By Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 272 pp.; $25
Louis Menand, a professor at City University in New York, is emerging as one of this country's most perceptive and notable men of letters, a role underscored when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of American pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club. (It is a good treatment, though John Diggins' book on the topic is equally compelling.) Menand has now released another book, American Studies, a collection of eclectic essays, many of them previously published in The New York Review of Books.
It is impossible to find any thematic continuity here, but some of the pieces are nevertheless riveting. The article on William James explores the philosopher's search for meaning within the context of his melancholy disposition. Menand's essay on Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. pins the jurist's greatness on his empirical approach to life and law, in which all issues are rooted not in eternal principles but in a given context or moment -- hence, his pragmatism. Menand traces this break with conventional moral perspectives to the Civil War, an embittering experience that Holmes barely survived and many friends did not.
Menand also levels the old charge of anti-Semitism against T.S. Eliot. Eliot, while never malicious in his attitudes toward Jews, is nevertheless deemed guilty by association because so many of his literary compatriots were known anti-Semites. Christopher Lasch, the noted cultural critic, is the subject of a lengthy disquisition on the state of American liberalism. Lasch became disenchanted with liberalism as a political philosophy and questioned the very notion of progress as a concept in human affairs in his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.
There is a valuable essay here on Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, who shattered our perceptions about race with his brutal and uncompromising fiction. Another interesting piece deals with James B. Conant, the former president of Harvard University who played an important but quiet role in such crucial issues as the development and use of the nuclear bomb, the anticommunist effort (from a liberal perspective), and the structuring of a merit-based educational system, which dictated college-admissions policies for decades.
Other essays focus on less serious topics, such as the literary career of Norman Mailer, the Jerry Falwell/Hustler magazine case, the writings of movie critic Pauline Kael, and the history of The New Yorker. Here Menand's critical judgment occasionally gives way to his own prejudices. To equate, for example, Larry Flynt with Falwell is amusing as an exercise in leftist pandering, but it is silly on its face.
One would like to have seen Menand include one of his substantial treatments of Eliot or John Dewey, not to mention his review in The New Yorker of post-9/11 literature. Still, American Studies is a valuable contribution that will further establish Menand as a star in American letters.
-- George Shadroui
Writers on the Places They Remember
Edited by Robert Wilson
Random House; 250 pp.; $24.95
Maybe you often find yourself on the steps of the downtown courthouse on the corner of Adams and Second during your lunch break. You sit outside on those steps and glance in the sun, or you wander the building's halls and absorb its dignity. Although you cannot explain what it is that draws you, you come back day after day to this "certain somewhere."
In A Certain Somewhere, a collection of 30 essays originally published in Preservation magazine, novelists, poets, and critics describe the places they remember and their fascination with them. Reeve Lindbergh, for example, tries to capture "The Spirit of Maui," where her dying dad traveled to begin his last journey. Phyllis Rose's "Metropolitan Hideaways" is an homage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she used as "a time-and-space machine" during her summers in New York, where "pickings were slim for a stay-at-home runaway" college girl like her. Each of the essays shows the writer's attachment and view of a specific place, building, or piece of land, but they will also make you see places you've visited in a different light.
Mystery often lies in those places -- fascination too. And we may wonder, What is it about that courthouse? Sudip Bose asks a similar question in his introduction to A Certain Somewhere and answers, "Is it in the fact that place has a more lasting identity than we have, and we unswervingly tend to attach ourselves to identity?"
Part of the charm of this collection lies in the fact that you can dip in anywhere -- start with the essays that you think would interest you most or read the one that looks the least appealing. I did both. I was eager to read Ann Beattie's "Hiding Out in Ma§analand," her reflections on Key West, because I'm infatuated with the place. But I was disappointed because Beattie's Key West and my Key West aren't the same. Then I turned to Suzanne Freeman's "The Museum of Who We Were," which I felt an aversion to after the opening sentence -- "Looking out from the porch of my grandmother's house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, you don't see much ... " -- but I loved the piece about both her grandmother's house and her grandmother.
Don't, however, pick up A Certain Somewhere if you hope to find that someone has described New York City's Grand Central Terminal, your Grand Central, the way you see it and remember it. But consider the point Bose makes in his introduction, where he writes, "Perhaps houses and squares and courthouses and monuments can exist in two ways, occupying both physical and imaginative realms."
