Malcolm Jones

Stories by Malcolm Jones

  • Lost in Translations

    'War and Peace' has been the Everest of literature for more than 150 years. Two new English versions remind us why Tolstoy's tome is still worth the climb.
  • A New Mingus Concert

    A previously unknown 1964 recording surfaces to supply us with another dazzling look at one of the greatest jazz bands to ever take a stage.
  • U.S. Soldier’s Guide to Iraq—Circa 1943

    In 1943, U.S. servicemen stationed in Iraq were issued a pocket-size 41-page book entitled “A Short Guide to Iraq.” In straightforward prose, the book gave American soldiers a primer to help them through the cultural snarls and byways of the country in which they were stationed. They learned a little history, a little geography and a smattering of vocabulary and grammar.In light of what we know about Iraq and the Middle East today, the book’s contents look a little slight. But when you reflect on what Americans knew about a then-obscure corner of the world in 1943, it looks like a godsend. Back then there was no television to beam a country’s culture into living rooms around the world. You couldn’t Google “Iraq” and learn basic history and culture on the fly. “A Short Guide to Iraq”—recently republished by the University of Chicago Press as “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II”—filled a big gap in the knowledge of American troops in Iraq, and its overall...
  • Rolling Credits On Ingmar Bergman

    There were times, while watching an Ingmar Bergman movie, when you’d think to yourself, it’s like they invented black and white photography just so this man could make films. Bergman and black and white were perfectly complimentary. This was a director who could examine the human condition and see in it innumerable shades—all of them gray. Without slighting his longtime cameraman, Sven Nykvist, it is still possible to say that no filmmaker was ever better than Bergman when it came to finding the right place to put his camera—and no one ever knew better how to wait for the right light for a shot. The results were easily a score or more of movies that were unremittingly painful to watch—indeed, they would have been too painful, had not the way they were shot put one painting-worthy image after another up on the screen. Bergman convinced us that the world was full of ignorance, pain and suffering. But the movies themselves, things of transcendent beauty, easily balanced his bleak view...
  • Saying Goodbye to Harry Potter

    What a lot of commotion over a book. Not since 19th century New Yorkers anxiously crowded the Manhattan docks to be the first to discover the serialized fate of Dickens's Little Nell have people gotten so excited about fiction. And the scope of this frenzy might make even Dickens blush with envy.The camping out and queuing up to be the first in line as book stores started selling the last installment of the saga of Harry Potter at midnight Friday—the parties, the contests, the costumes—all this has happened before with the unveiling of each installment since the midnight sales started with the fourth volume. This time, though, the hoopla soared to unprecedented levels that not even the well-oiled publicity machinery of publishers could have ignited. For weeks now, the rumors have flown over the Internet: Harry lives! Harry dies! This week things reached a new pitch of excitement as books fell into the hands of eager fans despite the closely monitored embargo of the 12 million copies...
  • Music: Producer Joe Boyd Recalls the ‘60s

    Joe Boyd had one No. 1 single in his career as a record producer: Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” But if Boyd was never one to crank out a lot of chart toppers, he had something more valuable in the long run: a nearly infallible ear for talent. He was the first man to produce Pink Floyd and a pioneer in the field of world music. Musicians sought him out to produce their albums, as Boyd recalls in his new book, “White Bicycles,” a splendid account of music in the ‘60s that's packed with profiles and vignettes about Syd Barrett, Sandy Denny and even a wordless Dylan. As Boyd writes, "I was there and I do remember."A preppie from Princeton, N.J., with an ear for what we now call roots music, Boyd came of age in the early '60s, working at the Newport Folk Festival (and is ready to testify as an eyewitness that Pete Seeger did not try to take an ax to the cables powering Dylan’s famous debut as an electric artist), organizing jazz tours in Europe, where he settled, getting by...
  • New Book Celebrates America's Show Tunes

    Let’s begin with a few things that critic and novelist Wilfrid Sheed leaves out of his book about the American popular song circa mid-20th century: “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” “Miss the Mississippi and You,” “Right or Wrong,” “San Antonio Rose,” “Stormy Monday,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love With You,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Crazy” and “Stagger Lee.” All of those songs were written or sung to wide acclaim in the period that Sheed covers, roughly the time between the two world wars with a 10-year slop over either way. Sheed makes a point of saying that he’s not trying to be encyclopedic, that he’s writing specifically about something he calls the jazz song, a concept that he never really pins down. To speed things along, let’s just say show tunes, which to Sheed are pretty much the end all and be all of American songs. It’s what he grew up listening to, and don’t we all love what we loved when we were young?...
  • Books: The Return of Arkady Renko

