidly on the must read pile!
    BTW: born in ‘58; first Beatles album Magical Mystery Tour. When my Mom went to Korvettes to buy my first album, The Monkees, the store was out stock and the clerk recommended MMT instead. A life-long love was born.

    • sheila says:

      // THANKS for writing about the Lewisohn book! You put the book solidly on the must read pile! //

      Marc – I have been having so much fun with it. I don’t want it to end! Or – to be clear – I NEED volume 2!! Which will be 1963 to … now? I don’t know. Think about what happened in between 1963 and 1970!! Like … what? No wonder it’s taking him a decade to finish it.

      It’s fun, too – speaking of the Stones – he really takes the time to set up what else was going on around them. To highlight how different and strange they were – but also to just set up the context – to illustrate how everything was changing and breaking apart. The Stones already in formation – Bob Dylan starting up – all of these new sounds percolating around. But then also what “pop music” sounded like in England at the time – which, basically, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist. It was all novelty acts, made for adults. There were exceptions but Lewisohn really sets up the VACUUM that was going on at the time in England.

      // When my Mom went to Korvettes to buy my first album, The Monkees, the store was out stock and the clerk recommended MMT instead. //

      Okay this is amazing.

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