• A Wonderful Way to Begin Reading Proust . . . or To Return

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    For many, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece of memories, In Search of Lost Time, is the greatest work of 20th century literature, ranking with the greatest of 19th century writers such as Tolstoy and Austen.

    True, Proust’s exquisite memories and interior monologues are not to everyone’s taste, but they carry you into a world of his own, amid the salons of fin de siècle Paris and the family’s country retreat at Combray.

    The main obstacle for most of us is the sheer length of the project, originally some seven volumes. I, for one, have only read the first volume, Swann’s Way.

    Recently, a friend told me that the first volume has now been produced as a graphic novel. Normally, that wouldn’t interest me–but, then, he explained that the translator is Arthur Goldhammer (who is always superb) and that the drawings by French illustrator Stéphane Heuet evoke the streets of Paris and Combray and the interiors and people Proust remembers.

    I was intrigued–and confident in my friend’s judgment–bought it and plunged ahead.

    Goldhammer likens the graphic novel to “a piano reduction of an orchestral score.” That’s too modest for such an achievement.

    I have just finished the book and hated to see it end. That’s always the best evidence the book was engaging.

    If you’ve always wanted to try reading Proust but hesitated because of the length and complexity, you might consider the graphic version of Swann’s Way (link to Amazon here).

    The NPR review by Glen Weldon captures my view:

    To be clear: this is a dense read. Yes, it’s a comic, but given that so much of it has to do with petty judgments and perceived slights among various levels of Parisian society, pages and pages are devoted to static conversations in well-appointed drawing rooms. But those drawing rooms are richly realized, which is another way the graphic novel brings an immediacy to the infrastructure of Proust’s story, which he set in real neighborhoods boasting recognizable landmarks, all reproduced here in exacting detail.

    Is it any real substitute for reading Proust’s prose, in French or in English? Of course not, and I don’t see anyone seriously suggesting it is.

    But it makes for an intriguing introduction to the novels, if you’ve never made the leap — a kind of literary gateway drug — and a tantalizing refresher course, if you have. –Glen Weldon for NPR

  • Best book title in a long time

    Our friend and neighbor, Lucy Biederman, now teaching at Case Western in Cleveland came up with an inspired titled:

    The Walmart Book of the Dead (Amazon link)

    She wrote most of it in Louisiana, while getting her doctorate in poetry. She explains the origins of the book in an interview with the Case Western Daily:

    Living on a graduate student stipend in the Deep South, writer Lucy Biederman had few shopping options—so she found herself frequenting a place at once mysterious and magical to her: Walmart….

    “The last thing you’d expect is for someone to not have an opinion about Walmart,” said Biederman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, “but a lot of these opinions can be too easy.

    “The closer you get, the more complicated it gets,” she said. “It’s similar to death in that way.” –Case Western Daily

    Her observation about Walmart’s place in American culture–and its gaping cultural divide–is insightful:

    To some people, Walmart is so essential it’s more than a store—it’s the pulse of their existence.

    And to others, Walmart represents so much of what’s wrong with profit-seeking. I wanted to bridge that gap. –Lucy Biederman

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    Comments: Statisticians are unable to calculate the number of expected jokes the author will have to endure about “future books dealing with Costco or Target?” (In rural Louisiana, the questions will be about “Dollar General.”)

    As for me, I still can’t believe Lucy is the first person to see the obvious connections between Walmart and ancient Egyptian religious practices.

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  • Why Do People Love Detective Stories?

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    I certainly enjoy them, in print, on TV, and in movies.

    Many stories that are not framed specifically as detective stories really are. Perry Mason (the old black-and-white shows) are always “whodunnits.”

    It’s not surprising, then, that I enjoyed Marco den Ouden’s article about why people enjoy detective stories so much (Foundation for Econ. Ed.)

    Most of the article is about den Ouden’s love of Harry Bosch novels, written by Michael Connell, but he advances a general argument, too. Here’s the nub of it:

    That is the appeal of the crime novel, of the police detectives on television and in the movies. We see them as avenging angels, as heroic figures who will stop at nothing. We see them as empathetic warriors who, like Bosch, will not let politics or other impediments stop them.

    Whether it is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or Owen Laukkanen’s duo of Windermere and Stevens, we find in these characters the relentless searcher for truth and justice. –Marco den Ouden for FEE

    The search for truth and justice are obviously central, but there are other attractions, too, I think.

    • The pleasure of discerning clues and piecing them together, best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes and the classic “closed room” crimes
    • Trying to understand the suspects’ motives, particularly how different motives might lead to the same deadly outcome
    • Uncovering a dark layer beneath the benign surface of social convention and
    • The chance to immerse yourself in varied social, physical, and historical environments, all while following a strong plot line.

