Friday, October 31, 2008

Celebrate Studs

Studs Terkel died today at his Chicago home. He was 96, and he did live long enough to see his new book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, come into the world. I'm only sorry he wasn't able to stick around to see Barack Obama become president. Among many other roles in his long, empathic, creative, and positive life, Studs was a great champion of civil rights.

Studs of the red socks, cigar, martini, growl, and impish smile will be missed. He will be remembered. His books, works of great sensitivity, respect, integrity, and vitality, will live on. And you have to laugh, picturing Studs, always devilish, declaring that he wanted his epitaph to read: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Radio review

I am loving my gig at Chicago Public Radio. Here's the latest, a review of Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Full story

We are living in a time of diminishment. Everywhere we look, resources are shrinking, from common sense to financial liquidity to forests, ocean life, you name it. Part of the fall into extinction is the squeezing and dumbing down of newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, which, until a week ago, continued to publish a genuine book section, one of only 4 in the entire country, even though it exiled books to Saturday, the day with the lowest readership. I have had the privilege and the deep pleasure of writing for the Chicago Tribune for years and years, and I'm immensely grateful to everyone I've worked with there and continue to work with, especially books editor Elizabeth Taylor. But now, in spite of Taylor's valiant efforts--and Elizabeth Taylor is a true champion of literature, writers, and readers--the Tribune has not only combined book reviews with other cultural coverage, which certainly can create a positive synergy, it has reduced book reviews to a length far too brief for any real discussion of the book at hand.

Certainly short reviews have their place and their delights. But we need both concise and full reviews. Short takes to pique interest, sustained immersions to illuminate all that writers achieve. I've written a couple of the new, tight reviews, and seen them cut down even more. And so, in the interest of full disclosure, and out of the passion to share my joy in books and my full response to this particular book, a brilliant and beautiful creation, here is the original, more detailed version of the review that appears in today's paper.

Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World
By Jed Perl
Knopf, $25, 224 pages

Review by Donna Seaman

Writers are often seized by works of art, their imaginations ignited by communion with a sculpture, painting, or object. Think of Keats and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” By responding in words to form, line, and color, a writer taps into the artist’s creative energy and transmits flashes of insight at once radiant and penetrating. Art critic Jed Perl takes a unique approach to this exalted literary tradition in an elegant tribute to an enigmatic, misunderstood painter.

Anyone familiar with Perl’s essays in the New Republic or his last book, New Art City (2005), a capacious history of the daring art movements that made twentieth-century New York the capital of the art world, knows that Perl writes with precision and a driving narrative force and takes as his mission the rescue of underappreciated artists. Even so, his new book is full of surprises, beginning with his declaration that Antoine Watteau is his favorite artist. Surely not this early eighteenth-century French painter so often dismissed as a frivolous aggrandizer of high-society frolics? Perl anticipates, relishes, and eradicates our skepticism, and not only by virtue of his knowledgeable and supple argument. The very fact that Watteau inspires Perl to write such sparkling, whiplash sentences is proof positive of the subtle power of the painter’s technically superb and brilliantly nuanced work.

In his decisive prologue, Perl characterizes Watteau’s masterpieces as embodying “a mingling of velvetiness and steeliness that constitute one of the miracles of art.” He goes on to explicate Watteau’s “delicious artifice” in which his “hiding or veiling or theatricalizing strong feelings becomes a way of revealing the complexities of those feelings,” as well as “the gathering contradictions of his world.” Perl then avers that Watteau’s paintings and drawings of fashionable young men and women of leisure are about nothing less than the evolution of the self. How do scenes set in nearly wild, certainly secretive gardens in which elaborately attired lovers flirt and dream illuminate the inner worlds of people living in a volatile time? Perl could easily articulate his striking interpretation of the true meaning of Watteau’s work in a straight-forward mix of biography and art history. Instead he invents his own artifice and makes extraordinary use of the simple, playful structure of an alphabet book.

Just as Watteau improvised on stylized tableau to create a clever visual lexicon based on the motifs of the commedia dell’arte, Perl anchors his lively essays to the homey letters of the alphabet, allowing for unexpected and marvelously revealing juxtapositions and jump cuts. This gathering of glimpses, this assemblage of impressions, reflections, and portraits of people influenced by Watteau, from Walter Pater to Samuel Beckett to Picasso, is perfectly suited to Watteau, a “mystery man” even to his friends; an artist who declined to talk about his work right up to his death from tuberculosis at 36 in 1721.

A is for actor, but Perl decides that while “the life of the theater” shapes Watteau’s paintings, his true subject is the elusiveness of identity and self-understanding. B is for backs, and how superb Perl is in his analysis of the “extraordinary psychological power” of this large part of our anatomy and Watteau’s passion for depicting it. D is for Deburau, as in Jean-Baptiste and Charles, the famous father-and-son mimes who launch Perl’s electrifying appreciation of the film Children of Paradise, first screened in Paris in 1945. And W is for women, and how Watteau adored them. Perl sees Katherine Hepburn as a modern “Watteau woman, a woman who is gorgeous and funny and sexy and independent.” Watteau’s charming and irreverent women, Perl riffs joyously, are “goddesses on the lam.”

