Monday, April 30, 2007


Call me Steve

The LATBR just posted my review of Steve Geng's Thick As Thieves. To a large degree, this is a tale of diverging siblings--the author spent most of his adult life as a bottom-feeding junkie, jailbird, and thief, while his sister Veronica went on to a glamorous (if erratic) life as a New Yorker editor and contributor. Geng has a weakness for Runyonesque cliche: parts of the book sound as if he actually wrote them out of the side of his mouth. But he does deny us the easy consolations of a recovery narrative. Which is to say, he knows that he destroyed his life and doesn't try to dodge that fact with cheap epiphanies. I began this way:
Calling all middle-class rebels: Here's the life James Frey wishes he had lived. Steve Geng is an ex-thief, ex-junkie, ex-jailbird and ex-actor (who specialized in playing thieves, junkies and jailbirds during his hot streak on TV's Miami Vice). Now 64, and lucky to be alive after decades of methodical self-destruction, he has chronicled his scarifying odyssey in Thick as Thieves.

Geng isn't, of course, the first author to recount his descent into drugs, petty crime and pointedly bohemian dissolution. Born in 1943, he was just old enough to catch the tail end of the Beat era and lucky enough to live in Paris (as a teenage military brat) during the height of its postwar funkiness. The heroin-ravaged Chet Baker was his idol, and there's a definite whiff of Beat-like hedonism wafting from the book's pages.
You can read the rest here.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Bonini, Endless Highway, Hill, Rostropovich

It's been a busy week for me over at the Netscape Blog. First I posted a conversation with Carlo Bonini, one half of the investigatory duo that Michael Isikoff calls "the Woodward and Bernstein of Italian journalism." Mostly we talked about the forged yellowcake dossier--a story that Bonini and his partner Giuseppe D'Avanzo were the first to break in any detail. But we touched on a few of the other issues discussed in Collusion, including Italy's domestic antiterror campaign and the practice of extraordinary rendition. Luckily Carlo's English is excellent. Otherwise the interview would have been conducted via pidgin Italian, colorful hand gestures, and rapid crayon drawings. Here's a salient exchange:
Marcus: Were you and your partner ever discouraged from following up on the [yellowcake] story?

Bonini: We were under enormous pressure at times. The right-wing press started attacking us, saying that we had personal motives--or worse, that we were reporting on behalf of some mysterious U.S. intelligence officers. Four years later, I still can't understand what sort of argument they were trying to make. It probably reflected the fact that SISMI was afraid of being blamed for the whole mess by the CIA. So yes, there were moments when we felt alone. "Either we're nuts," we told ourselves, "or we're right." I mean, it was hard to believe that Rocco Martino's phony documents ended up in the White House. But that's what happened!

Marcus: Nigergate is the first intelligence screw-up you describe in Collusion. The next chapter is about the famous aluminum tubes, which the Bush Administration claimed were parts for Iraqi centrifuges. Yet the Italians always knew otherwise, didn't they?

Bonini: Of course. The Iraqis had definitely bought huge numbers of aluminum tubes. But those tubes were designed for a conventional missile system that Iraq had developed with the Italians back in the 1980s. The system we're talking about is called the Medusa 81, and the rockets required exactly that sort of aluminum tube, with very particular specifications. And SISMI was well aware of this.

Marcus: Did SISMI pass along that information to the Americans?

Bonini: When the U.S. intelligence community first began discussing the tubes, they asked the Italians to weigh in. And the Italians said nothing. Only 14 months after the invasion of Iraq did they tell the Americans what they had always known.
You can read the rest here. Meanwhile, I also posted a review of Endless Highway: The Music of The Band. I began this way:
Although The Band never sold as many records as its rock-and-roll peers, this elusive aggregation of four Canadians and one Arkansas good old boy certainly entered the pantheon before calling it quits in 1976. Who else could have marshaled such a mind-blowing parade of stars for its farewell gig, culminating with a rare appearance by former employer Bob Dylan?

Yet the group's catalog of songs has spawned relatively few memorable covers. Sure, Joan Baez scored a hit with her clueless version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1971. And just about every performer on the planet has taken a crack at "The Weight," including Waylon Jennings, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and even the Moog synthesizer posse on Switched-On Rock. Often, though, the songs have been given a wide berth. With their funky vibe, rough-hewn harmonies, and tintype vision of the old, weird America, they probably scared off a good many candidates.
I know, the tension is unbearable, so I'll go ahead and reveal my favorite performance on the disc: Guster (a college-circuit favorite I never heard before) doing an eccentric, vaguely Wilco-like version of "This Wheel's On Fire." Second place goes to big bad baritone Josh Turner for "When I Paint My Masterpiece." You can read the whole piece here.