    The weakness, typically, lies in the psychological development of characters (except, at times, the detective).

    So, what do you think?

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  • Martha Lavey: Remembering a great artistic director who shaped Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater

    In a city of great theater, none casts a longer shadow than Steppenwolf, with its extraordinary ensemble of actors, writers, and directors.

    In recent decades, none shaped that theater more than artistic director Martha Lavey, who died this week of a stroke, far too young (60).

    She commissioned new plays; brought in up-and-coming playwrights like Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”), Tarrell Alvin McCraney (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” adapted for the film “Moonlight”) and Bruce Norris (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park”); and created new workshops and experimental performing spaces.

    During her tenure, Steppenwolf presented a long list of critically praised productions. Several transferred to Broadway, winning nine Tony Awards. The theater’s restagings of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” both won Tonys for best revival.

    Mr. Letts’s “August: Osage County” was developed at the theater and had its world premiere there. After moving to Broadway, it won five awards at the 2008 Tonys, including best play. Mr. Letts went on to win a best-actor Tony in 2013 for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” –Chicago Tribune

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    As subscribers for decades, we saw them all.

    I remember especially watching Tracy Lett’s magisterial “August: Osage Country” in its premier run. I kept thinking, “This is one for the ages. It will be playing as long as there are great actors to play it.” That was the creative genius of Tracy, Martha, and the Steppenwolf ensemble. Time and again, they captured the raw, immediate, and very personal drama of live theater.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    In Martha Lavey’s memory, all Chicago’s theaters have dimmed their lights.

    Her lasting achievement is that Chicago’s creative lights will burn brighter for her life in theater here.

    The Chicago Tribune obituary is here. The New York Times obituary is here.

  • ZipDialog’s Roundup of News Beyond the Front Page . .Sunday, January 8

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Positive, human-interest story on medical marijuana, with a moving headline: “I made my autistic son cannabis cookies. They saved him.”

    At the time [our 9-year-old son] was consumed by violent rages. He would bang his head, scream for hours and literally eat his shirts. At dinnertime, he threw his plates so forcefully that there was food stuck on the ceiling. He would punch and scratch himself and others, such that people would look at the red streaks on our bodies and ask us, gingerly, if we had cats.

    But when I got the cookies right, he calmed down. His aggressions became less ferocious and less frequent. Mealtimes became less fraught. He was able to maintain enough self-composure that he even learned how to ride a bike — despite every expert telling us it would never happen.

    It seemed like a miracle. And seven years later, it’s still working. –Marie Myung-Ok Lee (Chicago Tribune, originally in Washington Post)

    ◆ Democrats want to delay hearings on Trump’s cabinet picks That’s the report in The Hill.

    Comment: The political wisdom of the Democrats’ strategy depends on their reasons. If they want essential financial and ethics information, the delay will be seen as justifiable. If there are not substantive reasons, then the Democrats will be seen as obstructionist, part of the swamp Trump promised to drain.

    ◆ “The stuff that dreams are made of” I just learned that Bogie ad libbed that line. It wasn’t in the script.

    ◆ Goodbye to two fine men: Nat Hentoff and Mario Soares

    ◆ Hentoff, aged 91, was a great jazz critic, a fierce defender of free speech, and prolific author. A true mensch.  The NYT obituary is here.

    ◆ Mario Soares, 92, played a crucial role in Portugal’s transition to democracy after decades of right-wing, authoritarian rule. The BBC calls him the “Father of Portuguese Democracy.”

    ◆ Putin wins his last round against Obama, says The Economist. Now, they say, he will have to hang on to power with that scapegoat. The story is here.

    Comment: We’ll see. Putin is currently jousting with plenty of dragons around the world; perhaps they can serve as scapegoats. Trump clearly wants to shift relations with Russia; that explains his overtures and smooth relations with the Kremlin before he takes office. The question is what will happen to those relations after Trump faces his first crisis with Russia. (Remember, things went smoothly with Ted Cruz, too, until their interests clashed directly.)

    ◆ Taiwan’s leader is coming to the US, and Beijing is not happy about it. CNBC has the story.

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  • A wonderful, steaming bio of actress Mary Astor, reviewed with zest by Woody Allen

    Woody’s review in the New York Times is here, and it’s a pleasure to read, much like his early writing.

    I loved Mary Astor as the femme fatale, played against Humphrey Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon.

    She is also remembered for Meet Me in St. Louis.

    Off-screen, it turns out, she loved rollin’ and tumblin’, as the blues songs put it.

    And, while blues men wrote songs, Mary wrote a diary. Alas for Mary, her husband discovered it.

    Woody loves the book and recounts the main themes with characteristic humor.

    The link to the book at Amazon, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel, is here, if you want to read the juicy details of Hollywood scandals in the golden years.