“The most important thing in life is not happiness but meaning.”

— John M. Hull, Notes on Blindness


Set in the summer of 1983,
Notes on Blindness
is a beautiful 2016 documentary that explores the life of
writer and theologian John M. Hull.

Based on his memoir, Touching the Rock,
the film offers a deeply personal account
of an academic who permanently loses his vision
while anticipating the birth of his son.

Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney
draw from audio cassettes recorded by Hull at the time,
which attempt to explain and understand
the experience of blindness
through vivid philosophical reflections
on everyday events and experiences. (more…)

As we enter a new phase of social, political and economic uncertainty, Christopher Petit’s 1979 film Radio On has a new relevance.

Released forty years ago this year,
Radio On‘s dark vision of Britain
on the cusp of inevitable change
speaks to our time
in stark and revealing ways.
(more…)

Reading Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild. A compelling account of the tragic story of Chris McCandless and his idealistic trek into the Alaskan wilderness. At the same time, the book offers a cultural history of the fascination wild spaces hold in the modern imagination.

A collection that reveals a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art
Michael Chabon, Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros (HarperCollins, 2019)
Michael Chabon, Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros (HarperCollins, 2019)

How does one introduce a book of introductions by an author who needs no introduction? This month heralds the paperback release of Michael Chabon’s Bookends, an enjoyable collection of his introductions (as well as outros and liner notes) to an eclectic range of texts. Combining literary and cultural critique with revealing autobiographical reflection, Chabon shares his enthusiasm for everything from literature and popular fiction to comic books, Norse myth, movies, food, music, and baseball. He glories in the rhythms of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debunking a few myths along the way, and takes time to recommend West Oakland’s soul food restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. There are also personal observations about his own fiction, including a short extract from his unpublished work, Fountain City. The collection even has its own (meta) introduction. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will seize on this book to better understand the texts and experiences that shaped Chabon as an artist. More broadly, Bookends is a wander along the lost avenues and borderlands of the twentieth-century popular imagination.

Whether discussing the cultural significance of Superman’s cape, or the pastel, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, the pieces that form Bookends return time and again to the role that art plays in shaping who we are. Chabon remembers picking up paperbacks of The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus before embarking on his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He talks about his immersion into the magical-realist settings of Greek and Norse myth as a third grader. He discusses the way Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket Man’ changed his life forever when he was just ten-years-old: “I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.” Bookends celebrates the skill of artists and writers to conjure imaginary worlds, navigating the fantasy landscapes of Michael Moorcock and getting lost in the graphic dystopian cities of Howard Chaykin. Chabon has a critic’s awareness of poststructuralist and postmodern approaches to art and representation, with nods here and there to writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. But, ultimately, the success of Bookends lies in the way it demonstrates a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art, and the texts that speak to us at important moments in our lives. It traces the strange spark that arises at “the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.”

This extract is from my review of Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 January 2019.

Delighted to see that my review of Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is included among the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Year in Review: The Best Books of 2018.

A call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)

Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.”

Often a controversial figure, Girard trespassed into many different fields — he was, by turns, a literary critic, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian and much else besides. Haven’s biography is the first book to contextualize Girard’s work within its proper historical, cultural and philosophical context. The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and his study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy (1991). But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.

Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”

He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.

One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history.

Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.

This extract is from my review of Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2018.

Sat down and read Cormac McCarthy‘s play (or “novel in dramatic form”) The Sunset Limited. An African American man saves a white college professor from suicide, and they share a compelling dialogue about life, suffering, religion, and humanism. Sometimes McCarthy’s stage directions lack racial sensitivity and tact (e.g. “the black” vs. “the professor”), but the characters have an intelligent and entertaining critical dialogue. Dianne C. Luce offers an interesting reading of the text’s conclusion over at the official Cormac McCarthy website (contains spoilers):

“The novel’s denouement rests on the intellectual triumph of White, which ironically leads to his suicide, and the temporary rhetorical defeat of Black, who courageously recommits to his belief in the possibility of goodness. Thus the dialogue remains elegantly balanced, poised between forceful articulations of opposing views of life and human nature, giving ascendancy to neither. McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit.”

Overall, a genuinely engaging work struck through with darkly comic elements. Recommended.

Finished reading Stephen King‘s Under the Dome. It’s one of the author’s longest works, and has been compared by publishers and critics to his earlier post apocalyptic novel, The Stand. While the story of an hermetically sealed American community has the feel of a modern parable, Under the Dome is ultimately a straightforward (if fantastical) crime thriller about small town political corruption.

Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.
Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.

Started reading Bill Hayes‘s memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me yesterday afternoon, and didn’t stop until the final page. Through a series of reflections and intimate diary entries, the book offers a revealing account of Hayes’s relationship with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book is also a love letter to New York, and captures “the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected” nature of the city through brief vignettes and black and white portraits. Björk even makes an appearance. And another one. I laughed and cried at several points. Beautiful style. Wonderful photographs. Truly life affirming. To sum it up, I’m reminded of something Oliver Sacks said which Hayes recorded in his diary:

“4-22-15

O: ‘The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.’”

— Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

Strayed’s memoir is a testament to the restorative power of art
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Cheryl Strayed, Wild

In recent months I have become increasingly interested in writers who discuss nature and the wilderness in their work. I have been keeping a mental note of several writers to consider, and was trying to decide between J.A. Baker‘s landmark work The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways, or a selection of John Muir‘s writing about his time in the Sierra Nevada. Then I was reminded of a book that my wife had read the previous year, and decided to read the opening couple of pages to get a sense of the prose. The book was Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir, Wild, and I was hooked. (more…)

The letters allow readers to glimpse over the shoulder of one of twentieth-century drama’s most distinguished playwrights as he corresponds with actors, directors, and loved ones
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

A philosopher in the ancient Greek city of Miletus posed a question. If somebody adds one grain of sand to another, and repeats the process, at what point do the grains of sand become a heap? The conundrum, known as the Sorites paradox, opens Samuel Beckett’s Endgame as part of Clov’s speech to the auditorium: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap’. The paradox asks us to confront the ambiguities of rational thinking and empirical observation, and in Endgame it frames the ‘impossible’ problem of being in the world, of what constitutes a life lived.

I was reminded of the Sorites paradox in 2016, when Cambridge University Press published the fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence. On the instruction of Beckett himself, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld led an editorial team to assemble, transcribe and translate thousands of letters, telegrams, and postcards held in archives and private collections around the world. These traces of Beckett’s personal and artistic life have been ordered chronologically, and fully annotated with cultural and historical notes that are accessible to the scholar and layman alike. Surmounting this seemingly impossible task, The Letters of Samuel Beckett brings these documents together in one place for the first time to form a masterwork of academic scholarship and rigour — allowing readers to glimpse over the shoulder of one of twentieth-century drama’s most distinguished playwrights as he corresponds with actors, directors, and loved ones.

This is an excerpt from a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989, edited by George Craig et al.,  (Cambridge University Press, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance (July, 2017).

Grachan Moncur III recorded Some Other Stuff for Blue Note Records on 6 July 1964. When he entered Rudy Van Gelder‘s studio in Englewood Cliffs, he was already an experienced leader and an established trombonist on the avant-garde jazz scene. Before his debut album, Evolution (Blue Note, 1963), which was recorded the day before President John F. Kennedy was shot, he was an established sideman on records by Art BlakeyHerbie Hancock and Jackie McLean.

Grachan Moncur III
Grachan Moncur III

Moncur is known for a “clear-cut style of playing” (Richard Cook) that blends the hard bop of the late 1950s and early 1960s with the emerging free jazz movement. While the standout virtuosity of Evolution has led to a general critical reflect of Some Other Stuff, do not be fooled by the latter’s dismissive title. Moncur assembles a strong lineup that includes saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock (between the recording of Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage), and drummer Anthony Williams. Among the highlights: ‘Gnostic’ is ominous and meditative in a way that recalls the high points of Evolution; ‘Thandiwa’ is an upbeat piece written and performed in a hardbop style; and ‘The Twins’ steals the show with sustained performances from Moncur, Hancock, and Shorter.

 

Roger Luckhurst offers a critical and entertaining survey of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece
Roger Luckhurst, The Shining (Palgrave, 2013).
Roger Luckhurst, The Shining (Palgrave, 2013).

In the thirty-seven years since its premiere, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) has been the subject of heated debate. Based on a bestselling novel by Stephen King, the adaptation was dismissed by the author as ‘maddening, perverse, and disappointing’. His judgement was not unique. Critics and audiences alike found the film bewildering and strange, not knowing whether to take it as an art film or a low-brow horror shocker. Yet, as Roger Luckhurst points out in his excellent book, The Shining (BFI Classics, 2013), despite its chilly opening reception the film is now regarded as ‘one of the most admired horror films in cinema history’.

Luckhurst’s take on The Shining manages to pierce the lid on thirty years of critical discussion, and to yield a fresh perspective on one of cinema’s most discussed and perplexing films. The book addresses Stanley Kubrick’s status as a distinctive auteur filmmaker, but dismisses the tendency of critics to see deliberate intention in every move and gesture. Instead, Luckhurst reads The Shining within the broader cultural and historical context of late 1970s-early 1980s American culture. Insightful connections are made to films like The Amityville Horror (1979), The Omen (1976), Poltergeist and The Evil Dead (both released in 1982). Through its representation of prescient children, telepathy, and horror, Luckhurst reveals how The Shining expresses widely-held anxieties about traditional gender roles, the nuclear family, and histories of repressed trauma and violence. (more…)

The first recording session for Davis’ jazz masterpiece took place on 2 March 1959
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

On this day in 1959, trumpeter Miles Davis entered the Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York to record Kind of Blue. He was joined by John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (alto saxophone), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans (piano), and Wynton Kelly (piano on the bluesy second track, ‘Freddie Freeloader’). The album, which was completed in April later that year, would go on to become the bestselling jazz record of all time. (more…)

The avant-garde reedist’s iconic outing for Blue Note Records was recorded on this day in 1964
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)

On this day in 1964, Eric Dolphy entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record one of Blue Note Records’ most distinctive and iconic records. Joined by Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutchinson (vibraphone), Richard Davis (bass) and an eighteen-year-old Anthony Williams (drums), Dolphy brought along his alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute for the date.

Out to Lunch! is the culmination of a sequence of recordings that explored the possibilities of avant-garde jazz in the early 1960s, from Dolphy’s first album as leader, Outward Bound (New Jazz, 1960), to Out There (New Jazz, 1960), to his 1961 recordings at the Five Spot and 1962’s Far Cry (New Jazz). Across these works we can hear the artistic development of Dolphy as a restless and inventive talent. Out to Lunch! nods a debt to bebop in its tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk (‘Hat and Beard’), and acknowledges the classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni (‘Gazzelloni’), but while the album negotiates the legacy of bebop and post-bop music it simultaneously reaches towards freer musical forms. (more…)