Malcolm Jones

Stories by Malcolm Jones

  • harvey-pekar-wide

    Obituary: Harvey Pekar, 70, of 'American Splendor'

    Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at the age of 70, should be the patron saint of soreheads. Even when he got successful he stayed cranky, maybe because being a crank was what made him successful. Not even Pekar was fool enough to fuss with that formula. After the "American Splendor" series of comics came out starting in 1976, he was hailed as the bard of the common man, a sort of genius of ordinariness. He was nothing of the sort.
  • Cyndi Lauper Sings the 'Memphis Blues'

    The blues, like the novel, is always dead or dying, according to someone, somewhere. But somehow, time and again, both these old forms find a way to resurrect themselves. Still, if you were asked to name the best new blues album, would you pin it to Cyndi Lauper?
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    What Will Extra Features on E-Books Look Like?

    Extra features on DVDs have become so commonplace that we take them for granted. We shouldn’t. Hearing Robert Altman talk about "Gosford Park" thoroughly enriches our understanding, not to mention our enjoyment. But what about the same principle applied to books?
  • slow-reading-hsmall

    Slow Reading: An Antidote for Fast World?

    First came the Slow Food movement. Now it’s Slow Reading—a trend that encourages considered, leisurely reading over unseemly speed. Easy there, fella.
  • David Crystal Explains How We Talk

    Ever wonder when the gurglings of a French baby first start to take on a French accent? Linguist Crystal's fascinating book has all the answers.
  • The Blues Needs a Pick-Me-Up

    Is the blues dying? That’s the question the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich put to Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr., a.k.a. Chicago Beau, a blues musician; radio DJ Steve Cushing; and the author David Whiteis. All of them admitted that this venerable American musical invention, now in its second century, was ailing.
  • hank-jones-jazz-obit

    Hank Jones: A Legendary Work Ethic

    Hank Jones, the jazz pianist nonpareil who died May 16 at 91, was many things. He was the elder brother in a trio of astonishingly talented musicians (the other two: Thad on trumpet and Elvin on drums). He lived long enough to see jazz pass through nearly all of its 20th- and 21st-century permutations and mastered them all.
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    Stieg Larsson's Final Novel

    Larsson was one of those rare writers who could keep you up until 3 a.m. and then make you want to rush home the next night to do it again. Given that there are more than 27 million copies of his books in print, it’s worth speculating on how he did it.
  • I Love—Jimmy Webb?

    I knew time was softening my jaw line, expanding my belt size, and even shaving almost an inch off my height. What I wasn’t expecting was that simultaneously, it was surreptitiously fooling with my taste—my artistic taste. And yet there was the evidence, plain as day: all of a sudden, I liked Jimmy Webb.
  • Book Review: Rev. Martin Luther King's Assassin

    When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a lot of people, including numerous civil-rights leaders and at least one congressman, assumed that a conspiracy lay behind his death. Much of this suspicion can be blamed on the sour, paranoid, unstable atmosphere of the late ’60s, a climate that Hampton Sides recreates brilliantly in Hellhound on His Trail, his account of King’s murder and the search for his killer. The deaths of King and the Kennedys, the inner-city riots, the Vietnam War—these events combined to create a mood where anything could happen, as long as it was tragic, and where the pronouncements of public figures were met with no small degree of disbelief. Racist extremists were the obvious suspects in King’s death, but even the FBI did not escape suspicion. After all, J. Edgar Hoover had been trying to smear King for most of the decade. When a 40-year-old jailbird named James Earl Ray was charged with King’s murder, almost no one...
  • A Love-Hate Relationship With Birds

    Turkeys, cardinals, bald eagles—love ’em! It’s those darned starling/crow look-alikes—not to mention those maddening finch/robin sound-alikes—that ought to be stuffed.
  • Review: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

    Is it possible to write a fey novel about the Holocaust? Perhaps, you may be thinking, the better question is, why would anyone want to? But then, you have not read Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, a strange—and often strangely beguiling—novel that is a story of a novelist trying not so successfully to write a novel about the Holocaust. The novel—Martel's novel, that is—also has another story tucked within it—a play that the frustrated novelist is asked to help finish. This play, which at times sounds like a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Waiting for Godot, stars two talking animals, a donkey and a monkey. It is all, to put it mildly, quite complicated.Martel begins with an old trope: the author of a vastly successful novel who can't get going on his next book. Martel's variation on this idea is that the author has completed a book—part fiction, part essay—about the Holocaust, but then gets talked out of it by his publishers. Given that Martel is the author of Life of Pi, and...
  • 'Psycho' Turns 50

    Near the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a psychiatrist pops in to explain serial killer Norman Bates to his captors—and to us, the audience: "I got the whole story—but not from Norman. I got it—from his mother." It's a scene that always elicits unintended laughs from contemporary audiences: they laugh at Norman's need to explain himself through the voice of his mother, they laugh at the dumbfounded looks on the faces of the local hicks—but mostly they laugh at a film that thinks it must explain a serial killer. I laughed, too, when I saw it again recently. But even as I laughed, it occurred to me that this wasn't just one unintentionally funny moment in this—can it really be?—50-year-old film. It was the only one. ...
  • Bluegrass and Old-time Music Legend Ralph Stanley: The Last Hillbilly