A Certain Somewhere shows us how.
-- Simone Barden
Dictionary of Film
By David Thomson
Knopf; 963 pp.; $35
First published in 1975 and now in its fourth edition, critic David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a mad, foolhardy exercise. It is also an essential reference work and a collection of compulsively readable criticism. In the years since I first discovered this book, I don't think I've gone more than a few days without referring to it. As baseball aficionados dote on Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract and record geeks cling to Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide books or David Marsh's The Heart of Rock & Soul, so countless film buffs treasure this indispensable tome.
Now based in America and perhaps most recognizable for a sex-and-cinema column he writes for Salon.com, Thomson has added 300 new entries since the book's last edition, in 1994, and has updated and revised countless others. It remains a highly personal, movie-mad testament, one in which even the acknowledgments include a parenthetical list of three favorite films from each and every person thanked.
Thomson (His Girl Friday, CÇline and Julie Go Boating, That Obscure Object of Desire) focuses mostly on actors and directors, though he also includes a sampling of producers (David O. Selznick), critics (James Agee), screenwriters (Paddy Chayefsky), cinematographers (Gregg Toland), composers (Bernard Herrmann), technicians (make-up artist Rick Baker), and even a few television figures (Johnny Carson, who inspires a fascinating essay).
One noticeable difference from previous editions is that the critic seems to have developed a sharper tongue over the years, as some of his new entries are deliciously -- and deservingly -- harsh. On action-movie tyrant Michael Bay's complaint about lack of respect: "He makes noisy garbage; it is his calling, his being and soul. There is no cure." On Roberto Benigni: "I despise Life Is Beautiful, especially its warmth, sincerity, and feeling, all of which I believe grow out of stupidity. Few events so surely signaled the decline of the motion picture as the glory piled on that odious and misguided fable." On ubiquitous cable-TV staple The Shawshank Redemption: "Among the young it often passes for a piece of profound humanism. Times are hard."
But Thomson has never been afraid to attack sacred cows, offering strong dissenting opinions on major figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, Federico Fellini, and John Ford. (Of the last, the man generally credited as the greatest of Western directors, Thomson writes: "No one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form. Apart from The Searchers --which is a very moving and mysterious film that does not cheat on a serious subject --I find his Westerns pictorial, tediously rowdy, and based on a cavalier treatment of American history.") And new entries find Thomson complaining about the limitations of above-reproach box-office stars Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. (On Hanks' Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia: "He carries the automatic sentiment of a dog in a film about people.")
Of course, Thomson has his favorites too. Among those he particularly celebrates are Luis Bu§uel, Robert Mitchum, Jean-Luc Godard ("one of the great critical yet poetic minds in the medium"), Angie Dickinson (his favorite actress!), Orson Welles, Sydney Greenstreet ("It is difficult not to believe that he is still in search of the falcon --'Ah yes, sir, the falcon!'"), Fritz Lang, Barbara Stanwyck, Nicholas Ray, and Kenji Mizoguchi. And like any film lover with a heart and mind, Thomson adores Cary Grant ("the best and most important actor in the history of the medium") and Howard Hawks: Thomson confesses that if he could salvage only 10 films to while away his life on a deserted island, he'd choose 10 Hawks films. Among his most recent loves are enfant terrible Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive ("I want to see [it] all the time").
Among the new entries, Thomson seems a bit too Hollywood-centric, and so we get a lot of minor young actors (Billy Crudup, Vincent D'Onofrio) and studio hacks (Jon Amiel, Jan de Bont) at the expense of more major figures on the American independent (Charles Burnett, Richard Linklater) and international (Wong Kar-Wai, Takeshi Kitano) scenes, and too many previous entries seem insufficiently reworked, with brief, list-heavy paragraphs added to the end of 1994 entries even for subjects whose recent work would seem to demand more significant reconsideration (Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise).
Though the book is thorough on the European and Japanese art films of the '50s and '60s, it is decidedly more spotty on recent international cinema. But, much to Thomson's credit, he is more open about this problem than other critics of his generation and stature (such as The New Yorker's relatively dismissive David Denby). In an entry on contemporary French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, Thomson remarks on the increasing lack of exposure for foreign-language film in America, lamenting that "there has never been an age in film history when America needed more external input."
