Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Back

Found on the remainder table, no less valuable for being inexpensive--

Looking Back
Russell Baker (2002, New York Review of Books)

The reading I want to do being approximately infinite, I do appreciate someone else doing some of it for me (a service I hope I pass on to you, gentle reader.) Looking Back is an unusually juicy collection of thoughts about books, which the editor of the New York Review of Books apparently seduced Russell Baker into writing: "If Robert Silvers had asked for 'reviews', none of these pieces would have been written." Baker's fifty years of journalism included three decades of a 750-word regular column for the New York Times; he was intrigued by the chance to let his thoughts roam considerably farther afield.
For instance, in the course of telling us what David Nasaw had to say about William Randolph Hearst, he also has room to tell us what Hearst said about Teddy Roosevelt (who upstaged him in Cuba); and what Orson Welles cinematically alleged about Hearst in Citizen Kane; and what Pauline Kael, in the New Yorker, had to say about that. Baker himself began his working life as one of Hearst's twelve-year-old newsboys; he has considerable first-hand perspective on Hearst's pioneering of "the intermingling of news and entertainment for the mass market, which is to say, modern media."
Baker's career covering politics and power spurs him into books on the larger-than-life figures of his Washington days: "Goldwater, Nixon, Johnson, and Robert Kennedy were even more baffling than most. Did Goldwater ever truly want to be president? What would Shakespeare have made of Lyndon Johnson--Falstaff or Lear, Richard III or Bolingbroke?" Johnson and the Kennedys also feature heavily in Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, which Baker describes as "the one indesputably monumental book discussed in this collection."
I'd tend to agree, and that's the one I may be tempted to (re)read; for the lesser lights Baker discusses, I'm likely to consider his reading sufficient, but that's the way of it, especially in this busy season--ars longa, vita brevis.
Happy New Year to those observing Advent, and Glad Yule to all. May you always be blessed with the things that matter--Music and Friends (and of course, Books.)

Email Decemeber 2006

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank; Gringos

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
Thad Carhart (2001, Random House)

Charles Portis (copyright 1991, published 2000, The Overlook Press)

In The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Thad Carhart takes us inside a culture where all business arises out of relationships. The eponymous shop is so discreet that the owner doesn't even admit to having pianos for sale, though his younger assistant lets on that if one had the proper references, things might be different. And behold, when Carhart says the magic word and wins admission to the back room, it's a sky-lit space a good deal larger than the shop out front, with forty or fifty pianos, of many makes, models, and vintages, in various states of completeness and repair. Of course. But one must have an introduction.
And so on through choosing and buying a piano to take home, having it delivered and tuned, and finding a teacher. Carhart has memories of teachers he loved, and of his recital nightmares from another teacher's studio, and he takes us to some rather magnificent master classes. Likewise, he introduces us to the basic steel, wood, and strings that pianos have in common; and we get to see individual instruments disassembled, put back together, and played, in all their unique glory. Carhart's curiosity, love of music, and brilliantly clear descriptions make this a rare and delightful book.

Thad Carhart is leading an enviably carefree life in a foreign country; the fictional narrator of Gringos, by Charles Portis, has to hustle a little more. Jimmy Burns puts together a living hauling things to people, and helping lost people get found; he's trying to stay out of the illegal antiquities trade, though opportunities for backsliding abound. We meet him on Christmas day, waking up at home in the Yucatan. "Once again there had been no scramble among the hostesses of Merida to see who could get me for Christmas dinner." But Burns is a man of resource, if not wealth; no sooner does he climb in his truck, then a friend flags him down and invites him for a feed, and he's off--running errands, doing favors, hanging out in bars, keeping up a running commentary on the characters around him. They are some characters, too--all kinds of reasons for coming to Mexico, all kinds of ways of staying there, and they all know each other's business, even if what they know isn't true.

These are the two most interesting books I've read this month, but at first they seemed so different that I wasn't sure it made sense to review them together. Most obviously, Carhart's book is non-fiction, of a particularly contemplative and personal sort; the Portis novel is boisterous and wide-ranging, and its narrator needs his friends to help him see himself. The common theme, in the end, has to do with the American narrators accommodating to the business and social mores of a foreign culture--especially as these turn out to be inseparable. They give us a lens by which to see community as the very business of life.

Email post, January 2006