What a perfect match between writer and subject. What panache, expertise, and sensitivity Perl displays. This refined yet ebullient book, this pearlescent ABC, offers an invaluable key to a great artist of profound pleasures and disclosures, and a scintillating primer in the fine art of seeing.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New radio gig

I'm elated to announce that I am now reviewing books and interviewing authors for a terrific show on Chicago Public Radio, Eight-Forty-Eight. I've reviewed Porter Shreve's funny and smart new novel, When the White House Was Ours and I spoke with the always engaging, smart, and funny John McNally about his superb new book, the short story collection Ghosts of Chicago.

Here are the links:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ruled by a two-faced deity

I was thinking this morning about our two-sidedness, our confounding capacity to do right one moment and wrong the next. Who was it, I asked myself, who wrote recently about Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and beginnings who is portrayed with two opposite faces? Studs Terkel.

His new book is P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening.

Oral historian, writer of conscience, and raconteur-on-a-mission Studs Terkel follows his vivid and affecting memoir, Touch and Go, with an electrifying set of found treasures: essays and interviews that have never been published before, or which only appeared long ago in a Chicago venue. These excavated works—and everyone whose personal archives are experiments in chaos will find Terkel’s description of their exhumation from his messy workroom comforting and amusing––are startlingly fresh and stingingly relevant.

Terkel’s recovered 1961 conversation with James Baldwin is worth the price of admission, so sharply and devastatingly candid is Baldwin about the legacy of hate, fear, lies, brutality, and oppression we sanitize with the bland term race issues. This exchange couldn’t be more timely. Ditto Terkel’s conversation with lyricist E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the Great Depression classic, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Terkel also looks back to Chicago election shenanigans and the abuses of clout. And yes, Terkel writes of his city on the lake and on the make as a “city of hands” ruled by the deity Janus of the two faces, a theme brilliantly realized in portraits of Chicagoans of diverse backgrounds and shared needs and dreams. Hilarious, wry, sorrowful, and prescient, this gathering asserts Terkel’s great gift for tapping into the lifeblood of America, and for discerning, always with heart and clarity, what people suffer and how they lift themselves up and keep on keeping on. Long live Studs.

And may we turn two-facedness into the ability to look both back and forward so that we learn from the past, perceive continuity and achieve perspective. To look to others as well as to ourselves, to see both sides of the question and make decisions with reason and fairness, to think twice and not two-time each other but give each other and ourselves second chances to do our best.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Unnecessary Loss

Once upon a time, my good dentist referred me to a periodontist. I’ve had gum problems since I was 15, and once again, some repair was in order. My dentist warned me that if I didn’t have a bone graft, I would suffer bone loss. Actually, I would suffer additional bone loss—damage had already been done. He told me that I might even lose a tooth or two. I was rattled; I did go to the periodontist. But I felt no pain; I disliked the place; I felt hustled, and the cost, even with insurance, was terribly high. I decided to wait. I forgot about it. I let life-as-usual hold me under its powerful spell.

A year went by. I was back at the dentist. He repeated his warnings. He scolded me. He sent me to another periodontist. I liked this place a bit more. I felt more determined. I had new insurance. I was ready. But they weren’t. I had to wait for an estimate, an approval, notification, an open time slot. More months went by. I ignored the bleeding, the sensitivity. My life is full and busy and deadline-driven, and I foolishly spent my bone and tissue capital like a binging gambler, like a homeowner who accepted a mortgage she could never manage, like a financial manager buying and selling millions of these sure-to-fail loans, speculating and gambling with “toxic assets.” I was as risk-inviting, irresponsible, oblivious, and hubristic as a Wall Street day trader. By the time I opened my mouth, ready for a bone graft, it was too late. The tooth had to come out.

Last night I dreamt that the ceiling in this room, the back bedroom in a small brick house that I use as an office, reading and writing room, favorite place to hang out, was separating from the walls. Its fall was inevitable. I dashed in and out, trying to decide what to rescue. My computer. My purse. Photographs. Paintings. Signed books. I did not want to get hurt, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing what I think of as my life. We’d waited too long. We knew the house needed work; we procrastinated.

I’ve been indignant, outraged, and disgusted over the lack of foresight and regulation, the orgy of greed and folly that has led us to financial crisis. But as I sit here, icing my swollen face, tonguing the gap in my mouth, my deficit, my foreclosure, I know that we are all to blame. That we are all creatures of habit, that we are all stubbornly optimistic and childishly reluctant to face facts and take painful action. So now we will all suffer loss, regret, and fear. We will have to make sacrifices, and maybe we will learn from our mistakes. At least for a little while.