But, surprisingly, some of the book's strongest new entries are on older figures somehow left out of previous editions, including comedy team Abbott and Costello, grand dame of film criticism Pauline Kael, and B-movie director Jack Arnold.
The Abbott and Costello entry leads the book and is one of its finest, and though Thomson makes no great claims for them in general, he includes a lovely, modestly brilliant riff on the pair's "Who's On First?" routine. Thomson says that if he were to compile a list of film clips to communicate America to a stranger, this routine would be the first he would choose.
Well, if I were to compile a shopping list of essential film books for those putting together a collection, this great book would be at the top of the list.
-- Chris Herrington
(Rear Window, Rio Bravo, The Shop Around the Corner)
History of Intoxication
By Stuart Walton
Harmony Books; 357 pp.; $24
It's not so unlikely that Elvis should show up in an academic work that claims getting loaded (on whatever) is an individual's right and perhaps even a biological mandate. What is unlikely is the way the King makes his appearance: a presumed hallucination "at the Laundromat." This is Stuart Walton's wimpy conclusion to his otherwise outstanding and engaging book Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication.
Elvis (whose appearance is admittedly less significant than my harping suggests) might as well be an alien, a ghost, or an honest politician: He is the thing that must be seen, and by more than a single set of eyes, to be believed. After building a compelling argument for better living through chemicals, an argument that is fraught with philosophical insight and colorfully rendered historical anecdotes, Walton sums things up with a somewhat more erudite version of "Dude, Elvis could be alive, drugs might be cool, it's all subjective, peace out." Walton's hot-button topic -- drugs and all kinds -- might just as well have been aftershave or the latest fashions for women. Worse, his my-blue-crayon-may-not-be-your-blue-crayon philosophizing is coupled to the NRA-inspired logic of "Drugs don't hurt people. Drug abuse (exacerbated by absurd drug laws) hurts people." Of course, his point -- especially the latter -- is well taken.
Walton, a journalist and cultural historian, draws us deep into the misty places where various intoxicants -- from tobacco to heroin and everything in between -- were born both literally and metaphysically. Then he generates a workable taxonomy of drugs and maps their impact on history and mythology. We hang with the Asiatic Dionysus at an orgy. We see the light bulb of inspiration flash over old Noah's head as the super-sailor laughs at a funny old goat eating spoiled grapes. Real-world events are taken on with even greater zeal. After all, how many writers in Walton's arena can be as critical of Prohibition's repeal as he is of Prohibition itself? The honorable Walton would have preferred a successful experiment in enforced teetotaling to a sweeping public apathy toward government corruption, in his estimation an unfortunate byproduct of Prohibition's repeal. Of course he prefers, and rightly so, that we have access to the good shit.
Walton's academic assumption that historical facts and cold empirical data somehow add up to something like truth ultimately undermines his own thesis. He dismisses the following assumption by anthropologist Terence McKenna as boilerplate paranoia: "Flattening, editing, and simplifying, television did its job and created a post-War American culture of the Ken and Barbie variety. The children of Ken and Barbie briefly broke out of the television intoxication in the mid-sixties through the use of hallucinogens. 'Oops,' responded the dominators . A double dose of TV therapy plus cocaine was ordered up [curing the hippies and] turn[ing them] into consumption oriented yuppies."
Hey, just because the "dominators" have not been named doesn't mean they don't exist in some strange organic state, as naturally as dope in the field. Super-secret cartels, juntas, or other paranoid manifestations of the famed illuminati may not actually meet in dark boardrooms to plot against the world, but thanks to the dance of governments and commerce, a ritual act summoning up powerful, godlike economies, they don't have to. In short, perhaps McKenna was onto something that Walton, the more conservative high-life advocate, is not, even if his own work reflects it.
To borrow from Walton, it was McKenna who saw Elvis in the Laundromat, and who is Stuart Walton to say he didn't, or that his blue crayon isn't Oh wait, he wants to be taken seriously. And in many cases, Walton should be. -- Chris Davis
By Ed Sanders
Thunder's Mouth Press; 552 pp.; $17.95 (paper)
First published in late 1971 and updated in 1989, this is the third go-round for Ed Sanders' gruesome history of 1969's Tate-LaBianca murders, the L.A. murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his death-cult family of not-so-gentle hippies. This reviewer read the first edition over 30 years ago, and what was shocking then is mostly just sad and awful now.