    I was telling a friend the other day that I was nearly done with the Martin Cruz Smith novel “Stalin’s Ghost” and that I was enjoying it. “Well, he’s got a good character,” my friend commented. My friend is no fool. Arkady Renko, Smith’s much-abused Moscow police detective, is, for a fact, a great character. And durable, having now lived through six novels, a trip to Cuba, a sojourn in Chernobyl and an impersonation by William Hurt in the movie of “Gorky Park.”Renko is an unwilling hero. He isn’t particularly idealistic, or if he is, his idealism is all wrapped up in his professionalism. He can’t stand to do anything less than a thorough job. So, near the beginning of “Stalin’s Ghost,” he comes across a crime scene—a man face down at his kitchen table with a cleaver in his neck and a hysterical, blood-spattered wife in the bedroom. Detectives are already on the scene, the woman has confessed, and yet Renko can’t help asking questions. He’s bothered by the angle of the cleaver, by...
  • Tony Soprano, Harry Potter: The Same Story?

    It is, in a way, a sort of split-level love affair. For the past decade, children have been staying up late to finish the latest installments concerning the fortunes of Harry Potter. Meanwhile, downstairs in the TV room, Mom and Dad have been watching the saga of Tony Soprano. Harry got out of the gate a little earlier, in 1997, but Tony, whom we first observed wading after those ducks in his swimming pool in 1999, wasn't far behind. Now the serial stories that have captivated American children and their parents for much of the last 10 years are ending within two months of each other. That's a coincidence. What's less a matter of chance is that the big question about each series is the same: will Harry/Tony die in the end? And that raises a truly fascinating question: have these two sets of fans been obsessed with two versions of what is, in fact, the same story?Superficially, the two stories could not be more different: One occupies a magical realm where apprentice wizards learn...
  • Murakami's Novel of Night

    A few days ago, my daughter, who just graduated from high school, was bemoaning the fact that when college runs out she'll never have summer vacation to look forward to again (this is a young woman who thinks ahead). I told her she was wrong, that summer vacation is a state of mind, and that as soon as the Memorial Day buzzer goes off, your brain somehow switches to a more relaxed frequency for the duration of summer. You may still go to work each morning, or carry on with the everyday responsibilities of life, but somehow it's not as onerous as it is the rest of the year. This is one of those things that's hard to explain, but I know it's true.How else to explain beach reading? We don't go on vacation the whole summer, but come June a lot of us do lighten the content of our reading lists for the next three or so months. (The phrase "beach reading" is, in fact, hideously misleading. Trust me, I lived at the beach for 12 years and have done the research: even under a beach umbrella,...
  • Books: Philip K. Dick Joins the Club

    If there is anyone who would not understand Philip K. Dick's inclusion in the Library of America—those uniform editions of what the Library calls the "best and most significant" American literature—it would be Dick himself. It isn't that he didn't think he deserved to be taken seriously. The honor simply would not fit with the way he saw the world: in his novels, the future is always a sorrier version of the present, a copy of a copy of a copy. But there he stands, alongside Faulkner, Melville, Wharton, Twain and all the other Mount Rushmore figures of American literature.Dick, who died 25 years ago—the same year the Library of America was born—never received much serious attention during his life. He worked almost exclusively in the literary ghetto of science fiction. In Dick's depiction of the future, we do get the spaceships and the colonies on Mars, but we never shuck off being human, we never figure out what being human means—and those who search the hardest for meaning are...
  • Books: The Best 'Shrek!' Isn't a Movie

    If we’re generous, we must allow for multiple Shreks. In order of popularity, there is the Shrek of the movies (“Shrek the Third” opens Friday). Then there is the original “Shrek!” the children’s book with story and pictures by William Steig. Now there is an audiobook, “The One and Only Shrek,” with the title story and five other Steig tales narrated by actors Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep. The Steig book, which first appeared in 1990, is still the main event (hey, if there were no Steig story, there would be no Shrek movies), but by now millions more people know only the cuddly movie version.But why be generous? The movie versions of this story, whatever their considerable charms, fall far short of the book. As drawn by Steig, Shrek is one ugly ogre. That’s the point of the book, or at least the heart of its charm: you’re beguiled by a hideous, warty, lice-infested, fire-belching ogre. Dreamworks walked up to this idea … and blinked, so all the characters in the movies look sort...
  • Review: A 9/11 Novel Worth Reading

