I'm tickled that Canadian music journalist, CBC broadcaster, author, friend—and devoted reader of adventure tales—Grant… Posted by Philip Turner on Wednesday, 23 March 2016
The National Book Critics Circle’s annual literary extravaganza began last night, a two-night affair I’ve attended every year since the early 2000s (and written about on this blog before). Last night 25 of the authors whose books are finalists for the awards in the six categories which will be given tonight read from their books. No admission charge for the readings or the awards tomorrow, NY’s best free literary program every year. There’s a post-awards benefit tomorrow night, the only part of the wordfest that carries a charge. I’ll be there again tonight. Glad I got good pictures in the darkened auditorium at The New School on West 12th St.
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) February 1, 2016
I was only rounding the halfway bend when I tweeted the above last weekend about Pig Iron, Benjamin Myers’ 2012 novel. The investment in the story that I expressed then paid double as I finished the book, progressively becoming more and more gripped by the fate of its narrator, John-John Wisdom, a young man whose hardscrabble history is steadily revealed to the reader through the course of a beautifully twined narrative that braids together parallel first person accounts by he and his mother. Through them we at last learn the whole truth of the Wisdom family.
In the parlance of England, the Wisdoms are “Travellers,” perhaps not exactly ethnic Roma but wandering tribes nonetheless, reminiscent of Europe’s long-shunned gypsies. The inventiveness with language and vocabulary was reminiscent to me of what Russell Hoban did in Ridley Walker and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, without the same futuristic-apocalyptic intimations as Hoban, but a violent strand like Burgess. Young Wisdom’s late father was a bare-knuckle boxer, while his son’s a fighter of a different kind. John-John, only recently released from a five-year prison sentence, is determined to put his life back together following a deed that he only hints at when a new girlfriend asks him about his time away from the rural climes he cherishes, his “green cathedral.” The references to a rural idyll reminded me of when a terminally ill Dennis Potter, creator of the magnificent “Singing Detective” TV series, expressed a deep connection for the Forest of Dean in his courageous 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg. John-John Wisdom and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five” seem like literary and spiritual cousins.
I also see Myers’ work in a line of connection with the contemporary English writer of landscape and wild places, Robert Macfarlane, whose The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot I loved so much. I read much of the latter aloud to my wife, as we both delighted in the sound of Macfarlane’s words and place names that evoke the chalk cliffs of England, the windy Hebrides, and desert Palestine. Myers’ work would also be great to hear voiced, with his rich vocabulary and kinetic vernacular. Hmm, makes me wonder if there are audio book editions of his work yet.
Myers is gaining recognition in the UK. His 2014 novel, Beastings, was awarded the Manchester, England public library’s Portico Prize, after Pig Iron had earlier won the Gordon Burn award, named in honor of a Newcastle, England novelist. I learned about Myers through this profile in the Guardian’s book pages by Alison Flood, then bought Pig Iron online from a UK bookseller. Its publisher is Bluemoose Books of West Yorkshire, England. This is Myers’ website. He hasn’t had much exposure yet in the US, and I hope this post of mine draws some attention to his work. He deserves to be read by fans of the writers mentioned above, as well as readers who enjoy Cormac McCarthy and Kent Haruf. I look forward to next reading Beastings, again set in a rural area, about an adolescent girl who’s a runaway from a coercive family she’d been indentured to work for.
Wow, this is going to be a blockbuster book. Jane Mayer’s latest, due out Jan 19th, is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. It’s the subject of a NY Times news article tonight by Nicholas Confessore who must’ve gotten an early copy. He reports on the collective portrait of rightwing billionaire families, including Richard Mellon Scaife, who before his death in 2014 spent more than a billion dollars of his Mellon family fortune pushing conservative causes; most notably, in the 1990s he harassed Bill Clinton through the infamous American Spectator magazine (see “Troopergate” if you need a reminder). I recall of this with firsthand memory because in the early 2000s I edited and published Susan MacDougal’s memoir of the years she was pursued by Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail., whose probe was an outgrowth of Scaife’s bankrolling Whitewater into a faux scandal. After discussing Scaife, the book examines an earlier brother pair, Lynde and Harry Bradley; and the DeVos family of Michigan. Apparently, Mayer then moves on to the bulk of her book, the Koch family. Confessore releases this explosive finding from Mayer’s investigation:
“The book is largely focused on the Koch family, stretching back to its involvement in the far-right John Birch Society and the political and business activities of their father, Fred C. Koch, who found some of his earliest business success overseas in the years leading up to World War II. One venture was a partnership with the American Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis, who, according to Ms. Mayer, hired Mr. Koch to help build the third-largest oil refinery in the Third Reich, a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine.”
