Writers on Writers

Edited by Graydon Carter  (Introduction by David Friend)

Penguin Books | 2016 | 424 pages | $20.00

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Graydon Carter



Each month a mysterious alchemy takes place in magazine publishing.  And then: A new issue of Vanity Fair appears.  What does one find in that periodical’s pages?

For starters, there’s great photography complementing the spellbinding (and often serious) journalism, with articles and pictures exploring, exposing, and confronting issues far and wide: distant wars and America’s foreign policies; domestic tensions and the crises of addiction, abuse, and economics; all the metrics of modern life.

Yet somehow, amid that admixture, there are also a slew of star-powered cinematic flashes, high society lowdowns, interviews and profiles – all written with muscle.  Literary muscle.  Powerful sentences and surprising transitions.  Diction intended to delight and challenge, but never mystify.  In other words: Great writers are at work.

Of course we hear echoes of George Plimpton when the phrase “writers at work” is recycled.  That’s no accident.  Just as The Paris Review (in all of its distinction as a literary quarterly for decades) manifested Mr. Plimpton’s well-educated, bon vivant persona, and just as William F. Buckley’s Ivy League high IQ personified much of the National Review for half a century, so, too, does Vanity Fair depend on its editor.

Therefore, in the remarkable new anthology Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers, it’s not just the 41 writers whose work is featured or their 40-plus subjects who are on display.  This bold collection also puts editor Graydon Carter in the spotlight.

The book’s concept is a tribute to the power of the word.  No photos appear in this book.  Only words.  But the unified theme of having more than forty writers say what they have to say about more than forty other influential, innovative, astute, visionary, consequential authors is a theme that helps sustain this engaging work.

Divided into nine sections, Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers begins with Christopher Hitchens’s piece on Dorothy Parker – aptly appearing under this rubric: “One Vanity Fair Contrarian Recalls Another.”  That opener, though, follows a highly necessary (and meticulously brief) Introduction by David Friend, who joined Vanity Fair as editor of creative development in 1998, after being Life magazine’s director of photography.  Providing readers with a comprehensive summary of Vanity Fair’s storied publishing history, David Friend asserts right away: “Literature runs in Vanity Fair’s veins.” 

The body of work that follows in this book supports his claim.

Peruse the Contents of this chronicle and you might feel giddy.  There is a dizzying amount of talent on display, starting with the first section: “On Poets.”

The legacy of W. H. Auden is assessed by Joseph Brodsky and Susan Cheever (yes, daughter of John) marvelously highlights e. e. cummings.  In her own mercurial way, legendary poet Elizabeth Bishop is then featured, with Marianne Moore as her topic.

That first section is a feast.  And it only gets better.  “On Literary Lions” is the follow-up, and its eight profiles of iconic authors give the reader an octet of captivating biographical essays, all written by notable, idiosyncratic, distinguished scribes. 

It’s a Who’s Who: The late, great Willie Morris (once upon a time the youthful and trailblazing editor of Harper’s magazine) reminds us in “Eudora Welty” that she was “game for anything, always peering around the next bend.”  And Anne Tyler is quick to note in “Reynolds Price” that he “used to wear a long black cape with a scarlet lining.”  Just as particular and detailed are the many ways in which Martin Amis anatomizes a Nobel Prizewinner in “Saul Bellow” or the flourishes that James Wolcott brings to his “Jack Kerouac” profile. 

The heft of “Literary Lions” is enhanced by A. Scott Berg’s exquisite work “Ernest Hemingway,” as well as Sam Kashner’s in-depth “Truman Capote” piece.   “Tom Wolfe” by Michael Lewis also shines.

Inevitably, in a section called “A Family Affair,” there’s a powerhouse trio of pieces on the Dunne clan (John Gregory, Dominick, and Joan Didion Dunne).

In a funny way, though, even amid such a mighty array of writers composing commemorative essays on colleagues in the pantheon, someone looms large.

You guessed it.  Biographer Patricia Bosworth’s piece, “Norman Mailer,” is in the middle of the section dubbed “Literary Lions,” just as ol’ stormin’ Norman managed to make his advertisements for himself the center of literary attention for almost all of his lengthy, foot-stomping career.  Ms. Bosworth’s deft ability to make Mailer’s all-too-familiar name and endeavors seem both inspired and illuminating is admirable.  She accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of reminding us that a booze-addled, anger-fueled, misogynistic, egomaniacal wife-stabber was also a great artist.
   Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writing expands thereafter.  Only a 5,000-word review could do justice to the scope and sweep of this collection.  In the section titled “Distant Shores,” the subjects include Paul Bowles and Primo Levi, along with Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Ever since Graydon Carter began editing Vanity Fair in 1992, its purview has been international and multicultural.