A ghastly, unending array of serial murderers and thrill killers have sprung up in the wake of the violent swath that Manson and his followers cut in late-'60s Southern California. Charlie and his army of vomitous zombie trolls seemed the quintessence of evil three decades ago. Today, they seem more like a quaint advance guard for the everyday violence that has become an expected part of American culture.
So how did a 32-year-old ex-con from West Virginia walk out of a California jail on March 21, 1967, and, a little over two years later, find himself back in jail on serial-murder charges? How did this small-time car thief and wannabe pimp establish a charismatic sex/death cult that set a new industry standard for most of the flaming, violent geeks who followed in his path? How did this trash-talking hillbilly find a group of followers who would do his idiotic bidding with little or no disagreement? The answer probably comes down to location and context.
Manson went straight from L.A.'s Terminal Island Prison north to Berkeley in the early spring of '67, just in time for San Francisco's infamous "Summer of Love," which attracted teenage runaways and the walking wounded from all over the United States. Pickings were easy and plentiful in the Haight that season. Manson started to put together his band of damaged waifs and dim-bulb males. In less than two and a half years, Manson went from paroled ex-con to love guru to embattled cult leader to greasy murder czar to lifer jailbird. Quite a record for a charismatic jerk with a Jesus complex, wouldn't you say?
He probably wouldn't have "gotten nowhere" so far and so fast if he hadn't found his way into the unsuspecting rabbit farm that was late-'60s California counterculture. Nobody recognized Charlie the Impaler for who he really was until it was way too late.
Find out why. Sanders' book is still the classic on the subject: required reading for the parents of teenage daughters currently dating ex-cons and for anybody else mildly curious as to how the "hippie dream" went terribly wrong.
-- Ross Johnson
A Collection of Pranks, Stunts, Deceptions, and Other
Wonderful Stories Contrived
for the Public from the Middle
Ages to the New Millennium
By Alex Boese
Dutton; 266 pp.; $19.95
In September 1726, a British woman named Mary Toft gave birth to a baby rabbit. The local physician hurried to her home, where he assisted in the delivery of eight more of the little creatures. And she didn't stop there. As news of this remarkable tale spread throughout the land, Toft continued to push out more rabbits, though in truth they were the heads, feet, and other pieces of dead animals -- not the happy little bunnies that are seen hopping from between her legs in a contemporary engraving.
Toft was eventually summoned to the king, where the royal physician doubted this "mirable" and kept a close watch on her. Under these conditions, the woman was unable to produce any more bunnies and eventually admitted the whole thing was a hoax. For reasons that we shall never understand, Toft had actually inserted baby rabbits into her you-know-what and then expelled them as the crowds oohed and aahed.
This and many other curious tales are included in The Museum of Hoaxes, a century-by-century compendium of deceptions compiled by Alex Boese, a graduate student in the history of science at the University of California at San Diego. Boese has certainly collected a good variety of stories, most of them culled from other sources, and he makes an effort to explain how the nature of hoaxes has changed over the years.
But what makes his book unusual -- and I'm not sure this is a good thing -- is that it's basically a printed, though abbreviated, version of his Web site, MuseumofHoaxes.com. Throughout the book, Boese offers links to various sections of the site, which can be helpful -- or not. Call me a Luddite, but I found this approach a tad irritating. For example, one of the chapters discusses literary hoaxes perpetrated by Edgar Allan Poe. Three of them are briefly presented in the book, and then the reader encounters this: "For more hoaxes by Edgar Allan Poe, go to www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoaxes1800.html." Once I'm settled in bed or a comfy chair with a book, I, for one, don't hop up after every few pages to surf the Internet. At the same time, the Web site is useful because it not only contains more hoaxes but includes far more illustrations and photographs than the book.
Another complaint is that many of history's most controversial deceptions -- such as the Shroud of Turin (if it's indeed a hoax; Boese isn't clear on that one) or the original "Ponzi Scheme" -- are examined far too briefly. If you didn't already know the story, the accounts here would probably confuse you. At the same time, Boese devotes pages to silly things that seem little more than pranks or practical jokes, such as "Cross-Dressing Ken" (a Mattel "Ken" doll dressed in women's clothes by the employees of a toy store) or the time a Canadian radio deejay conducted a "fake" interview with former President Jimmy Carter (who was portrayed by an impersonator).