As editor, I also acquired IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001, Crown Publishing) by Edwin Black, and on this website blogged several times about The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand. I have an eye for these sort of titles, and I’m sure this one by Mayer will be fascinating, and important.
Sad to read that venerable literary agent Tim Seldes, 88, died over the weekend at his home in D.C. Tim was a friendly and approachable bookman, and a helluva lot of fun to have lunch with, as I had the chance to do several times over the years I knew him. He also had a great look about him, like a bookish buccaneer, reminding me of Lionel Barrymore in his portrayal of the pirate Billy Bones in the 1934 film version of “Treasure Island.” I was very fond of Tim. He came from a distinguished literary family, as the obit puts it: “Seldes grew up around words, ideas and the performing arts. He was the brother of Tony-winning actress Marian Seldes, son of the drama critic and author Gilbert Seldes and nephew of the pioneering press critic George Seldes.” He married three times, the second time to Lee Seldes, author of the superb book “The Legacy of Mark Rothko.” Among his many distinguished author clients was novelist Anne Tyler, who told the AP, “The space Tim Seldes will leave behind is enormous. He was so vibrant and engaged and such a celebrator, and a wonderful friend to writers.” His wife of many years, novelist Susan Shreve, whose books like Children of Power and Miracle Play I’ve long enjoyed, was reportedly with him at the end, as were other family members. My sincere condolences to them all. In 2012, Tim sold Russell & Volkening, his agency, to Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, so his good taste in authors carries on with Will Lippincott and Rob McQuilkin. Here’s a link to the AP obit. RIP, Tim, it was a pleasure to know you.
Just found a picture of Tim (l.), with George Plimpton.
I spent the past couple weeks, amid so much disturbing upheaval in the world outside my reading, deeply enjoying Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel, which Random House published last June. (I had first shared about it on this blog last May.) From Kunkel’s acknowledgments at the end I’ve learned the book was commissioned by Bob Loomis*, the great editor there who, before his retirement in 2012, signed up the book, though the manuscript was evidently delivered after his departure. Mitchell grew up in a tobacco- and cotton-farming family in North Carolina (b. 1908) and, disappointing his father, moved to New York City at twenty-one, determined to become a newspaperman, even amid the Depression; he found work as a copy boy, and soon began reporting and writing, including at the Herald Tribune (where my longtime author, photojournalist Ruth Gruber later worked) and for the World-Telegram, which Mitchell joined in 1930. He began writing for The New Yorker in 1932, and joined the magazine’s staff in 1938. Kunkel’s book is a superb portrait of Mitchell’s whole life, to his death in 1996, and a rich appreciation of his writings.
While reading and really savoring the whole book, every anecdote, every chapter it covers of Mitchell’s life, I took down from a bookshelf my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, the 1992 collection that gathered Mitchell’s Profiles on true-life New York characters, and other work, which back then put Mitchell back on the map for many readers. Until then, his magazine pieces had frequently been gathered up and published between hardcovers—his first My Ears Are Bent, came out in 1938, followed by McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943); Old Mr. Flood (1948); The Bottom of the Harbor (1959) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965)—but it was more than two decades between books when, at the urging of Dan Frank of Pantheon Books, Mitchell published this full omnibus of his work, gathered from those books, and other sources. It made a big splash at the time, getting stellar reviews, and Kunkel tells us that Mitchell welcomed the spotlight that came with being remembered by so many readers, and discovered by even more.
I’ve had the book since soon after it came out—my copy’s a first edition. I was around that time editing and preparing to publish a comparable book, A Diary of Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, by Edward Robb Ellis, a near-contemporary of Mitchell’s, who also worked at the World-Telegram, arriving there in 1947. Like Mitchell, Ellis savored writing about memorable NY characters, people like Fred Bronnenkant, riveter for more than thirty years on the Brooklyn Bridge, who had such affection for the span he regarded it as a kind of mistress**. Though Eddie was not quite the consummate stylist that I now see Mitchell was, like Mitchell, he aspired to make great work. Both men learned writing in the same milieu—the midcentury American newspaper, entirely at NY papers for Mitchell, partly true for Ellis, who before coming to the metropolis for what became the last twenty years of his career as an on-staff feature writer, had worked at papers in New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Peoria, and Chicago.*** They deployed vivid imagery, showed a fondness for lengthy list-making (a penchant embraced in more recent years by New Yorker writer John McPhee), a keen interest in what things cost back in the day, and an appreciation for character, with great skill at presenting to readers the people they encountered.