This becomes even more apparent in “Short Takes,” a medley of brief pieces, which begins with the almost unbearably poignant final (though incomplete) writing by Truman Capote.  Written just one day before his death in 1984 (at the absurdly young age of 59), the unfinished “Willa Cather” profile begun by Capote shimmers, despite his combined illnesses and imminent demise.  Other prose snapshots are here in abundance: Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam, Meg Wolitzer offer these glimpses: “Roger Straus,” “Ward Just,” “Judy Blume.” 

Plus “Sonny Mehta,” as his Knopf sanctuary and career are spotlighted by Dave Eggers.  It’s a readers’ smorgasbord.

If I were invited to pick a favorite among the “Short Takes,” it would have to be Jacqueline Woodson’s brilliantly concise “James Baldwin” close-up.  Somehow, in five eloquent, vivid paragraphs, Ms. Woodson manages (in a piece dated 2016) to bring back to life the true power and glory of James Baldwin’s scintillating works and days.  Shining a light on Giovanni’s Room, in particular (Baldwin’s second novel dared in 1956 to not only feature a Caucasian expatriate narrator, but to present bisexuality and homosexuality and polyamory as normal), we see again how 60 years ago James Baldwin broke new ground – yet he remains as relevant as ever.

On and on and on tumble the pages, as sections called “Behind the Bestsellers” and “Memoir” and “A Final Tale” round out the book.  It would be obtuse not to mention that in the “Memoir” portion of this collection, editor Graydon Carter wisely reprints William Styron’s pulverizing, taboo-breaking, stigma-shattering personal essay “Darkness Visible,” which was later expanded and published as a book.

It’s nearly impossible now to imagine how daring that piece was when it appeared in Vanity Fair.  Styron’s lucid, gut wrenching, transparent confessions about his descent into clinical depression and suicidal angst in the aftermath of his greatest career triumphs (his novel Sophie’s Choice and the film version of that work made him an Olympian figure) still has the power to leave readers devastated yet grateful.

Similarly, we should all be grateful to Graydon Carter (and David Friend) for their combined efforts through the years.  They manage in tandem to create a monthly magazine that always deserves attention.  As for Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers, it cements the magazine’s legacy, inviting us to meet (and to read) great authors anew.

(M. J. Moore’s novel For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor will be published in April 2017 by Heliotrope Books.)

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Night's Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins

By Yael Tamar Lewin

Wesleyan University Press | 361 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Yael Tamar Lewin

Two years ago, a group of celebrities decided to create an animated feature about the career of Janet Collins, once one of the finest ballerinas in America. Her stellar life would be developed by the Sweet Blackberry organization, which chronicles the achievements of often-neglected African American talents, under the leadership of Karyn Parsons, the actress popularized in the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Comedian Chris Rock has been chosen to narrate the upcoming 20-minute feature.

Who was Janet Collins? Most Americans do not know Collins, who was the first black prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s and a force in American classical ballet. What makes her remarkable career is that it excelled during the political firestorm of Jim Crow and racial discrimination. This notable life is revisited in journalist Yael Tamar Lewin’s recent biography of the dancer, Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, a hybrid of the pioneer’s words and the writer’s observations.

Born in March 7, 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Collins moved with her family to Los Angeles, California, where her parents encouraged her in dance classes. Her first instruction occurred at a Catholic community center, a series of classes that spurred her to seek further guidance from teachers, including Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton, and Adolph Bolm. These whites saw no difference in the abilities of their young black charges, contrary to the popular belief at the time.

Critics of the diversity in modern dance embraced the black stereotypes, the erotic, the vulgar, the primitive, the other. They remembered the huge buttocks and breasts of Venus Hottentot, which captured the national interest generations before. The black physique, according to some, lacked the elegance and grace required for classical dance.

As master dancer Alvin Ailey commented about the furor over the African American body, he said: “Those were the days when they told you, ‘Your hips are wrong, your back is wrong, your feet are wrong, your legs won’t turn out, so don’t come to our ballet school.”

The magnificence of this book is that Collins’s words were gleaned from her unfinished autobiography to start the work. Lewin, writing on assignment for Dance Magazine in 1997, did a piece on Collins. In fact, she thought they would collaborate on her memoirs, but the dancer lost interest in the endeavor while confronting health issues.

The first two chapters of the book consist of her thoughts as she sets the table for what is to follow, the bulk of the Lewin’s text compiled from research of the New York Public Library and Met Opera archives.

