Four From All Over
DJUNA -- The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes, by Phillip Herring, Viking, 386 pp., $29.95.[ Next | Back | Archive ]
This is the sort of book that every reviewer looks for: a book that wouldn't have caught the eye at the bookstore, that covers a topic one would have overlooked, but which is, through the happy accident of its showing up, a marvel of a book: compelling, fascinating, well-written, poignant and irresistible; when opened, it is impossible to put down.
Djuna Barnes' apogee was in the legendary literary Paris of the '20s. She had spats with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, et al, was a friend of T.S. Eliot's, lived the bohemian life to the utmost, and lived openly with her then-lover, Thelma Wood of Kansas, for eight years. She interviewed Joyce, met Brancusi, worked as a foreign correspondent for McCalls. But her entire life was an exceptional voyage.
Born on the Hudson River, in New York, Djuna began life in provocative circumstances. Her grandmother, Zadel Barnes, was a writer, suffragette and advocate of free love; Zadel's son, Djuna's father, was utterly dependent on Zadel, and mother and son engineered the son's marriages and mistresses. The strange childhood of Djuna came to an end with Zadel's insistence that she could only support ONE family, Djuna's (legitimate), or the mistress' (both families were living in the same house). Barnes moved to Greenwich Village and began her career as a journalist and author to support her mother and siblings.
From New York to Paris and back again, Djuna lived a life that was every bit as spectacular as her fiction, and, aside from Herring's occasional lapses into an absurd political correctness, this biography does Djuna justice -- a daunting task, given her amazing life. An amazing book.
TOWARD A MEANINGFUL LIFE -- The Wisdom of the Rebbe, by Simon Jacobson; William Morrow, 294 pp., $20.
The actual byline here is "adapted by," since the text is translated from the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader "of the Lubavitch movement of Chassidus," who passed away in 1994. Perhaps the best accounting of this book might be this reviewer's first reaction: "I would that someone put together such a compilation of MY master's teachings."
Schneerson's writings have been adapted and compiled in an inclusive format, ranging from children to G-d (as the Rebbe insisted upon to retain the mystery). The words are warm, wise, compassionate and grounded. At first blush, this doesn't seem very "metaphysical," yet the book is suffused with a deep and profound feeling for everyday life, and the living of that life which is the centerpiece of Schneerson's spirituality.
G-d doesn't exist "out there," but is always present, always to be seen in the world, and every day is a living chapter in the quest for G-d.
Jacobson has put together a wonderful book -- albeit, I cannot say whether it truly represents Schneerson's overall point of view. That must be left to his disciples. But this volume is universal enough, and immediate enough that this critic would not hesitate to recommend it to adherents of ANY path. And so he does: recommended.
BIG YUM YUM BOOK, by R. Crumb; SLG Books (POB 9465, Berkeley, CA 94709) 152 pp., $20.
R(obert) Crumb has been rediscovered, with justice, for the artist and artistic force that he was in the heyday of the underground comix of the 'Sixties. It seems odd that it should have taken the "establishment" so long to do so -- and perhaps they will do justice to them all, eventually: Wilson, Williams, Kelley, Mouse, Williamson, Rand Holmes, Shelton, et al.
This was created while Crumb was still designing greeting cards, still a virgin, and before the explosion that was ZAP. Unfortunately, while beautifully reproduced, this tale of "Oggie and the Beanstalk" (complete with a trademark nude Amazon giantess) is, at best, pleasant. A historical document, and something for the Crumb collector (how many of you have Crumb's 78 rpm "Cheap Suit Serenaders" lps?), this is not the best of Crumb by a long shot, and, perhaps, not even the best introduction. A must for collectors, but not the Crumb to pick up, unless it's the ONLY Crumb you can pick up.
WHAT THE DEAF-MUTE HEARD, by G.D. Gearino; Simon & Schuster, 221 pp., $21.
This is a first novel, and as such, we usually grade on the curve. There is ample evidence that Gearino has the potential of fine work in the future, but this is not it. This ought to be a free-wheeling romp through the South of the past half-century (specifically, the 1966 Beatles' album-burning incident following John Lennon's infamous -- and ultimately deadly -- comments on Jesus.). In many ways it is. But in one crucial respect, this book should have been sent back for a rewrite.
Sammy Ayers finds himself, at 10, abandoned in a bus station in Barrington, Georgia. When a policeman questions him, he refuses to speak, or even acknowledge the questions. And, as the various folk theorize that Sammy is deaf-mute, he chooses to let them be right.
Sammy grows up, still living on a cot in the bus station, and fades into the woodwork as the town handy-man. Since everyone "knows" that Sammy is deaf, they spill all their secrets. Wonderful stuff: the choice of character and the plot twists are deft and elegant -- which is why we can expect great things from Gearino in future.
But -- and here's the rub -- part of what makes the engine of the novel run is 300 gallons of moonshine in the baptismal font, and, as anyone with a nose can tell you, the smell would tip off the natives. Then there's Sammy's sudden speech, after years of silence. The muscles of the voice would NOT suddenly operate after so much atrophy. That crucial respect alluded to earlier? The verisimilitude is missing. A pity.
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