Archive for the ‘Book Notes’ Category

Donald Barthelme – A Biography – Daugherty

When someone writes a seven hundred page book about someone I’m only vaguely aware of I’m intrigued.  I bought this book and learned that Donald Barthelme was a literary innovator who helped re-direct American fiction along with a very small group of authors referred to as postmodernists for lack of a better term.  This group includes John Barth, William Gass, Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon.  I felt an immediate connection with DB because his father was of the second generation of modern architects who considered the tenets of modernism a religion.  In twentieth century architecture there is an indisputable godhead – Frank Lloyd Wright and a group of three major disciples, all  European: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der rohe and Walter Gropius. Don Sr., Donald, the writer’s, father brought his architectural intensity into his home.  DB grew up in one of the first modern houses in Houston, Texas.  His mother was passionate about literature.  DB was drafted into the Army and served a tour overseas at the tail end of the Korean war.  DB had a strong-willed passionate and oppressive father – so did I.  The architecture / dad Freudian angle got me hooked for the avalanche of information that followed.  Roger Angel, fiction editor of the New Yorker anointed Barthelme as the next big thing in the mid-sixties.  DB’s fiction, while erudite, trenchant, funny and soulful is not accessible to many readers.  I love DB’s work.  He is explosively creative.  His lived life is dull as dust.  He sat at a desk and wrote all day every day for decades under the influence of copious amounts of vodka.  He moved from small apartment to small apartment and always re-painted each new place white.  Homage to the color of choice of hardcore modern architects.  He died young probably from immune system failure due to inhaling oil-based paint fumes (my theory) the alcohol was no help.  DB was on one end of a great paradigm juke in American letters when he was replaced on the New Yorker pedestal by minimalist / realist Raymond Carver who would have been a maudlin maximalist were it not for his editor Gordon Lish. DB has two brothers who are also esteemed authors of fiction, Steven and Frederick.  It is very interesting to note that  Donald and Frederick are on the two sides of the great New Yorker juke (too small to be a shift),  DB being pomo and Frederick being a realist.  There’s the Bloomian swerve from one’s precursor and what must be an even larger swerve, that from a famous brother, nice work Frederick, job well done.

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Picasso – A Biography – John Richardson (3 volumes)

Picasso – A Biography –  John Richardson  (two volumes of three) – What more do we need to know about Picasso?  Picasso did not evolve from Cubism to his neo-classicism because he was an inveterate explorer who had exhausted the Cubist vein and had to discover a new avenue.  He abandoned Cubism so save his ass during World War One.  There developed a wartime fever to obliterate all things German from French life.  Picasso’s primary art dealer during his Cubist years was the German Kahnweiler and some German signs were spotted in a painting or two.  Picasso had gotten in trouble with the law in his Louvre theft association with the thief and was questioned by police.  He lived in fear of deportation.  Cubism rocked the boat.  Let’s dial back until the smoke clears into this sensuous proto-classical riff. He was Gertrude Stein’s little lap dog.  The whole Picasso as macho bull, towering this and that was a reaction to being such a squirt during the first years of his Paris career.  If Picasso died just prior to the start of World War One he would still be the second greatest painter of the twentieth century.  Matisse, of course, being the century’s towering precursor to all who followed.  Fauvism and Cubism were the Supreme court and Matisse as chief justice gets the nod as the main man due not only to his date of entry in the service of modernism but to the depth and breadth of his ideas.  We must as a people throw  the blinders from our eyes that resulted from Gertrude Stein’s wretched propagation of Matisse’s casual remark about the intention of his work being to relax.  He may have wished to relax after a decade of artistic conflict but the remark should not color his work up to that point.

