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Staff Picks: Tom Magliozzi and Dr. T

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from Dr. T and the Women, 2000.

“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein

Like many nineties kids, I received my first doses of NPR while buckled up in the backseat of my parents’ car; Saturday-morning drives, often to visit my grandparents, meant one thing: Car Talk. The show has been a constant in my life ever since. (In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what occupies The Paris Review’s staff on our five-hour quarterly drives to our press in Pennsylvania, look no further than the Car Talk podcast.) So many of the tributes to Tom Magliozzi, the elder “Tappet” brother who died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, focused on his inimitable and infectious laughter—and rightfully so. But the somberness of the occasion reminded me of a letter Tom and Ray once fielded from a troubled freshman at Mount Holyoke College, a young listener named Lea. (You can listen to Tom read Lea’s letter here; she later called in to the show.) Give them a listen and you'll be reminded of just how much the show provided: laughter, yes, and advice about cars—but also the occasional window, especially for its young listeners, into the sort of life one might aspire toward, one where the adults of the world still engage in “water-pistol fights, with whipped cream.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I can’t in good faith claim that Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000) is a “good” movie, but it captivates, in its quietly provocative way. Imagine the eye rolls after this pitch meeting: “Well, it’s this sexy, envelope-pushing comedy where Richard Gere plays a hunky gynecologist in upper-crust Dallas, but he doesn’t boink his patients or anything lewd like that—he just treats everyone really respectfully, including his daughters and his wife, who goes insane, in fact, because of how deeply loved she is and how well her personal needs are met.” Dr. T is a farce, a riff on the “Book of Job” and the suffering of the virtuous; all of its women are kooky and dependent in some way on the ministrations of the good doctor, with his boundless patience and his way with the speculum. Altman wrings a lot of jouissance from his ensemble cast, especially Gere, who really does seem too sensitive for this milieu. But what is this milieu? Why are all these rich ladies so gabby, so troubled, so sad? That’s where Dr. T is ultimately thwarted: in spite of its lead’s genuine (and believable) reverence for the feminine, the film can’t help but lapse into misogyny. It’s called Dr. T and the Women, for god’s sake. But right up to its positively outlandish ending, it asks questions about chivalry, materialism, and gender that not many movies would dare to touch, then or now. It’s audacious filmmaking—and that alone makes it worth watching. —Dan Piepenbring

In 1892, long before the O. J. Simpson trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was a court case that swept the nation’s interest. It wasn’t because the violence of the crime—one woman publicly slashing the throat of another—but the motivation: a same-sex love affair. Using love letters, archives, newspaper articles, and government records, Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever brings to life the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who lived in a much too-familiar world intolerant of any relationship outside the norm. Coe’s narrative covers the perceptions of sexuality, women’s role in society, racial hierarchy, media manipulation, and even mental health, but she never strays too far from the heart of the story: the tragic romance between two women forty years before the word lesbian would be in circulation. —Justin Alvarez
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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

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Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 7

September 30, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past seven weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This is the final installment.

You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne

In 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life.

After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.”

In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality.

Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature. Read More »

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Other Voices

September 30, 2013 | by

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“I had to go into town on Saturdays to the dentist and I joined the Sunshine Club that was organized by the Mobile Press Register. There was a children’s page with contests for writing and for coloring pictures, and then every Saturday afternoon they had a party with free Nehi and Coca-Cola. The prize for the short-story writing contest was either a pony or a dog, I’ve forgotten which, but I wanted it badly. I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called “Old Mr. Busybody” and entered it in the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing.” —Truman Capote, the Art of Fiction No. 17

 

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What We’re Loving: Oology, Impostors, Sweden

July 26, 2013 | by

Lord Walter Rothschild, founder of England’s Natural History Museum at Tring, home of the world’s largest bird-egg collection, in his zebra-drawn carriage.

Lord Walter Rothschild, founder of England’s Natural History Museum at Tring, home of the world’s largest bird-egg collection.

Julian Rubinstein’s “Operation Easter,” in last week’s New Yorker, has been my breakfast reading and dinner conversation most of this week. Concerned with the obsession for collecting birds’ eggs—a mania that dates back almost to the mid-nineteenth century—the article relates lurid tales of collectors falling off cliffs in pursuit of nests, hiding amassed collections in secret compartments in their beds, and donning guises to steal eggs from a museum (the party in question pinched ten thousand eggs in some three years). When investigators from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds apprehend a suspect in his apartment, the man tells them, “Thank God you’ve come … I can’t stop.” With investigators jumping into cars, busting down doors, and engaging in two-day island-wide manhunts, this article reads more than a little like a thriller. I’d love to see Gary Oldman in a starring role when it hits the big screen. —Nicole Rudick

I can’t help seconding Sadie’s recommendation of In Love, a novella by Alfred Hayes that has just been reissued by New York Review Classics. The story of a casual love affair that becomes serious as soon it starts to fall apart, In Love harks back to a classic French tradition—what you might call the Novel of Disillusionment—perfected over a century by Constant, Flaubert, Turgenev, and Proust, among others. At the same time, in its use of one-sided dialogue, its film noir sensibility, and its evocation of New York life, this 1953 masterpiece also seems utterly modern—a culmination and a book utterly at home in its moment. —Lorin Stein

This month I had a particularly blue moment. I returned to an old favorite, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye , and then immediately afterward read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a book that had been recommended to me several times by fellow students and professors alike. It would be difficult for me to state, with confidence, what exactly Bluets is about. The book-length essay is written in vignettes, each numbered and varying in length. Nelson begins with a captivating proposition: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” Something that began as “[a]n appreciation, an affinity” became something “more serious” and then “it became somehow personal.” I drifted easily into Nelson’s world of blue, in which she seamlessly strings together personal narratives, quotes, and facts, each poignant sketch its own bluish jewel. —Jo Stewart Read More »

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Waugh on Capote

June 13, 2013 | by

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Colin Spencer, Evelyn Waugh (pen & ink, 1959)

Of Mr. Capote’s prose it is hard to speak temperately. It is some sort of jargon quite unfamiliar to me. Of the information he seeks to convey, I am no judge. I have a distant acquaintance with a few of the subjects. Mr. Cecil Beaton I have known, not well, for nearer fifty than forty years. He has always struck me as a genial, hospitable, light-hearted fellow; to Mr. Capote he is ‘one of the most remarkable fellows alive’; and formidable, ‘bitter as bile to those in the Beaton bad-book, unhappy souls who entered this no-exit Hades’; and ‘haughty’; but above all ‘serious.’ ‘When discussing personalities Beaton invariably, asks, “But would you say X is a serious person?”’ Not invariably, Mr. Capote, I assure you. I have never heard him ask this question. Perhaps he likes to pull their legs a little when he goes to America.

—Evelyn Waugh on Observations, by Truman Capote and Richard Avedon, 1959. (Made available along with the rest of The Spectator’s vast archive.)

Image via ColinSpencer.co.uk.

 

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