    Ralph Stanley, now 82, has been singing and playing professionally since the '40s, but the music he performs now is not radically different from what he grew up playing and singing with his brother, Carter, in the Stanley Brothers band. He doesn't label it bluegrass, although there are similarities. Stanley's sound—he calls it mountain music or old-time—predates bluegrass. There's nothing corn pone about this hard, starkly beautiful music, nothing manufactured. Some of it is gospel, and there are strains of the old murder ballads that came over from England centuries ago, and all of it is grafted onto a style as lean and hard as a winter wind in a graveyard. In his wonderfully absorbing autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow(written with the help of Eddie Dean), he recalls the day Carter, just a teenager, got his first guitar, a mail-order instrument from Montgomery Ward: "An instruction manual came with the guitar, but Carter threw it away. Books and formal training wouldn't do it...
  • Boswell, Johnson, & the Birth of Modern Biography

    When was the last time a notable person with lots to hide (obsessive-compulsive disorder, a refusal to bathe, the fact that he wore wigs that didn't fit) insisted that his biographer measure and record every fault with seismographic precision? It may well have been a good 236 years ago, on the morning in 1773 when Samuel Johnson divulged his theory on biography to James Boswell: "I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that 'If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was:' And in the Hebrides he maintained, as appears from my Journal, that a man's intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life."Clearly—clear to Boswell anyway—he was not merely recording one more of Johnson's opinions. He was getting his marching orders. Johnson, the greatest literary critic of his time, was telling Boswell how to write what would eventually become his Life of Johnson. What neither...
  • Book Review: Lorrie Moore's 'A Gate at the Stairs'

    You can't say you don't see the trouble coming, not in a novel where the first line is "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard." The narrator is Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern college student looking for baby-sitting work in December 2001. Her voice, as rendered by the ever adroit Lorrie Moore in A Gate at the Stairs, is a wonky mixture of farm-girl practicality, undergraduate sass, and a reflexive honesty that will prove her best armor against the posturing, secrecy, and downright lying that ultimately overturn her easygoing view of the world. Lyrical and lighthearted, Tassie herself is something of a songbird, but by the end of the novel, her mental temperature will have dipped to what Emily Dickinson called "zero at the bone."Tassie lands a job with Sarah Brink, a local restaurant owner and chef who plans to adopt. Sarah is so rigorous about her responsibilities as a prospective mother that she drags Tassie along when interviewing birth mothers. An...
  • Books: Another Vampire Story?!

    If there's anything more insatiable than a vampire, it's the public's appetite for vampire tales. The trick for an author or filmmaker is to vary the formula just enough (teen vampires!) to suck back in those of us who have sworn off vampires (and serial killers) for good. In the case of The Strain, the big lure is not what's inside the book but the name of Guillermo del Toro as co-author (with Chuck Hogan) on the cover. Who among the fans of Mimic,The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth wouldn't want to see what this gifted film director can do with a vampire novel—or any novel, especially since the list of moviemakers who turn novelist is so weirdly short (Jean Renoir and then …?). Can that fantastic visual imagination make the leap to the page? The answer is a qualified yes. There are plenty of arresting, vividly imagined moments in this page turner. But once you've turned all those pages, you're done. There's no equivalent to the feeling you have when you're finished watching...
  • Books: Did The Beatles Destroy Rock?

    The history of popular music in the 20th century is old news. It begins, depending on who you believe, with Scott Joplin and ragtime. Or maybe when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first performed in 1916. At that point, the story marches through Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the swing era to bebop, then to R&B, followed by Elvis and the Beatles, then free jazz, maybe a little nod to disco, and wraps up with punk, grunge and hip-hop. Class dismissed. Or not. There's always some smart aleck in the back of the room with a hand up, looking to make trouble. Yes, Mr. Wald, what's your point?Elijah Wald is the author of How the -Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, in which he tries to convince us that much about the way we interpret the history of pop is wrong. Wald argues that most of "the music's critics and historians have typically sought to distinguish the music they love from the mediocre pap that surrounded it. As a...
  • The Fictional Charlie Chaplin

    Chaplin stars in the novel 'Sunnyside.' So does Rin Tin Tin. Sometimes fiction is stranger than truth.
  • Worth Your Time: Sweden's "Everlasting Moments"

    Visual acuity is at the heart of "Everlasting Moments," the beautiful new film by Sweden's Jan Troell ("The Emigrants"). Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) is the working-class wife of an abusive drunk. After winning a camera in a lottery, she stumbles on her gift for photography and it changes her life, though not all for the better. This is a movie stripped bare of clichés about self-discovery.Maria soon finds herself in demand as a local portraitist, and in one scene, a mother whose child has drowned asks her to photograph the corpse in the coffin—a common early 20th-century custom. The resulting picture shows the dead girl in her casket, while through the window above it, a few kids can be seen staring in at the body. But we don't see the photo until Maria takes it to a camera shop. What makes this scene so wonderful is a sort of double awareness: first, that this unassuming woman has a natural eye, which elevates her in our estimation—and second, that the filmmakers had to...
  • Music: Miles Davis's Masterpiece

    Fifty years ago, Miles Davis recorded 'Kind of Blue.' If you own one jazz album, this is probably the one.