One final quibble: The book opens with a series of bizarre stories, and the reader is invited to judge if they are true or false. The answers to this "Gullibility Quiz" are buried toward the back, with no indication they can be found there.
All in all, The Museum of Hoaxes makes for interesting, if at times light, reading. But you should peruse the "Suggestions for Further Reading" at the end of the book for more comprehensive accounts of the hoaxes examined here. -- Michael Finger
History of the World
By Jocko Weyland
Grove Press; 337 pp.; $13.50 (paper)
At one time, skateboarding meant punk rock, underground culture, social outcasts, and the philosophy of pure anarchy. Today, the term brings to mind ESPN's X-games, video-game simulations, and skateboarding's sell-out icon Tony Hawk.
In The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder's History of the World, skate veteran Jocko Weyland attempts to chronicle the sport's history from its humble beginnings as a pastime for surfers to its natural melding into the underground punk culture of the late '70s to its descent into mainstream society.
Weyland presents this history in an interesting but sometimes hard-to-follow manner, switching from third-person tales of the lives and times of fellow skaters to first-person accounts of his own experiences. He does so in prose that hints of Kerouac but with more regard for punctuation. Because of this, there were times when I couldn't put Weyland's book down, and there were times when I couldn't wait to reach a good stopping point so I could put the book down.
His formal third-person style is dry, to say the least. Granted, a "skateboarding history of the world" calls for coverage of events that Weyland couldn't possibly have experienced firsthand, but his analyzing the writing styles of ex-Thrasher skate journalists is taking it a little too far. I felt like I was studying for an exam, not reading for pleasure. His personal accounts are much more palatable and serve as the book's redeeming quality. But these accounts don't start until about 140 pages into the book.
He tells of his discovery of the sport on the Fourth of July in 1976 when he rode another kid's yellow plastic banana board for the first time. Then he tells of his subsequent worship of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag when punk and skateboarding began their intimate relationship. At 15, he traveled to Texas where he finally felt "in sync with his brethren." Raised in a small Colorado town, Weyland grew up far from the heart of the burgeoning skate scene that was developing in larger cities, and he felt he was finally with his kind of people.
These parts of the book make for great reading, and Weyland has a nice handle on the English language and a decent knowledge of art and literature -- allusions, when referring to his "merry band" of friends, to Ken Kesey's "merry band of pranksters" or references to "J.G. Ballard-like landscapes of ruined concrete" in an abandoned skatepark.
I did, however, find Weyland's habitual name-dropping of the now-legendary skaters he once hung out with a bit annoying in that I-knew-these-people-before-they-were-cool kind of way.
With all its highlights and flaws, The Answer Is Never could easily be recognized as the bible of skateboarding because, like the Bible, parts of it are as fascinating as Revelations while others are as boring as Leviticus. -- Bianca Phillips
By John Feinstein
Little, Brown; 352 pp.; $25.95
When Kermit Washington was a kid growing up in a tough section of Washington, D.C., in the '60s, he and his older brother Chris pasted their bedroom walls and ceiling with the covers of Sports Illustrated. Those athletes on the magazine's covers were his heroes.
Washington, who played nine seasons in the NBA, was a nice guy. Everyone who knew him said so. The every is key here because author John Feinstein interviewed everyone -- coaches, players, sportswriters. But the reason why Feinstein interviewed all these folks was that Washington was at the wrong end of hero. He was the perpetrator of "The Punch," also the title and main event of Feinstein's latest book.
On December 9, 1977, the L.A. Lakers were playing the Houston Rockets in Los Angeles. Washington, a Laker, was hassling a member of the Rockets. Rudy Tomjanovich, a Rocket, saw the set-to and ran to help his teammate. As Tomjanovich approached, Washington swung -- 6'8" and 222 pounds of agitated force colliding with a running seven-footer. Tomjanovich woke up in a pool of blood and thought that his recurring nightmare -- a scoreboard falls on him -- had finally happened. After that night, Tomjanovich had a new nightmare: that he would die.