    When the planes hit the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo was at home in suburban New York, just another man caught up in the event. But like so many other Americans, he had a personal connection to the madness of that day. "When the second tower went down, I punched the wall. My nephew and his wife and two kids were in an apartment building very near the towers," DeLillo told NEWSWEEK in an interview. "They were trapped, and they eventually were rescued. Somehow, before that, we managed to make phone contact with them. But I didn't remember any of the phone conversation afterward. I do remember that smoke was beginning to seep through the fire doors of their building."And because DeLillo is an author ("Underworld," "White Noise"), he had another personal reaction to that day—he wrote a novel, called "Falling Man." Writers as disparate as Jay McInerney, Claire Messud and Jonathan Safran Foer have worked the World Trade Center into their fiction, all with mixed results. But "Falling...
  • Crime Novelists Compare Notes on Seedy Fiction

    Centuries from now, when archeologists sift the rubble to understand our culture, they will be fortunate indeed to uncover the works of Donald E. Westlake. His 45 witty crime novels are as reliable a guide to the foibles and mores of our society as you could hope to find (the 46th, “What’s So Funny?,” appears April 24). Those archeologists may get a little shiver, however, should they also unearth the works of Westlake’s alter ego, Richard Stark, whose dark accounts of Parker, a coldblooded and occasionally homicidal thief, provide another, no less persua­sive gloss on the world we so uneasily inhabit. Put another way, Westlake is, as the esteemed Irish novelist John Banville puts it, one of the “great writers of the 20th century.”Now Banville, whose novel “The Sea” won the 2005 Man Book­er Prize, has turned his own hand to crime writing, and also under a pen name: Benjamin Black. His first attempt, the superbly noirish “Christine Falls,” chronicles a fumbling Dublin patholo­gist’s...
  • Books: Southern Discomfort

    Fifty years—no, not 50, not even 30 years ago, Robert Goolrick might well have not published his memoir, “The End of the World as We Know It.” And he wouldn't have had to wait for someone to forbid it or talk him out of it. He wouldn't even have had to argue with himself about it. Because long before it got to that point, he would have heard a voice going off in his head—not a still, small voice, but a firm, no-nonsense Presbyterian grandmother kind of voice—saying, “Where are your manners?”I’m glad those days are behind us sufficiently for Goolrick to go public with his book. I say sufficiently, because they certainly aren’t gone completely, much less for good. Southerners cherish privacy and discretion and decorum more than they prize good sense. If they didn’t, Goolrick wouldn’t have had to write his memoir.He’s built his book around a punchline ending—a dark surprise—so I won’t give it away, although to be honest, this structure he’s adopted is my least favorite part of the book...
  • Lethem's Rock and Roll Romance

    I haven’t kept strict count, but I’m pretty sure this is only the second time Jonathan Lethem has put a kangaroo in one of his novels. If so, maybe I should stick with the ones with the ’roos. Because I loved “Gun With Occasional Music,” Lethem’s debut, and I have been only fond, but not wild, about everything since. Now comes “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” and once I got by the awkward title, I found myself in a bumpy but charming novel about a Los Angeles rock band on its way up. Lethem’s not trying to prove anything here—and every time I caught myself wishing he’d tried a little harder, I’d recall that trying too hard has been his big problem the last few novels. This time, he’s coasting, having fun and not out to prove anything. The result is a novel with some air in it—not air as in airheaded but air as in atmosphere and breathability. This novel is not going to expand Lethem’s reputation as a serious novelist, but its cleverness and the good will with which it creates and then...
  • Books: When Murder Ruled Chicago

    Michael Lesy’s “Murder City” is a creepy book. Fascinating, but creepy. Lesy (“Wisconsin Death Trip”) focuses on Windy City murders in the ’20s, a time and place we all think we know: Capone, Leopold and Loeb, “Chicago”—merely drop the city’s name and people start thinking Tommy guns and bathtub gin. Lesy takes his time getting to the notorious gangsters. Most of the perps and victims are people you’ve never heard of: a man who killed his wife because he wanted to go back into the Army, a man who killed two men for a Packard, lots of spurned lovers. They add up—but to what? Something strangely depressing: by 1924, Chicago had a homicide rate 24 percent higher than the national average, and it was choked by a culture compounded by gangsterism, corruption and rat-a-tat-tat headlines. Lesy dissipates the romance of the roaring ’20s before his book is half over, certainly well before we encounter the women who inspired the winking cynicism of “Chicago.” What sticks with you about that...
  • Books: 'Cat in the Hat' Explained at Last

