Brando’s Smile (Book Acquired, 6.02.2014)

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Brando’s Smile, a biography by Susan L. Mizruchi. Publisher’s blurb:

Susan Mizruchi presents the Marlon Brando you’ve never met.

When people think about Marlon Brando they think of the movie star; the hunk; the scandals. Susan L. Mizruchi finds the Brando others have missed: the man who collected four thousand books; the man who rewrote scripts, trimming his lines to make them sharper; the man who consciously used his body and employed the objects around him to create believable characters; the man who used his fame to foster Indian and civil rights. From Brando’s letters, audiotapes, and annotated screenplays and books—many never before available—Mizruchi gives us a complex person whose intelligence belies the high-school dropout. She shows how Brando’s embrace of foreign cultures and outsiders led to brilliant performances in unusual roles—a gay man, an Asian, and a German soldier—to foster empathy on a global scale and to test himself. In portraying a fuller Brando, Mizruchi portrays an even more fascinating man.

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An Excerpt From The Chapter “Mycobacterium tuberculosis” in Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Inight

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They had a difficult time with Kafka. His statements about the dangerous illness seem oddly self-assured, sensory, and at times downright theatrical, even to modern readers who have internalized the paradoxical forms of expression of literary modernity. But when we look over the correspondence of that little circle, it seems equally odd that Brod, Weltsch, and Baum had not developed any real feeling for Kafka’s psychological volatility after more than a decade of close personal contact, or understood his vulnerable, literally exposed life and his sense of reality, maintained in spite of it all. This sense of reality was what told him what to do and what not to do for his illness. But it was a far more basic need, over which he had little control, that compelled him to derive meaning from what had happened.

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An Excerpt From Reiner Stach’s “Kafka: The Years of Insight”

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No sooner was Felice out of her mother’s sight, however, than she blossomed. At the train station in Marienbad, she greeted an anxious Kafka in the tender and natural way he had always hoped for in vain in Berlin. Even the stumbling blocks they had to deal with on their first days in Marienbad–switching hotels, constant rain, and of course Kafka’s sensitivities and rigid habits–did nothing to change that. “Tribulations of living together,” he noted on the third day, and although he was undoubtedly aware that Felice had far more reason to complain, he twisted the knife a little deeper: “Impossibility of living with F. Impossibility of living with anyone at all.”

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George Catlin Biography (Book Acquired, Some Time Back in the End of June)

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The end of June kinda got away with me with these books acquired posts.

Anyway, I haven’t really made any time to check out Benita Eisler’s biography of lawyer-turned-painter George Catlin, a self-taught artist who chronicled the lives and culture of the Indians of the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. I like Catlin’s work, so this one might be interesting.

Publisher Norton’s blurb, followed by two of Catlin’s paintings:

The first biography in over sixty years of a great American artist whose paintings are more famous than the man who made them.

George Catlin has been called the “first artist of the West,” as none before him lived among and painted the Native American tribes of the Northern Plains. After a false start as a painter of miniatures, Catlin found his calling: to fix the image of a “vanishing race” before their “extermination”—his word—by a government greedy for their lands. In the first six years of the 1830s, he created over six hundred portraits—unforgettable likenesses of individual chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws, and children belonging to more than thirty tribes living along the upper Missouri River.

Political forces thwarted Catlin’s ambition to sell what he called his “Indian Gallery” as a national collection, and in 1840 the artist began three decades of self-imposed exile abroad. For a time, his exhibitions and writings made him the most celebrated American expatriate in London and Paris. He was toasted by Queen Victoria and breakfasted with King Louis-Philippe, who created a special gallery in the Louvre to show his pictures. But when he started to tour “live” troupes of Ojibbewa and Iowa, Catlin and his fortunes declined: He changed from artist to showman, and from advocate to exploiter of his native performers. Tragedy and loss engulfed both.

This brilliant and humane portrait brings to life George Catlin and his Indian subjects for our own time. An American original, he still personifies the artist as a figure of controversy, torn by conflicting demands of art and success.

 

New Rachel Carson Biography (Book Acquired, 11.13.2012)

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On a Farther Shore is William Souder’s big, bold biography of Rachel Carson, whose long (and often poetic) essay Silent Spring changed the way many people thought about humanity’s changing relationship with the environment. Here’s publisher Crown/Random House’s blurb:

She loved the ocean and wrote three books about its mysteries, including the international bestseller The Sea Around Us. But it was with her fourth book, Silent Spring, that this unassuming biologist transformed our relationship with the natural world.

Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, when a dizzying array of synthetic pesticides had come into use. Leading this chemical onslaught was the insecticide DDT, whose inventor had won a Nobel Prize for its discovery. Effective against crop pests as well as insects that transmitted human diseases such as typhus and malaria, DDT had at first appeared safe. But as its use expanded, alarming reports surfaced of collateral damage to fish, birds, and other wildlife. Silent Spring was a chilling indictment of DDT and its effects, which were lasting, widespread, and lethal.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring shocked the public and forced the government to take action-despite a withering attack on Carson from the chemicals industry. The book awakened the world to the heedless contamination of the environment and eventually led to the establishment of the EPA and to the banning of DDT and a host of related pesticides. By drawing frightening parallels between dangerous chemicals and the then-pervasive fallout from nuclear testing, Carson opened a fault line between the gentle ideal of conservation and the more urgent new concept of environmentalism.

Elegantly written and meticulously researched, On a Farther Shore reveals a shy yet passionate woman more at home in the natural world than in the literary one that embraced her. William Souder also writes sensitively of Carson’s romantic friendship with Dorothy Freeman, and of her death from cancer in 1964. This extraordinary new biography captures the essence of one of the great reformers of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Royte gave Shore a good review in The New York Times; excerpt:

Souder is at his best when he places Carson’s intellectual development in context with the nascent environmental movement. The storm over “Silent Spring,” he notes, was a “cleaving point” in history when the “gentle, optimistic proposition called ‘conservation’ began its transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come to be known as ‘environmentalism.’” (Souder isn’t shy about expressing his own disappointment with what he views as a permanent wall between partisans, with nature and science pitted against an “unbreakable coalition of government and industry, the massed might of the establishment.”)

I’ll let Lucy have the last word:

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Why I’m Not Particularly Interested in Reading a DFW Biography

(Think about it — the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.)

–David Foster Wallace on literary biography in general and Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life in particular; from “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.

“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max

 

The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.

 

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford — Leslie Brody

Irrepressible, Leslie Brody’s new biography of Jessica Mitford, is a fascinating study in divergent attitudes about class, politics, and what it might mean to dissent from one’s own family. Jessica Mitford — “Decca” to her friends — was born into English aristocracy, which she promptly tried to escape. Brody offers a succinct outline in the opening pages (“Little D.” is young Decca, of course)—

What was Little D. running away from? The usual: parental rules and regulations, hothouse sibling rivalries, boredom; the more arcane: country estates, nannies, governesses, secret cupboards, and secret languages: conservatism and elitism in her relations; and fascism, in the body politic. Where was she running to? At first, she longed to go to school and, later, to the East End of London to live in a bedsit and be a Communist. To readers of the British press, the Mitfords were the subject of gossip and scrutiny for the fashions they wore and the odd things they did. Anyone not related to her seemed infinitely more fascinating to Decca.

For Decca, experiences with “Anyone not related to her” became her form of school, which her mother forbade her to attend (although, to be fair, brother Tom did hip her to a crash course of Western canonical lit). As the passage above suggests, the trajectory of Decca’s life would be defined and drawn against the conservative values of her family. In an especially instructive scene near the end of her teen years, Decca and her sister “Unity etched symbols of their political affiliations into the window of the room they shared at the top of the house—Unity drew a swastika; Decca a hammer and sickle.” What did these kids use to draw their sigils? A diamond ring.

Brody (thankfully) doesn’t dwell on the psychological motivations that might have led Decca to a life and ideology so dramatically diametrically opposed to her aristocratic, fascist-leaning family, perhaps in part because Decca’s progressive convictions seem, in retrospect, so clearly to have come down on the “right side of history.” As Brody’s biography reveals, however, Decca was not simply some rich kid slumming for a few years; indeed, we find in Jessica Mitford a soul clearly committed to the ideals of equality and democracy throughout her entire life.

And what a strange, wonderful, and often tragic life it was. In a sharp, reportorial style (one that frequently employs primary sources), Brody relates Decca’s tumultuous life, beginning with her early, scandalous marriage with a cousin, Esmond Romilly, their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and his death in WWII. Soon after Esmond’s death, Decca married Bob Treuhaft, an American civil rights lawyer. The pair moved to Oakland and had children, although Decca doesn’t seem to have been much of a mother (her heavy drinking might have gotten in the way when political obligations like testifying before HUAC didn’t). The bulk of Brody’s narrative covers Decca’s intense involvement in the Civil Rights movement, from its earliest inception right through the Vietnam era and beyond. Decca wrote articles, facilitated meetings, and generally served as a nexus point for creative and political energies devoted to free, progressive thought. Decca went on to author books investigating the funeral home practices, the Vietnam War draft, and the American prison system, but it is likely that her memoirs will be of the greatest interest to readers today.

Brody’s biography seems more relevant than ever as the Occupy movement (particularly in Decca’s adopted Oakland) sheds greater light on the disparity between the rich and poor in America and calls into question the very ground that pioneers like Jessica Mitford fought for. At the same time, Brody’s book is never didactic, nor is it overtly and unnecessarily juicy (which surely must have been a great temptation, considering that Decca’s entire life was something of a scandal). Instead, Brody offers us a tightly drawn, well-researched portrait that is sure to fascinate.

Irrepressible is available in hardback from Counterpoint Press.