Tomjanovich did come close to dying that night. His skull was dislodged from his body and that bitter taste in his mouth was spinal fluid. He survived but was shaken, as was Washington and the rest of the NBA. According to Feinstein, the punch happened at a point when the NBA was struggling with a violent image and a paucity of fan interest. The punch, which was parodied on Saturday Night Live, became the reference point in criticizing the NBA. It also became an unhappily inseparable part of Tomjanovich and Washington, for whatever else the two men accomplished or destroyed, they would always be recognized as one half of the punch.
Particularly intriguing is how alike Feinstein paints Tomjanovich's and Washington's beginnings. Both overcame difficult childhoods to become solid pro players and both had stifling insecurities. But when they crashed on that night in 1977, their paths merged and then separated. Tomjanovich's fear for his fragile face hampered his play, while Washington feared what taking the blame would mean to his career. Tomjanovich found solace in drink and then sobriety. Washington is still looking for comfort. Tomjanovich spent 25 years downplaying the importance of the punch, while Washington remains determined to clear his name.
Feinstein's approach is utterly thorough regarding the event and painstakingly fair to both parties involved. And while the author is so straightforward and frequently repetitive as to dull the drama, he convincingly proves his point that one punch in 1977 changed things for the men and the NBA. -- Susan Ellis
By Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly Press; 313 pp.; $25
Fans of novelist and poet Jim Harrison will find much to savor in this loosely assembled autobiographical memoir. Those unfamiliar with the writer may find it considerably less compelling.
Now in his mid-60s, Harrison has compiled a meaty body of work, including four volumes of novellas, seven novels, seven collections of poetry, two collections of essays, and -- for good measure -- a children's book. He has won numerous literary awards and has had a few of his works made into Hollywood movies. He has mingled with the high poobahs of Hollywood and the literary world: Jack Nicholson, Tennessee Williams, Tom McGuane, Danny DeVito -- to name just four of the many, many names casually woven into the anecdotes that pepper Off to the Side.
Harrison scuffled around for many years, getting by on a construction worker's or (later) a college instructor's meager pay -- and the woefully inadequate proceeds from sales of his poetry books. Married in college, Harrison worked manfully for two decades to support his wife and daughter, barely managing to keep the wolf away from the door.
Then in 1977, Harrison -- lost in the thicket of academe and still struggling financially -- wrote a couple of novellas. His agent disparaged them, saying, "No one has ever heard of novellas," but in a stroke of fortune, both works -- Legends of the Fall and Revenge -- were snapped up by Hollywood and Harrison became a near-instant millionaire.
It becomes abundantly clear early on in Off to the Side that the themes permeating Harrison's work -- a love of nature, sex, gourmet food, and a general pioneer/blue-collar ethos -- are reflections of the writer's life and not literary contrivances. But the book is maddeningly disorganized and repetitive. (We read the line "my little casita near the Mexican border" at least six times. This, one suspects, is more about sloppy editing than an intentional literary conceit.)
Harrison begins, conventionally enough, by writing about his childhood in Michigan and early family experiences, including the loss of an eye and the deaths of his father and sister in a car crash. It's a compelling beginning, but Harrison then inserts a section called "Seven Obsessions," which are essentially essays reprinted from Men's Journal about, well, his obsessions. These include Alcohol, France, Stripping, Nature, Private Religion, etc. They are interesting, particularly his funny and spirited (if a bit defensive) philosophy of drinking and his ode to strip clubs and strippers (Harrison's wife of 40 years is clearly a saint -- or nuts), but they belong in an essay collection, not a memoir. After these digressions, Harrison returns to his life's history. And it's a full and interesting story, rich with anecdote and self-deprecating wit.
Harrison is a wonderful writer, no matter the subject. A reviewer for the London Sunday Times once wrote that Harrison is "a writer with immortality in him." It's a quote that has served Harrison well, having been used on several of his book jackets. It may be true, or not. Only time will tell if Harrison's work will endure. What is abundantly clear in Off to the Side is that Harrison's memoir of his mortal life would have been better with a clearer structure.
-- Bruce VanWyngarden
Settings of Silver:
Stories of Dinner as
a Work of Art
By Carolin C. Young
Simon & Schuster; 358 pp.; $35
You are invited to a Surrealist picnic hosted by that hostess with the mostest, party-girl extraordinaire Caresse Crosby. The site is the home she shared with husband Harry before Harry had to put a gun to his head: the Moulin de Soleil in the forest of Ermenonville outside Paris -- former stomping ground of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and 20th-century stomping ground of D.H. Lawrence, Douglas Fairbanks, and the future George VI of England. The impromptu picnic occurs on a Sunday afternoon early in July 1932.