    If you were to approach 10 people on the street and ask each one to recite from any narrative poem, the odds are that maybe one of them could get off a few lines of “Hiawatha” or “The Raven.” But if you were to suggest that they could include the works of Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, the chances are that everyone born after 1950, or with children born after that date, could get off not just a few lines but perhaps whole book-length poems. He is, without doubt, the best-known American narrative poet of the last half of the 20th century. And not just best known: he’s one of the best.In “The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats,” Philip Nel gives us a better grip on just why Dr. Seuss has so thoroughly captured the imaginations of several generations of readers—and the imaginations of their parents (when I was reading to my children, I would “lose” other favorites night after night just to have another go at “Fox in Sox” or “Green Eggs and Ham” or, best of all, ...
  • Books: When Murder Ruled Chicago

    Michael Lesy’s “Murder City” is a creepy book. Fascinating, but creepy. Lesy (“Wisconsin Death Trip”) focuses on Windy City murders in the ’20s, a time and place we all think we know: Capone, Leopold and Loeb, “Chicago”—merely drop the city’s name and people start thinking Tommy guns and bathtub gin. Lesy takes his time getting to the notorious gangsters. Most of the perps and victims are people you’ve never heard of: a man who killed his wife because he wanted to go back into the Army, a man who killed two men for a Packard, lots of spurned lovers. They add up—but to what? Something strangely depressing: by 1924, Chicago had a homicide rate 24 percent higher than the national average, and it was choked by a culture compounded by gangsterism, corruption and rat-a-tat-tat headlines. Lesy dissipates the romance of the roaring ’20s before his book is half over, certainly well before we encounter the women who inspired the winking cynicism of “Chicago.” What sticks with you about that...
  • The Cat (and Hat) That Came to Stay

    If you were to approach 100 people on the street and ask each one to recite from any narrative poem, the odds are that maybe one of them could get off a few lines of "Hiawatha" or "The Raven." But if you were to suggest that they could include the works of Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, the chances are that most born after 1950--or everyone with children--could get off not just a few lines but perhaps whole book-length poems. He is, without doubt, the best-known American narrative poet of the last half of the 20th century. And not just best-known: he's one of the best.In "The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats," Philip Nel helps us understand just why Dr. Seuss has captured the imaginations of several generations of readers--and their parents. Nel's line-by-line analyses and explanations illuminate precisely how Seuss created his masterwork. We are treated to rough sketches and first drafts. We see the Cat's antecedents, especially the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy...
  • No Place Like Rome

    The story of Dido and Aeneas gets my vote as the great tragic love story. In the early chapters of Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas, on his way from the smoking ruins of Troy to the shores of Italy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage. There he meets Dido, the Carthaginian queen. They fall in love. He helps her build her royal city. Then Jupiter gets angry because Aeneas has lost sight of his duty to found the Roman empire. So the god sends a message to Aeneas: get moving. When Aeneas complies, Dido flies into a fit of rage and grief that culminates in her suicide as Aeneas and his fleet disappear over the horizon. As you read about their tear-stained confrontation, it's hard not to smile--this might be the first modern love story. Dido gets mad because Aeneas has commitment issues. Aeneas, with one foot out the door, sounds like the original heel. Love? Marriage? No way. Look, babe, I've got an empire to found.Maybe it was the effect of Robert Fagles's superb new translation of the...
  • Books: In Literature, Size Matters

    I wish Vikram Chandra all the best. But I am not going to finish his novel, “Sacred Games.” I read more than 100 pages, enough to know that he is a good writer. He has done just what early reviews of his 928-page novel say he’s done: mixed the techniques of a literary novel with the plot of a police procedural. The only problem is, I don’t care. Oh, I care a little bit. Just not enough to make myself read another 800 pages.Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books...
  • The Ravenous Doctor Is In. Again

    The trouble with Hannibal Lecter—as a literary character—is that he has no equals. He’s always the smartest person in the room. He has no Achilles heel, no vulnerability to green Kryptonite. He errs from time to time, but so far, in his annals as chronicled by Thomas Harris, there is no prison that can hold him for long, no law officer who can outthink him. And that, after four novels in which he appears, is a real problem, because if Hannibal never meets his match, there’s no tension. If this goes on much longer, the world’s most famous fictional serial killer will simply bore us to death.So far this is only a risk, not a fact. But when I heard that he was writing a fourth novel about Lecter—a prequel to the other stories—my heart sank. This, I thought, is one time too many. Oh me of little faith. In “Hannibal Rising,” which went on sale this week, Lecter appears as a young boy and as an adolescent, and while it is not Harris’s best book—that would still be “Red Dragon”—it comes in...
  • A Gas-Guzzling, Tailfin-Sporting Masterpiece