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Henri Matisse – A Biography – Spurling (2 volumes)

This is a great book that establishes foremost, the chronology of Matisse’s artistic development.  This allows an accurate assessment of his relationship to the key developments in the Paris avante-garde.  With information in this careful chronology one can clearly see that it is Matisse rather than Picasso who is the progenitor of twentieth century painting, that the starting point is not Picasso’s”Le Demoiselles d’ Avignon”  but any number of works by Matisse completed in the decade prior to Picasso’s emergence as a Cubist.  Matisse was far more than a maker of pretty pictures.  His inventions with scale, composition, color, drawing, subject drew the attention (fury) of the art establishment and cleared a path for young Picasso.  Matisse was clearly Picasso’s key precursor in Bloomian terms (see The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom – a book you cannot not read along with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn)  as Matisse had been digesting the particulars of Late Cezanne and casting them into a visual language that formed the foundation for all that has followed.  Think of the late work of Cezanne as the U.S. Constitution and the work of Matisse between 1900 and 1910 as the five foundational cases of the Marshall court (Chief justice from 1801-1835) that interpret the great document in practical ways for everyday commerce.  Matisse was Chief  Justice and Picasso was a brethren.  Matisse taught us the meaning of Cezanne not in terms of the corporal content of these towering, soulful communions with god but in how these revolutionary ideas of Cezanne might be expressed in original swerves.  Once Picasso saw Matisse’s swerves he knew he could also swerve. Not only away from Matisse but away from Cezanne himself.  Matisse taught Picasso how to look at Cezanne, how one could look.  Matisse was sickly throughout his adult life for unspecific reasons.  I’ll specify – he was breathing toxic petroleum distillates, paint thinner, turpentine, oil paint mediums all day, every day in claustrophobic garrets during his early years and in larger apartments and studios later.  He was slowly poisoning himself as all artists in oil paints do.  I had to stop working in oils twenty years ago due to health issues related to the fumes.  Just as old people don’t fall and break their bones – they break their bones and then fall, breaking still more bones.  Artists aren’t usually initially crazy or crazy and sick – they spend years breathing this oil-based poison then go off their rockers – see Van Gogh who chewed the toxic paint (mercury, Cadmium, cobalt) off of his brushes to soften them each morning.  Matisse grew up in a village in northeastern France near Belgium that manufactured cloth for Parisian couture fashion.  There were several small factories that competed with each other to develop the latest, most colorful and dynamic patterns for their cloth.  Matisse grew up surrounded by man-made gorgeous colors and fabric textures.  Color was in his blood.


de Kooning – A Biography – Stevens, Swan

I first saw de Kooning’s  paintings in the U.S. Pavilion at the 1962 Seattle world’s Fair when I was twelve.  I have been following his work from his mid-career until the Linda and Paul McCartney phase when he was propped up at his huge canvasses at his Long Island studio In full Alzheimer’s dementia with assistants mixing paint by the gallon and Elaine moving his arm around the canvas.  This book tells the whole story beginning with his difficult childhood in Holland.  He was a drawing prodigy as a child and achieved success in art school.  Here again we have a very difficult mother.  deKooning’s mother regularly  beat him as a child and abused him emotionally, she also lived to a ripe old age.  There must be something therapeutic about abusing one‘s sons.   Something about these problematic mothers  fuels greatness.  This book is a wonderful history of the New York art scene that centered on Tenth Street and eventually the Cedar Tavern where Pollock, Kline and  de Kooning would drink themselves into conversation-filled oblivion nightly.

de Kooning was  painter’s painter who planted himself in front of his work each day and remained there grappling with issues from his deep sub-conscious until his energy drained off.  His wife Elaine, also a painter, was a huge benefit to his career.  She was the social adept whose ambition for them both drew her to the critics and gallery owners who could lift a career from nowhere to the radar screen.  She slept his way to the top.  You can smell the oil paint and turpentine in this book.  You can feel deK working his canvas day after day, week after week in a self-imposed deep therapy session, struggling.  After the portraits of his mother emerged in the “Women” series he began to drink himself into a stupor every day and continued drinking for many years quickly  eroding the edge from his work.  For a few years during the late 50s after the Jackson Pollock smoke cleared, it was deKooning who emerged as the titan of the new York School.  He was well-liked by all who met him and in his heyday,  always generous with praise for less well known painters.