“As early as I can remember, I loved to dance and I loved to paint and draw,” Collins wrote. “My entire family encouraged me – in fact, we were all encouraged to follow our natural endowments. Actually, I remember no one in my entire family ever being like anyone else – all were staunchly individual, and outspoken. It is a miracle how we ever managed to be a family, but that we were.”

Collins struck to her dream of dance despite society’s objections that she quit. In 1932, she, as a 15-year-old girl, auditioned for the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which demanded that she painted her face and skin white to enhance her performance. She refused the job.

Later, Collins was interviewed by the New York Times in 1974, explaining her response to the racist request. “I said no,” she said emotionally. “I sat on the steps and I cried and cried.”

With her art skills, Collins was awarded a scholarship to Art Center College of Design in 1936, but she continued to dance. She performed in Lester Horton’s Le Sacre du Printemps at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by dancing two years later in a Federal Theatre Project, a revival of Hall Johnson’s Run, Little Chillum. At 21, she performs in the Los Angeles run of Swing Mikado and joined with actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on a national tour to New York.

Evolving into an artist of worth, an individual must dedicate herself to a goal with a determination and steel resolve that sometimes stretches her reality. Real zeal. Collins realized that she was different from others in her environment, but she paid the emotional price, although her family supported her in every way possible.

“I was alone, very alone in the midst of a very large and loving and contentious family,” the dancer wrote. “This is not unusual for any artist born into a family who are not artists. We are a bit like “the ugly duckling” who grows up to be a swan. We are somehow considered ‘different from the rest’ – the ‘normal’ members of the family.”

Eager to move on with her young adult life, she eloped with Charles Holland, a widowed singer with Hall Johnson’s choir. They were married by a justice of the peace. Some in her family thought she was trying to escape her family. The marriage ended after nine months, caused by Holland’s cheating, and she returned home with a warm welcome from her parents. She was later troubled by her father’s scathing words about her failed union: “She stole her from me.”

Severely depressed, Collins was admitted to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California, a victim of the eugenics policy of “asexualization.” She underwent the surgery with the permission of her parents, totally unaware that her life would be shaped by this major procedure. Her mother said she was depressed and mentally ill, and should not bring any children into this world. Her father said there was nothing wrong with his child. However, his daughter would be plagued with severe bouts of depression throughout her life.

It was to her credit that Collins did not stop pursuing her dance career. She joined the Katherine Dunham dance company in 1941 and added her Collins magic to the Duke Ellington soundie, Flamingo, with master dancer Tally Beatty. She danced in the film, Stormy Weather, in 1943, and later did duets with Beatty in the black musical revue, Sweet ‘n Hot. Hollywood called again as she performs in the nightclub scene, “Rendezvous in Rio” in the film, Thrill of Brazil.”

After Collins’s arrival in New York City, she gave her first recital at the 92nd Y to mostly positive media notices and started dancing teaching at the School of American Ballet. In 1951, she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for performance in Cole Porter’s Out of this World. For three years, the dancer was hired as the first black ballerina by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, dancing in the productions of Aida, Carmen, La Gioconda, and Samson et Dalila.
In her later years, she taught dance at several colleges and choreographs numbers for the San Francisco Opera and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. Although Collins broke down racial barriers in modern dance, she was a fine painter and embracing the Benedictine order as an oblate. She died at age 86 in 2003 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Lewin’s major work on Janet Collins documents this extraordinary woman as an accomplished dancer, choreographer and painter. It is told with respect, close to the facts, without sensational tidbits. It is a celebration of an artist who went against the odds and won. As the great dancer, Katherine Dunham, said: “It would be impossible for anybody who was at all interested in dancing, I think, to overlook her. She just stood out.”  Needless to say, this book should be required reading for anyone seeking to be an artist.

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Four Scraps of Bread

By Magda Hollander-Lafon

University of Notre Dame Press | 2016 | 124 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Magda Hollander-Lafon

This slim volume first published in France in 2012 and just recently translated into English is a memorial to the millions who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Hollander-Lafon was a Hungarian Jewish teenager when she suffered internment at Auschwitz,-Birkenau and subsequently, the Ravensbruck, Zillertal, Mittelbau-Dora concentration and labor camps.