On the menu are champagne (lots of it) and lobsters (lots of them), perfect ingredients to fuel your already highly combustible dinner companions, among them: American art dealer Julien Levy; Max and Marie-Berthe Ernst; Salvador Dal° and his mistress/future wife Gala; Antoine de Saint-ExupÇry; a young Henri Cartier-Bresson; and the "pope" himself, AndrÇ Breton.
Caresse has hired the local gravedigger to cook the lobsters, a fitting chef for a favorite food of the cannibalistically minded Surrealists, because the lobster, they say, "ruthlessly feeds on the rotting flesh of drowned seamen." But not on the menu this Sunday are choice dishes both contemporary and down the ages, all of them guaranteed to expand your mind and shrink your appetite. Among them: roasted chickens stuffed with steel ballbearings (as proposed in a Futurist cookbook); "woodcock 'flambÇe' in strong alcohol, served in its own excrements" (as featured in Parisian restaurants of the day); "a wild boar carved to liberate living thrushes" and "cakes that vaporized into noxious smoke when touched" (as described by Petronius in The Satyricon in the first century A.D.); or live goose (as recommended by a 16th-century Neapolitan named Giambattista della Porta and described by him in The Treatise on Natural Magic).
Carolin C. Young in Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver gives us that goose recipe just in case you've had it with the standard turkey this Thanksgiving: "[A] live goose, smeared in suet and lard, is placed in a fiery trench, where it is free to walk about and cool down with large drinks of water until it begins to stumble when its heart gives way. The reader is then instructed to 'set him on the table to your Guests who will cry out as you pull off his parts and you shall eat him before he is dead.'" Yum, but not to be outdone by Dal°, who titled one of his unbloody paintings during this the height of his "food phase," Average French Bread with Two Fried Eggs Without the Plate Trying to Sodomize a Crumb of Portuguese Bread.
Say this about Young, an expert in antique porcelain, silver, and glass and a lecturer on dining history for Sotheby's: She knows when to tickle the tastebuds and when to turn tastebuds to mush, and she does both very well in the dozen meals, great and small, described in this book.
The idea here is fascinating. Take what history records and show us what it was men and women sat down to eat, what it took for kitchens to dish it out, what plates and cutlery were used to grace an impressive table, what was and was not proper etiquette in seating, service, and conversation, and most enlightening, what in the world these people were thinking. Mealtime, then, soup to nuts: from "Dining with God: Peter the Venerable and the Monks at Cluny, Burgundy, A.D. 1132" to "A Feast of the Gods with Titian, Sansovino, and the Divine Aretino, Venice, 1 August 1540" to "The Wedding Banquet of Maria de' Medici and Henri IV, Florence, 5 October 1600" to "Casanova's Souper Intime, Venice, November 1753" to "Bernard Shaw's Sunday Supper with William Morris and Family, London, July 1884" to "The Secession Banquet, Vienna, 19 January 1900" to that forest of Surrealists outside Paris in 1932 under the direction of live-wire Caresse Crosby.
But back to Giovanni Giacomo Casanova's souper intime. Start with his 12-volume autobiography, turn to his (temporary) obsession with a Venetian nun (the mysterious M.M.), go to the dinner she concocted for them outside her convent (but under the hidden gaze of her lover, a priest and future cardinal acting as French ambassador to the Venetian Republic), and wonder if indeed, as Young wonders, the couple dined on "Chicken in Panties" or, as Young has no need to wonder, they dined on the ever-popular "food as toy," the lowly raw oyster on the half-shell. Follow one oyster down M.M.'s cleavage but depend on Casanova to follow other oysters elsewhere: "He exchanged them mouth to mouth for hours, an activity he considered 'the most lascivious and voluptuous game of all,' his lover's saliva 'the most beautiful sauce,'" Young writes and Young quotes.
No cook, no kitchen required when we're talking the food of love, dinner as art. Caresse Crosby, by comparison: She's a rich American ex-pat, neurotic as all get-out, totally half-baked. -- Leonard Gill