New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

Colm Toibim , Scribners, $26.00

If Hell exists, there is a special place there for critics and reviewers who write that a collection of essays or stories or in fact of anything is “uneven.” Clearly the author or editor or compiler believed there was an overriding, cohering theme, or concept to the book and I bet that she/he actually took a great deal longer to think about and arrange the works exactly so in a particular sequence. A lot longer than the lazy reviewer apparently did to bother to figure out what that sequence was and why it was important. Colm Toibin’s collection of essays about writers sidesteps that by making its concept immediately available in its subtitle just so no one can miss it: “Writers and Their Families;” it is against this idea, among other things, that the critic ought to judge its contents.

It’s not the tightest of concepts, and Toibin doesn’t always work it out that well. Furthermore, his editor and publisher did him no favor with that title, which smacks of the trendiest Boerum Hill authorettes. It’s false advertising. There are no new ways to kill your mother inside this book -- sorry. Nor old ones made new and prosecution-proof either. None of the writers herein actually did kill their mothers although many would have liked to. Actually, fathers are more often targeted than mothers, and reading some of these essays, believe me, you will be, as I was, rooting for the son for to get out the ax.

John Butler Yeats, father of poet William Butler and artist Jack Yeats looms high on the list. A man of Cyclopean ego, he became a painter when one son succeeded in that field, and then switched to being a poet and playwright when son Willy succeeded in that area. Worse yet, he insisted that his famous son read, comment upon, correct and then agent his plays around Ireland, while he lazed about in New York City saloons being semi-famous. Homicidally annoying! No wonder Yeats eventually gave up on the Irish and married an Englishwoman named George. I might have myself.

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Montreux Jazz Festival –1976 –Nina Simone


The nearly breathless phone was from my High School friend Jerry Blatt, Bette Midler’s manager. Nina Simone was in town and would be playing one night only at the Village Vanguard. It was by invitation only and I should tell Art D’Lugoff or whoever was at the door that I was with Bette. Simone, that great singer/pianist/composer, had been battling the I.R.S. and had fled to the Caribbean in 1973 and then taken up residence in France. This trip to New York and the one night concert was totally hush-hush.

The Vanguard was packed and excitement filled the air. Looking only a bit older then when I’d last seen her at the Newport Jazz Festival, almost twenty years before, Simone entered the room, dressed head to toe like an African priestess. “Hello friends,” she said. She was alone, without her famous band. She sat at the piano which had defined her life from when she’d been a child prodigy in North Carolina through her years as a classical pianist at the Julliard School to today. In the midst of one of her jazz/soul concerts Simone was known to toss off a perfect minute-long Bach Gigue or Debussy Etude. But then when Nina Simone was on stage, it wasn’t just a concert, it was a happening, a visitation, a revelation, a political lesson, and a communion. This night would be no different.

She began her concert with standards: "Someone to Watch over Me," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and “My Funny Valentine,” mentioning other Jazz musicians. Then she stopped, as though receiving a communication from Beyond, and began caressing the piano keys in what I knew was the intro to her cover of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Except tonight the opening word was extended, riffed on, scatted, moaned, and suffered through for maybe four minutes. By the time she had reached the second word, I’ll bet everyone in the club understood what it meant to be a person of color in America.

Simone didn’t even wait for applause but sailed into "Little Girl Blue" then “Mississippi Goddam”, and “Four Women.” Ending that set with her trenchant :"I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free." It had been an extraordinary journey into her and our heart of darkness. Then she was gone.

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Marcel Proust --Les Temps Retrouve

from 50 Books Every Gay Person should Read

In a way, it comes back to those famous photos of the author: the deep-set eyes appearing bruised, as though from seeing far too much for his sensitivity, the complexion that even in black and white looks sallow, yellow, unhealthy to the touch. What nowadays is referred to by Fashionistas as “Heroin-Chic.” My first thought was “God, what a degenerate!” Then I read a bit about his life and realized he was increasingly ill as he aged with worsening asthma that couldn’t be controlled as anyone can today with an over-the-counter inhaler. No, Proust had to lie in bed, unmoving, for hours, in a cork-lined room, as dust and noise and soot and allergy-proofed as money could make it.