As is the case with many survivors, she was loath for years to speak of her ordeal. Clearly, even now, six decades later, the reader senses how difficult it is for her to revisit wartime memories. Over the years she has struggled to find a language suitable for conveying the abject horror of her experience while somehow hinting at the few life-giving moments of compassion and luck that enabled her to emerge the only survivor of her family. Of the 437,403 deported from Hungary, 350,000 were murdered on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Rather than recount her tale in a linear fashion, Hollander-Lafon has chosen to give us an impressionistic portrayal of life in the camps and immediately thereafter. In very short chapters, in bits of poetry, she captures a moment indelibly sketched in her mind: the time she wished she wanted to change places with the German shepherd dogs, the time the old woman selflessly gave her some moldy bread which allowed her to go on living another day, the time the good German guard took her aside and massaged her feet when she was almost unconscious from the pain, and the time a fellow deportee spoke to her, “saw” her as a person, not just another lice-ridden starving, thirsty, crippled excuse for a human being competing for a crust of bread or a drop of water.

Torture took many forms: the Germans amused themselves by forcing internees outside at odd hours and in the middle of the night for endless roll calls, forced marches, barefoot races.

The prisoners were often naked, shoeless, nearly comatose. To fall, to show any weakness, to get sick meant certain death at the next “selection” of those destined for the gas chambers. Nazi guards and the sonderkommandos they recruited from among the victims to assist them, starve, torture and torment Hollander-Lafon and her fellows for their own amusement.

Grasping the reality of a typical day through Hollander-Lafon’s eyes, we see what enormous mental and physical strength was required to keep on plodding through each hellish day.

In the midst of such incalculable suffering, the author stays strong, determined to survive. She’s a mere sixteen years old, and from one day to the next, an orphan. Others in the camps tell her she must survive and bear witness someday to what she has experienced, to all who have fallen; she must speak for them.

We learn from the text and introductory and closing remarks that the author was hospitalized with pneumonia after Liberation, settled in Belgium where she studied, and eventually married. She has four children and ten grandchildren. Trained as a pediatric psychologist, she has been involved for years in presenting programs on the Holocaust to French schoolchildren.

The images Hollander-Lafon sketches in Four Scraps of Bread are often brutally evocative:

My memory opens up, painfully, at the sound of
Persistent calls. I am emerging from the
Long tunnel where I have lain low.
Thousands of faces disappeared
Without knowing why. They call out to me
Without knowing why. They call out to me
They are full of distress
Blazing with hunger
Snuffed out by thirst
The tense look of a friend whose flesh bore the
Marks of a dog’s bite
With each step, she was losing her life.
The overwhelmed look of another woman beaten
To death.
Hundreds of fading looks, exhausted from long
Hours of roll calls.
On thousands of lost faces, the dejection of a life
Terminated too soon.
Trucks come and go down their long lanes of
Filled with lives, packed tight, their eyes looking into the distance.
Holding out their emaciated hands, clinging onto
Life with wasted screams.
The smokestack crackles.     
The sky is low, gray and yellow.
We breathe in their ashes as the wind blows them away.
Thirty years later
I tremble as I push through the thick wall of my
So that all of those looks begging for hope
Do not vanish
Into the dust.

The second half of the book turns away from these scenes to focus on the author’s spiritual awakening, her gradual transformation from a thoroughly secular Jew to a “baptized Jew” who finds strength in her belief in Jesus.

The book loses momentum as her somewhat vague professions of the faith which has helped to sustain her in her post-Holocaust existence are expressed in a series of rather vague homilies. She gives no clue in the text as to the direction of her post-war life. We must depend on the attached translator’s note and the historical commentary by two French professors to round out the picture.

The first half of the book put me in mind of last year’s Best Foreign Language Film, a fellow Hungarian’s film about Auschwitz, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. The cinematography is very much like the techniques used in Four Scraps of Bread: the moviegoer is allowed a very narrow field of vision, witnessing everything through the eyes of the main character, Saul. We hear what Saul hears without seeing the people talking around him, without knowing who is crying out, who is getting beaten or gassed or shot.

Thumps, screams, whimpers. This limited perspective is very effective, mimicking one person’s limited view and understanding of what is transpiring around him, and much more frightening than a clear view would be, as it forces our imaginations to fill in the blanks and place ourselves within the scene.

So it is with this book. We must draw on our own experiences, and must use our hearts to place ourselves within the setting and the action. The author does not tell us how to feel. She gives us but a hint of what she and the others suffered: the lice always chewing on their flesh, the cold, the heat, the dizzying starvation, the senseless routines, the avoidance of emotional ties to others, the difficulty remembering that you are a human being, innocent, and deserving of a better fate.

She trusts us to feel the pain. And, to remember.