Book Acquired, 9.12.11 — Nathanael West Biography

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This one’s new from OR BooksJoe Woodward’s Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West. (Sorry for the extraordinarily amateurish photograph—the glossy cover spit back much light). I read the first three chapters this afternoon, and Woodward has a punchy, even terse style that I greatly appreciate in a literary biographer. It’s rare that the literary critic, “showing a little plumage,” to borrow a phrase from James Wood, knows when to remove himself from the text under discussion. Woodward’s writing here dispenses with any airy rhetoric, cutting sharply to bone in telegraphic sentences and short chapters.It’s the kind of  beginning that makes me want to keep reading. Here’s the publisher’s description—

From his name to his college transcript to his literary style, Nathanael West was self-invented. Born Nathan Weinstein, the author of the classics Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of theLocust (1939) was an uncompromising artist obsessed with writing the perfect novel. He pursued his passion from New York to California, flirting dangerously with the bleak, faux-glamour of Hollywood as the country suffered through the grim realities of the Great Depression. At the center of a circle of vigorous young literary writers that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, S. J. Perelman, and Dashiell Hammett, West rose to become one of the most original literary talents of the twentieth century—an accomplished yet regrettably underappreciated master of the short lyric novel.

In December of 1940, West — a notoriously bad driver — was racing back from a vacation in Mexico with his young bride of eight months when he crashed at full speed into another car. He was dead at 37. Just as he was finally starting to enjoy financial stability as a Hollywood screenwriter, he died in the California desert.

For this book, the first biography on West alone in over 40 years, Joe Woodward combed the archives at The Huntington Library and the John Hay Library at Brown University. He had access to personal letters, photographs, unpublished manuscripts and corrected typescripts as well as seldom-heard taped interviews with S. J. Perelman, Dalton Trumbo, Matthew Josephson and others.

Alive Inside the Wreck comes alive as it explores West’s struggle to survive both the writer’s life and the 1930s.

 

Tear Vases, Seven Sponges, A Neapolitan Knife, A Military Almanac, A Rhyming Dictionary . . .

From Roland Barthes’ “Life of Sade,” a short biography of The Marquis de Sade. Translated from the French by Richard Miller. Read the entire essay at Supervert (or here over the next few days, parceled out over 22 sections)—

9. Returning to France from Italy, Sade has sent from Naples to La Coste two large cases; the second, weighing six quintals, travels on the boat Aimable Marie; it contains: “marbles, stones, a vase or amphora for storing Greek wines with resin, antique lamps, tear vases, all à la Greek and Roman, medals, idols, raw and worked stones from Vesuvius, a fine sepulchral urn intact, Etruscan vases, medals, a sculptured piece in serpentine, a bit of nitrate solfatara, seven sponges, a collection of shells, a tiny hermaphrodite and a vase of flowers . . . a marble dish decorated with singularly lifelike fruits of all varieties, chests of drawers of Vesuvian marble, a Saracen buccherini or cup, a Neapolitan knife, used clothing and prints. . . Proofs of Religion, a treatise on the existence of God . . . The Rejected Tithe, an almanac of plays, The Gallant Saxon, a military almanac, Mme de Pompadour’s letters . . . a rhyming dictionary” (LéLy, i, 568). This variety of wares is in every way worthy of Bouvard and Pécuchet: we lack only a few ellipses, a few asyndeta, to read here a bit of Flaubertian bravura. The Marquis, however, did not write this inventory; yet he is the one who amassed this collection, whose heteroclite cultural nature is derisory in relation to culture itself. Dual proof: of the baroque energy of which Sade was capable, and of the writing energy he put into his acts.

Wherever He Goes, He Provokes the Terrified Dismay of the Guardians of Order

From Roland Barthes’ “Life of Sade,” a short biography of The Marquis de Sade. Translated from the French by Richard Miller.  Read the entire essay at Supervert (or here over the next few days, parceled out over 22 sections)—

7. The Lady President of Montreuil was objectively responsible for her son-in-law’s persecutions during the entire first years of his life (perhaps she loved him? One day, someone told the Marquise that the Lady President “loved M. de Sade to distraction”). The impression we have of her character, however, is one of continual fear: fear of scandal, of “difficulties.” Sade seems to have been a triumphant, troublesome victim; like a spoiled child, he is continually “teasing” (teasing is a sadistic passion) his respectable and conformist relations; wherever he goes, he provokes the terrified dismay of the guardians of order: everyone responsible for his confinement at the fort of Miolans (the King of Sardinia, the minister, the ambassador, the governor) is obsessed by the possibility of his escape — which does not fail to occur. The couple he forms with his persecutors is an aesthetic one: it is the malicious spectacle of a lively, elegant animal, both obsessed and inventive, mobile and tenacious, continually escaping and continually returning to the same area, while the giant mannequins, stiff, timorous, pompous, quite simply attempt to contain him (not punish him: this will only come later).