I first read Swann’s Way in the summer of my 17th year. I would take that fat Modern Library edition of the Scott-Moncrieff translation with me everywhere that Manhattan summer. I was attending Queens College, City University of New York, a free school not then under open admissions, with a tight student body of 4500 and we had to sustain a B-average and pass a “Comprehensive Examination” to move into sophomore year. Proust, Tolstoy’s stories, and Melville’s novellas were on my summer reading list.

 It took me about ten tries to get into the “Overture” which I finally accomplished on a sizzling August afternoon, shaded by trees at the south end of the lake at Central Park, and only once I felt utterly debilitated and gave in to Proust’s endless sentences. But once “inside” the book, I didn’t look back. Swann’s Way was rejected by all publishers and so printed by Grasset at the author’s cost. Declining it, Andre Gide commented “Too many Duchesses!” Yet, if Proust had never written anything else, he would have made it into the pantheon of great writers.

Five years later I came upon the two-volume Random House set of Remembrance of Things Past in Strand Books and I read volume two– translating the French directly –In the Shadow of Girls in Flower. It’s a painterly book, impressionistic, almost purposely non-dramatic, with characters –-Marcel’s grandmother, Bloch, Elstir, Vinteuil, Morel, Albertine. –- receiving a few new brushstrokes every time we meet them. Marcel’s descriptions of his hotel room at sunset, while he’s supposed to be napping at the seashore in Balbec, vary slightly daily, reminding me of all those Monet haystack paintings, one bluer, one more violet, one almost orange, etc.

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What is the Secret to a Lasting Career?

Talk Given at The Saints & Sinners Conference, May 2014

Bruce Dern said in a recent interview, "Understand at the very beginning that it is an endurance contest. Nobody makes it overnight. And if they do, they’re gone in a decade."

I myself have not only seen very famous in their time writers come so quickly as to seem like meteors. In fact, I’ve seen entire literary movements come and go. When Midwesterner Saul Bellow moved to New York some people were so upset, one wrote in the Chicago Sun, "we critics made you and we can break you." He turned out to be wrong. Because by then Bellow had found a large and loyal readership. But once the critics turned on Thomas Wolfe, an immense presence in the 1930’s literary world, his literary end followed shortly. Fortunately so did his life. Even today we have not reassessed this particularly American writer’s underrated and unique achievement. The critics turned on F. Scott Fitzgerald and on Henry James and on Tennesee Williams in the end too. But they all continued writing, working toward a single end: the creation of a body of work. As a result we have The Rich Boy and The Loves of the Last Tycoon, Small Craft Warnings and Clothes For a SummerHotel, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Aren’t you glad?

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James Baldwin

jamesBaldwinIn the 1970’s, Delacorte Books put out best selling authors like James Clavell, Stephen King, Howard Fast, and Irwin Shaw, and literary authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, Tim O Brien, and Jayne Ann Phillips. In 1979, many of these authors and I too at Delacorte Books had new books being published and our publisher threw a party to celebrate such a galaxy of talent, and so we might also meet the press.

Of all the authors present that I admired, I most wanted to meet James Baldwin, and to read his new novel Just Above My Head. But even for another author getting near Baldwin that evening wasn’t easy. He seemed circled, virtually protected from outsiders. 

Finally I pushed through, introduced myself (drawing the expected blank) and said to Baldwin, “In college, we all talked about Another Country. How it depicted relationships between blacks and whites, gays and straights was totally real: As were those moments of unbridgeable gaps.”

“Not unbridgeable,” Baldwin insisted concerned, and he drew me aside to sit, pleased that his book had reached this so important readership. We talked for ten minutes of SNCC, the bus rides down south, the integration movement and its leaders. We finally only parted when interviewers became persistent.

By 1987, I discovered that I had made a literary impression myself. Even so, I was surprised to be invited to speak at The Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was the midst of the Reagan Era; in a recently published essay I had decried a Media distracted by Reagan’s empty sound bytes and his wife’s fashions into ignoring unsolved national problems. I claimed that under Reagan all the social advances we’d made were being rolled back to the 1950’s. Important people had read my essay and so this also became the theme of my speech to be given and broadcast at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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