Seeing the success of Up in the Old Hotel, I recalling buying the book in hopes of imbibing some of that vibe and investing Eddie’s book with it. Though I was interested in Mitchell and his work, as happens for professional editors I got sidetracked from it, and had in fact never read it thoroughly, nor really sensed the charms of Mitchell’s writing until the past couple weeks. During the weeks I was reading the Kunkel bio, I leafed through the 700+page anthology, shown here, and now that I’ve finished the biography, I’m fully able to dive in to it. Last night, I read and enjoyed the third Profile in the anthology, about Mazie Gordon, a denizen of the Bowery, who ran a “moving-picture house” called the Venice Theatre, and who “Detective Kain [of the Oak Street police station] says that she has the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.” Mitchell chronicles her working life, seated in a glassed-in booth along Park Row, selling movie tickets, and greeting her patrons, some of whom are by her own description “bums” that live in nearby flophouses. She is a key player in the street life near Chatham Square, and the piece includes many conversations she had with bums, cops, priests, and all kinds of urban operators which it seems certain Mitchell overheard. His chronicle of Mazie’s proprietorship of the theatre, and her status in the wider neighborhood, is among the most enjoyable things I’ve read this year.
Here’s the first paragraph of the 1940 profile, titled ‘Mazie’:
“A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery in the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change….’In my time, I’ve been as free with my dimes and as old John D himself,’ she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre.”
Now that I’m finished with the biography, I’ve also sought out reviews of it, such as a good one by John Williams in the NY Times, and a very insightful essay by Janet Malcolm in the NY Review of Books; she was a colleague of Mitchell’s at The New Yorker. Kunkel wrote an earlier biography of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, who hired Mitchell for the magazine, after his several-year audition as a contributing writer. I’ve never met Kunkel, but I’m glad to say I feel connected to him anyway. As it happens, he reviewed Edward Robb Ellis’s A Diary of Century when it was published in 1995, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, concluding his review in the Washington Post with the praise that Ellis’s diary of an Everyman, “produc[ed] something akin to Copland’s glorious ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.'” I’ll find a way to share this blog post with him, so I can belatedly let him know how glad I am that he enjoyed Eddie Ellis’s book, and I can tell him I felt the same for his superb book on Joseph Mitchell.
* Among Bob Loomis’s authors was William Styron; the courtly editor helped me enlist Styron’s aid in a championing a book I edited in 1999, about an arguably innocent inmate on Virginia’s Death Row. I wrote about that episode in my editorial career in an essay for the BN Review called “William Styron: A Promise Kept.”
**Ellis’s beguiling entry on Frank Bronnenkant is found on pgs 173-75 of A Diary of the Century (Kodansha America, 1995; republished by me at Union Square Press in 2008). Clicking on this link will take you to all my blog posts about Edward Robb Ellis, which includes one that examines the legacy of notorious faker Joe Gould, the subject of Mitchell’s last published Profile, the recently discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, and Ellis, in a 2014 piece I titled “Vivian Maier Was the Real Deal, the Ultra-Opposite of Joe Gould.” The relevance here is that Ellis—whose book was drawn from his diary, a journal he began keeping at age 16, and which he stayed with until 89, the longest-kept such record in the history of American letters—and the secretly great and prolific street photographer Maier did each create a magnum opus, while Gould never did, though Mitchell did believe for a time that he really was writing a seminal work, “The Oral History of our Times.” And yet Mitchell, even after publishing two long profiles of Gould (‘Professor Seagull,’ ’42, rather credulous) and (‘Joe Gould’s Secret,’ ’64, not credulous any longer) did not rebuke Gould. He generously concluded that Gould, some writings by whom he had actually read in the 1940s, had perhaps at least been writing in his mind, as Mitchell did with an uncompleted memoir and novel he never published.
*** For her part, Ruth Gruber, before and after WWII, wrote for the Herald Tribune and the NY Post. Unlike Mitchell and Ellis, she oscillated in and out of journalism, working for a time in the federal government during the FDR Administration, as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’ special representative to Alaska. Ruth is, so far as I know, the eldest surviving member of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. This post is about a 104th birthday gathering with her this past October.
The 104th birthday of my longtime author—the storied photojournalist Ruth Gruber, with whom I’ve published six books—was last Wednesday, so yesterday Kyle and I joined Ruth and her daughter Celia to celebrate the latest milestone in Ruth’s remarkable and event-filled life—from meeting Virginia Woolf in the 1930s to journeying through the Soviet Arctic later that decade to working in Alaska as a representative of the FDR administration to chronicling the voyage of the real-life Exodus ship in 1947 to being honored by the International Center of Photography (ICP) in 2012, aspects of her life I’ve chronicled several times on this blog. Photos from our birthday celebration are below, but first note that the ICP’s exhibit of Ruth’s work is now at Brooklyn College where it will be up until February 12, 2016, with an opening this Thursday, October 8. NB: Five of the six books I published w/Ruth in the 1990s and 2000s, including her two remarkable memoirs Ahead of Time and Inside of Time, as well as her book on Virginia Woolf, are available from Open Road Media.