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Stalin as a Young Man – Montfiore

Joseph Stalin was a published poet of significant stature as a teenager.  Stalin robbed banks to send money to Lenin who used the funds to survive while planning the Russian Revolution.  Because Stalin always found his way back to civilization after being sentenced to exile after conviction for crimes as a young man, this happened five times, it has been asserted that Stalin was working for the Czar’s secret police and was never a Communist but a double agent.  Stalin’s home life as a boy was filled with violence and shame.  He was regularly beaten by both parents.  His mother bragged to villagers (to the chagrin of her husband) that her boy Joseph was not the child of her husband but of an itinerant carnival strong man who found her attractive.
Stalin’s arm was crushed in a carriage accident as a young child and never healed.  His destroyed arm prevented him from participating in sports.  Stalin was sent to a seminary as an older teen where he was frequently punished for reading novels.  He especially enjoyed Tolstoy, Hugo and Dostoevsky.

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Panama Canal – Mc Culloch

Ten thousand Frenchmen died of various tropical diseases in an effort to build a Panama canal.  The French effort ended  ten years prior to the start of the American work.  The Americans solved two problems that stymied the French: mosquitoes (they carried the diseases) and where to put the dirt (it kept getting in the way).  The mosquito problem was solved by spraying a mist of petroleum onto every water surface in the country from lakes to tiny puddles below downspouts.  The dirt / spoils problem was solved by Chief engineer of the Canal project, former railroad engineer,  John F. Stevens who spent the first year of his tenure in Panama, to the mystification of his supporters back home, building a railroad into the Panama hinterlands.  It was rail cars that carried away the dirt and rock thus making the entire project feasible.

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The Brooklyn Bridge – David McCulloch

Under construction from 1870 to 1883,over fifty sand hogs died of nitrogen narcosis also known as the bends or caissons disease, while working over sixty feet below the surface of the water under massive wooden and steel caissons (think of a square pot upside down seventy five feet on a side).  It was the bends that killed the principal construction superintendant of the bridge Washington Roebling, son of the designer, John Roebling.  Building the Brooklyn Bridge was deadly work.  Medical doctors were called in to try to help.  They pronounced that work should proceed that nothing could be done.  The wire rope used on the Brooklyn Bridge is identical in principal to the wire rope that supports the Golden Gate Bridge and made by the same company: Roebling Steel.

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Reading: past two years – partial list

If you see any titles here that you would like me to comment on please make a request and I’ll add it to “Book Notes”.

Books to review:
1.  A Few Bloody Noses – Robert Harvey
2.  Horse People – Michael Korda
3.  Ike (bio) – Michael Korda
4.  The Making of the Atom Bomb – Richard Rhodes
5.  Tuxedo Park (radar development in U.S.) – Jennet Conant
6.  Stalin (bio) – Edvard Radzinsky
7.  Grant (bio) – Michael Korda
8.  Underworld – Don DeLillo
9.  Don Quixote  – Miguel Cervantes
10.  Moby Dick – Herman Melville
11. Bond of Union (Erie Canal) – Gerard Koeppel
12.  Essays and short fiction – John Barth
13.  Confederates in the Attic – Tony Horwitz
14.  The Englishman’s Boy – Guy Vanderhaeghe
15.  Seven Days in the Art World – SarahThornton
16.  Secrets of the Model Dorm – Amanda Kerlin
17.   I’m Sorry You Feel That Way –  Diana Joseph
18.  Slavery By Another Name – Douglas Blackmon
19.  American Heroes – Edmund Morgan
20.  Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts – Robert Kaplan
21.  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (re-read) – Robert Venturi
22.  The Red and the Black – Stendahl
23.  My Revolution (Hungarian- 1956) – Michael Korda
24.  Bushwhacked Piano (re-read, fifth time) – Thomas McGuane
25.  Gallatin Canyon – Stories – Thomas McGuane
26.  Sixty Stories – Donald Barthelme
27.  Waveland – Frederick Barthelme
28.  This Republic of suffering (Civil War) – Drew Gilpin Faust
29.  A Team of Rivals (Lincoln and Civil War Cabinet) – Doris Kearns Goodwin
30.  Louis Brandeis (bio) – Melvin Urofsky
31.  The Coldest Winter (Korean War) – David Halberstam
32.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
33.  For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
34.  A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
35.  This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald
36.  The Beautiful and the Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
37.  The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
38.  The Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald

39.  Rogue Warrior Novels (7 total)- Richard Marcinko ( like crack )40.  Hugo Black (bio) – Gerald Dunne

41.  Le Corbusier (bio) – Nicholas Fox-Weber

42.  Danube – Claudio Magris (remarkable book – don’t miss)

43.  Founding Brothers – Joseph Ellis

44.  The Winning Spirit – Joe Montana and Tom Mitchell


Happens Every Day – Memoir – Isabel Gillies

6-12-09  – book Review
Starbucks and Borders sell exactly the same things – just in different proportions.  I bought this memoir at Starbucks, one of my bookstores.  I enjoy writing to authors of books I read and the following is a letter to this author.

I finished reading your memoir last week and have had some time to think it over.  It reads like a sinewy case study from the Havard Business School.  You have laid out the facts of your case and I get to try to  figure out what really happened, the subtext, the deeper unwritten dynamics at work in the dissolution of your marriage to Josiah (self-centered prick! – just kidding)  Your story opens with the, hubby-assembled, wall of photos and herein lies the key to the mismatch.  We fool ourselves regularly as a society into believing that we are not intensely hierarchical, that we are democratic, “all men are created equal”, meritocracy, blah, blah, but alas, we are hard-wired for a vicious, brutal, always cruel sorting that was feebly expressed by the French nobility prior to the French Revolution and less feebly entertained by Eastern Seabord  (includes southern states) American WASPs.

Although the generation shared by you and your husband manifests outward signs of the spirit of equality: you were summer neighbors in Maine, you two shared excellent private schools, Josiah was a crew jock (how upper crust can a type “A” male get!) and you both had glamorous careers, one doesn’t have to go far back on Josiah’s side to see his “Lynyrd Skynrd” relatives as you call them.  You were perhaps thinking “Deliverance” but being diplomatic.  Your family traces its upper middle-upper class credentials back to the turn of the twentieth century.  Your mother had an “aristocratic upbringing” your father attended Choate, a WASP enclave and Ivy League feeder school.

Your roots are higher on the society food chain by any measure, than those of Josiah.  Due to his upbringing in the scalding cauldron of east coast WASP gunmanship, he knew he was / is your social inferior and as you and he both know, no amount of brilliant poetry or young life altering teaching experience will erase or diminish this cruel arithmetic of generational class dominance.  That you can so carefully describe it, speaks to your acceptance of its rules ie although you may have submitted to bearing Josiah’s children and to following him on his career travels, you knew you had his ass kicked socially.  Was it really a “miracle” that your child was admitted to the tony nursery school, no.  It was a natural benefit of your easily demonstrable social heft.

Josiah felt intimidated by you even though his behavior would seem bossy and dominant to most.  When that mink Sylvia showed up with her pheromone cloud and her more humble origins and her admiration for his status as a teacher, Josiah sensed an escape route from a future as the husband of a Streep-scale movie queen or, given your patrician roots – a Hepburn.

You can look at his fear, his marriage exit, as a validation of your incipient resonance an an American actress.  You have written this story as if you were the sorrier of the two of you.  That he is the hot, young stud-scholar-jock who has, without a thinking past his organ (Jacobsons), abandoned his young family.  I don’t doubt anything you have written or that your experience was shocking, heartbreaking and very dismal but you have given us barely enough back-story to peel the infinite onion that is human love, to see that you are the more dominant and powerful of the two of you.

I wonder if your book has affected his academic career?  I’ll bet your current husband grew up on the West Coast, another country socially than the East.  I have a few tales from my Harvard experience of briliance not being able to trump multi-generational, family social clout.  It is a very interesting book.  Thank you for your superb, thought-provoking story.  I like to think you wrote it just for me, Joe Reader, thus this note.