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SUB ROSA (A Novel)

By Dara Lebrun

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Dara Lebrun

Dara Lebrun has given readers a gift with Sub Rosa, which is the second installment in her series of five interrelated novels about love and lovers, blended families, and the intricate fragilities of human relationships in today’s world of yearning adults.

To have such an agenda within the form of novels is remarkable in itself.  Usually, if a writer is creating a cycle of interrelated works, it’s in the form of a cycle of poems or a series of interconnected short stories.

Perhaps most famously, we’ve witnessed playwright August Wilson’s stunning feat of completing a cycle of ten plays (known as The Pittsburgh Cycle), all of which form a thematic tapestry that’s character-driven, familial, and encyclopedic.

In any genre, such a goal is a visionary quest.  For example, in August Wilson’s canon, his comprehensive aim was to encapsulate a century of African-American life by way of ten plays, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century.  Fences and The Piano Lesson are probably the most famous parts of The Pittsburgh Cycle.

Similarly, author Dara Lebrun discovered that to flesh out the multilayered and overlapping stories she had to tell regarding a large array of urban American archetypes, a cycle of five interrelated novels would be required. 

Lebrun has said: “I didn’t write The Bunny Hop, my first novel . . . with the intention of creating a series of novels about the same characters.  But when I finished it, I was left with questions and obsessions that have spilled over into the subsequent three novels I’ve written, and one still in progress.”

Dara Lebrun has dubbed her vast panorama Children Who Aren’t Ours.  The author is on the record here, having remarked that “I portray a group of social outcasts, of one stripe or another, each of whose life is changed by the presence of a child that is not his or her own, biologically.” 

And if that’s not dicey enough in relation to domestic arrangements and the tensions induced by blended families, there is this: Lebrun has committed to the fullest kind of serious exploration in fiction of human sexuality.  Her modern-day characters are gay, bisexual, and straight—or sometimes a free-floating mixture of all three.
   Sub Rosa manages a nearly impossible feat – to make new the age-old agonies of a single woman’s love affair with a married man; a man whose life is consumed by his adolescent daughter.  The main male protagonist, Saul, is a married father of three children.  His six-year affair with Dahlia is at a tipping point, because on the cusp of her 40th birthday, a reckoning is demanded.

And while the unfolding story revolves mostly around the entwined fates of Saul, Dahlia, and his burgeoning teenage daughter, there’s also conflict and potential disarray in the marriage of Dahlia’s sister.  Nobody’s life is simple in Lebrun’s realm.

Also, her fictional realm is enhanced greatly by the degree to which she has made a contemporary Jewish-American edge an omnipresent element.  Her characters are, in many ways, the children and grandchildren of all those long-ago archetypes we once met in the novels of Henry Roth and Chaim Potok.  Nonetheless, Dara Lebrun’s protagonists are often secular and seemingly far removed from the immigrant days of the past.  And yet, they’re still bound together by Jewish rituals and holidays, and the many echoes of Yiddish expressions and urban Jewish-American ethos.

Here’s a sample of what gives Sub Rosa its energy: “Now she awaited him, gazing out the window.  Right on time his cab pulled up at the curb—he always visited her by cab, did not want to even risk driving his own car to Lincoln Park.  There were branches of Hadassah near Dahlia’s street, and his wife chaired some committee at the Greater Chicago Chapter in Skokie.  Any number of these ‘nonprofit gadflies,’ as Dahlia called them, could recognize him or his car.  When he took Dahlia for sushi or when they strolled through the park after lovemaking, he wore disguises: sunglasses or a visor hat in warm weather, or a woolen sock hat and thick scarf in winter.”

As Chicago and its surrounding area provide backdrop, Saul then reminds Dahlia of the geometry of his extramarital situation: “Cheryl wouldn’t give a damn . . . We haven’t had sex since the twins were born.  She’s even told me, ‘Find a girlfriend.’  Not that I’d let her know I have—but her brother Richie, now he’s got a gun, and that crackpot would shoot.  He’s never liked me.”

Dara Lebrun combines the domestic panorama of novelist and short-story master Richard Yates with a depth and vision that reminds one of Marilyn French.  But she is making a decidedly new contribution to American fiction.  Richard Yates’s world of postwar marriages collapsing in the 1950s and 1960s (think Revolutionary Road and Young Hearts Crying) was then superseded by the politically inflected narrative of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

With her Children Who Aren’t Ours cycle of novels (The Bunny Hop and Sub Rosa will be followed by Half Crazy, Nephews, and The Habit of Yearning), Dara Lebrun steps up to chronicle, in her fiction, today’s chaotic, bruised lives.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.)

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