I was sad to read about the death of pianist and composer Andrew Hill, who died of lung cancer on April 20. He was a gnarly original, drawn to asymmetrical shapes and long, rock-skipping melodies, and to some extent he kept falling through the cracks. Every decade or so Hill would be rediscovered--but he was there all along. His 1964 recording Point of Departure still thrills, with its glittering personnel (Kenny Dorham, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Richard Davis) and improvisational steeplechases. He was also a magical soloist at the piano, and I have vivid memories of a string quartet Hill composed back in 1996, when he was teaching at Portland State University. Was it jazz? Not really--Hill had studied with Paul Hindemith as a young man and knew the post-Romantic idiom inside out. Yet the phrases breathed, broke, and reassembled themselves with a jazzy fluency. You can read Ben Ratliff's obituary here, and Paul Olson's 2006 interview here.

Additional news flash: I just read about the death of Mtislav Rostropovich. Terrible. The giants are departing, and they don't get any bigger than this one, whose recording of the Debussy Cello Sonata (with Benjamin Britten) has been in my top rotation for the past twenty years. I wrote about him last April, when I saw him conduct Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 5, and quoted his recollection of his enchanted collaboration with the composer:
Shortly after my return to Moscow I received three letters from Shostakovich, which became my most treasured possessions. They were like love-letters, and became a kind of talisman for me. I kept them by my bedside table and read them constantly. The first letter started with these words, "Slava, I am completely intoxicated by what you have done to me, by the sheer delight you have given to me." I don't wish to continue to quote Dmitri Dmitriyevich's words, as they would sound completely implausible. Then one fine day I couldn't find the letters. I asked our maid Rimma where they were. She had seen me hunting for them high and low for three days, but she was too frightened to tell me straight away that she had thrown these treasured letters into the rubbish bin.
You can read the entire post here, and Allan Koznin's obituary here. This is, like I said, a sad day.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


PEN World Voices: Writers on the Environment

Last year, PEN kicked off the World Voices festival with a high-profile address by Orhan Pamuk. At the time, the Turkish novelist had just narrowly avoided a prison sentence for having the temerity to mention the Armenian genocide of 1915. This year's opening event was rather less dramatic. The venue was the same--the elaborately vaulted interior of Cooper Union's Great Hall--and you certainly couldn't fault the literary star power on display. Perhaps the topic was the problem. When you ask eleven writers to talk about the environment, you do risk a certain conformity of opinion. So be it. There was still plenty to enjoy.

Salman Rushdie was the first to bound onstage. He reminded the audience (youthful, diverse, audibly polyglot) to shut off those damn cell phones. He defended the notion of the assembled company wrestling with public issues: "It seems that everybody else talks about politics, so why not writers?" To further buttress his case, Rushdie cited "the great Gore" (not Vidal, in case you're wondering): "It's our planet, and we'll cry if we want to." Then he hustled on the first speaker, Geert Mak of the Netherlands.

An agreeable man with a mop of white hair, Mak spoke briefly about the dilemma of living on reclaimed land. "We have left the problem to the specialists," he confided. "To a couple of engineers--the so-called dike doctors." But with both temperatures and sea levels on the rise, the dike doctors may be unable to save this particular patient. "Our landscapes and our cities are not eternal anymore," Mak said. This un-American sentiment--who expects an American city to look the same for more than twenty minutes?--merited some further exploration. But Mak was playing by the rules, meaning that he had to share some green thoughts by somebody else: personal recycling was forbidden. So he read a long, sad bucolic by Obe Postma (1868-1963), while some sort of pep rally in an adjacent room kept threatening to drown him out.

With his zippier delivery, Gary Shtenygart held his own against the ambient noise. "To be honest," he told the audience, "I never really thought about the environment until last year, when I saw President Gore's lovely film." (The second Gore joke of the night, this earned a chuckle of solidarity from the crowd.) The bearded, sweatered novelist read a piece of eco-satire that George Saunders had written for the Guardian. It Saunders in his Alan King mode, tossing off 3.2 jokes in every paragraph ("Take my melting polar ice cap--please!"). But it was funny, too, and laughter can be in dangerously short supply at these events.