    Part Three: Reviewing Thomas PynchonI thought I’d be done last week. Last week, I thought … But it takes a while to read a novel that’s roughly as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory. All right, yes, just the residential directory. So I’m merely looking for a little recognition here. There a problem with that? I put my time in. I read those 1,085 pages. I took notes. Notes, hell, I wrote down 50 or 60 quotes, I recorded place names, ship names (it seemed important there for a while), saloon names, drew diagrams and faithfully noted the names of several dozen characters, including two who turned out to be the same person (Renfrew/Werfner). I’ve even done family trees on the Vibes and the Traverses, who are sort of the Hatfields and McCoys of “Against the Day,” Thomas Pynchon’s sixth and longest (did I tell you? 1,085 pages) novel.As always when one reviews something of an impressive intricacy and sophistication, not to mention great length, it’s tempting to match the language...
  • American Lit’s All-Night DJ

    More random thoughts while in the middle, literally, of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day”: I once lived in a city with one of those public-supported radio stations that played just about every kind of popular music under the sun: rock, blues, jazz, Celtic, Tex-Mex, bluegrass, gamelin, calypso and so on and on. The show I remember best I remember for its title. The music on the show was avant garde, fringe classical: electronic stuff, computer-generated this and that. It was pretty interesting in short doses, but sometimes I wondered if anyone ever tuned in. Would you, for a program called—honest—“Difficult Listening”?I was more sympathetic than a lot of people would have been, because the title always reminded me of my literary past. I came of age, i.e., got out of college one step ahead of the sheriff, in the early ‘70s, when Difficult Literature was all the rage. Modern English classes then were lessons in problem solving, which explains why everyone had to read “The...
  • Pynchon on the Installment Plan

    Here’s my problem: I’ve now read more than 400 pages of the new Thomas Pynchon novel, “Against the Day,” and I’m not even half through. Normally I wouldn’t complain, and I certainly wouldn’t look for sympathy. Long novels come with the territory when you’re a book reviewer, and in the end, it balances out, because you read your share of short novels, too. Besides, no one’s going to give you a lick of sympathy when you get paid to read for a living, even if the book is in Urdu.OK, that’s not really my problem. The real hitch here is how to review this 1,085-page behemoth. I’ve already made enough notes on this sucker to write my own book, because this story has enough plotlines for two or three novels, and so many characters that I’ve actually begun constructing family trees. If I wait until I’m finished to write a review, I’m afraid it’s going to wind up sounding like the old Woody Allen joke about taking a speed-reading course: “I read ‘War and Peace.’ It was about Russia.” To give...
  • An ‘Unbelievable’ Talent

    Reading the stories about the murder of actress Adrienne Shelly in New York City this week, I kept thinking of a Frank O’Hara poem that begins, “Lana Turner has collapsed!” After that he spends about half of the poem’s 17 lines talking about the weather (snow, rain, possibly hail, “but hailing hits you hard on the head/ hard so it was really snowing and/ raining and I was in such a hurry …”) and the New York City traffic. Then, “suddenly I see a headline/ LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” And then, in one of the most amazing verbal downshifts I’ve ever seen, O’Hara slows his poem down from a pell-mell rush to a super-slo-mo crawl, writing “there is no snow in Hollywood/ there is no rain in California/ I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed/ oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”O’Hara’s poem is maybe the best try I’ve ever seen to capture the difference between life as we all know it and life in the tabloids, where celebrities seem to...
  • The Satirist Who Would Save a State

    For the 12 years I spent in Florida, I never thought the state needed its own satirist, since my local newspaper did such a bang up job in that department simply by reporting the news. And mind you, I left Florida well before Katherine Harris and dangling chads and the “election” of 2000—although I can’t say I was surprised by any of that. No one who has spent more than a vacation in the Sunshine State would think that was the least bit out of line. Odd, yes, but odd is ordinary in Florida. My favorite headline in the local paper during my Florida tenure—heck, my favorite headline ever, read simply BAR REGULAR DIES AFTER FALL FROM STOOL. OK, that could happen just about anywhere, but when it happens in Florida, you read that headline, put the paper down beside your orange juice and say, “Well, of course.” I don’t think that’s the reaction in most places.So, while I lived in Florida, I never gave Carl Hiaasen a second thought. I respected him, as a novelist and as a newspaper...