Next up: Roxana Robinson. In a resplendent white suit, she read out a quote which suggested some contemporary tree-hugger: say, Edward Abbey or Bill McKibben. But no, it was Anton Chekhov, whom she quickly identified as a "proto-environmentalist." There's always a danger in enlisting prior generations in our present catastrophes. However, Robinson made an excellent, eye-opening case for her thesis. "The natural world Chekhov knew was one took that place before the invention of the internal combustion engine," she noted. "There was no mediation between our senses and the natural world." Several passages from Chekhov himself supplied further confirmation.

In the darkness to stage right, the other panelists seemed to be studying Robinson with a kind of hoot-owl raptness. From their midst, and with the pep rally still in full force outside, came Moses Isegawa, in a long leather coat and a bright red Yankees cap. With no preamble, he read a long passage from John Berger's Pig Earth. A pair of photographers were crouching at the foot of the stage or leaning against the columns, using lenses the size of a human thigh. Isegawa had a pleasantly lilting voice, and when he uttered the word heart, he touched his own. But for this audience member, a wee bit of auditory fatigue had begun to set in.

For that reason, Billy Collins seemed like an ominous follow-up. Tall, balding, bespectacled, Collins is a famously droll poet. Yet he wouldn't be reading his own poems, would he? Had Ogden Nash written anything with an environmental tilt? How about Don Marquis? Instead Collins pulled out the new Paris Review and cruised through Mary Kinzie's "The Water-brooks." The poem was a beauty, crammed with memorable phrases ("breathed out / as from a mouth half-open in sleep" or "over the aquifers / whose downward plumes trickle toward each other"). Collins read it in a lugubrious monotone. It was like hearing a pianist strike the same one or two keys over and over--it was like a mid-tempo performance of "Chopsticks." Luckily he was the first reader to break the rules. "I'm going to read a very short poem of my own," he told the audience. "Because the ego can be contained for only so long." And "The Golden Years" was amusing indeed--especially for a sonnet.

Janne Teller of Denmark was up next. Skinny, dressed in an elaborately ruffled black skirt, she suggested that the Danes weren't too preoccupied with the environment: "We have no nature." But since there was still an adequate supply of nature in nearby Norway, she elected to read from Knut Hamsun's Pan. "There was a rock in front of my hut," she began, "a tall gray rock." Clearly this wouldn't be the sublime version of nature we knew and loved; it would be a kind of stern, Lutheran diorama, in which not only the rocks but the flora and fauna would be gray. Teller kept reading. The protagonist, a hunter, gunned down a hare, a grouse, a ptarmigan.

What next? Colson Whitehead read from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He prefaced this apocalyptic dad-and-son segment with a story about crying a single tear at Dallas BBQ, told so quickly that I couldn't keep track of it.

After Whitehead came Jonathan Franzen. Now, in his recent essay collection The Discomfort Zone, Franzen dwelled on his seesawing relationship with environmental politics. I wondered whether he would make a perverse stand against his peer group--whether he would say yes to pollution, then yes to cigarettes, Twinkies, transfats, SUVs, obesity. He did not. In fact, after mumbling how happy he was "to be here with this international crowd," he made an appealing plea on behalf of the "wild birds, amphibians, and reptiles. It's their planet too, and it's not quite dead yet." He read a long passage from the end of Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, and I was reminded of exactly how good a performer he is: wry, dry, gently dramatic. There were a lot of finger gestures, horizon-sketching, pianistic flourishes.

No, it was Pico Iyer who initially seemed a tad disdainful of the environmental topic. He was more concerned, he noted, with "the imperiled waters and forests inside us." (Speak for yourself, buddy.) His high voice and large, sentient-looking nose did not suggest an outdoorsy guy. Yet his selection, which he read from the largest piece of paper on offer all night, was from Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, an ecstatic work of natural observation--so much for cheap generalizations.

The evening wrapped up with a one-two punch. Marilynne Robinson insisted that she had been forced to break the rules: "The only book in this building that had a specifically environmental theme was my own book." (Had the authors truly been forced to pick their selections from whatever books happened to be on the premises? I liked that idea: a frantic scavenger hunt, with some poor soul reduced to reading from a manual for the HVAC system.) Robinson treated us to a lucid, lovely, frightening essay on the desecration of nature, especially in the vacant stretches of "the interior West." The author shifted from one high-heeled foot to the other as she read the damning sentences: "It stirs a sad suspicion in me that we are of the Devil's party without knowing it." The pep rally in the adjacent room had stopped. Robinson's prophetic paragraphs had sobered up the crowd--even the photographers at the base of the stage looked uneasy. It was up to Salman Rushdie to end the show on an upbeat note, which he did with a few of the funny bits from White Noise. Yes, it's a black comedy, but the ringmaster did what ringmasters are supposed to do: leave them laughing.

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