Malcolm Jones

Stories by Malcolm Jones

  • 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...
  • Marconi--And Cheese

    By grafting together the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the tale of a serial killer who worked that city's darker corners while the fair was in progress, Erik Larson produced a huge nonfiction best seller: 2003's "The Devil in the White City." His new book, "Thunderstruck," apes the formula: this time he links a murder in Edwardian England with Guglielmo Marconi's efforts to perfect the wireless telegraph. But where the story of the Chicago killer provided an effectively lurid contrast to the utopian idealism of the Exposition, the tales here seem to be jockeying for space. And one of them is a lot better than the other.Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was once a world-famous murderer. In 1910, he killed his wife, chopped her up and buried her in their London basement, then fled to Canada with his sweetheart. He was apprehended, brought back to London, convicted and hanged. The trial drew 4,000 spectators, including Arthur Conan Doyle and W. S. Gilbert; years later,...
  • Hero or Hatchet Man?

    When you pick up "Blood and Thunder," Hampton Sides's new history of how the U.S. government almost destroyed the Navajo Nation in the 1800s, you can't help thinking, "Here we go again" All the usual suspects are present. Again, government and military leaders, besotted with the idea of Manifest Destiny, are unapologetic land-grabbers, and the Navajos are victims of the white man's treachery. But Sides, to his credit, doesn't stop there. Resisting the impulse to think that he's wiser than the people whose story he narrates, he concentrates instead on the mysteries and contradictions in human behavior that compose the heart of all good story-telling. He points out, for example, that the Navajos, while admirable in many ways, were notorious livestock thieves. And they had no problem with slavery, as long as they were doing the enslaving. So things get complicated in a hurry, and in this story, complicated is good. And the man at the heart of it was as complicated as they come...
  • On the Lost Highway

    For a more than decent summary of the plot of Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, "The Road," consult the Library of Congress boilerplate that follows the book's title page: "1. Fathers and sons--Fiction. 2. Voyages and travels--United States--Fiction. 3. Regression (Civilization)--Fiction. 4. Survival skills--Fiction." For that matter, it's not a bad imitation of the novel's style. Using the stripped-down prose that he employed so effectively in his last book, "No Country for Old Men," McCarthy spins an entire novel around two people, a father and his young son fighting their way through a post-apocalyptic world reduced to cold ashes and ruins. The action is equally minimal. The man and boy are traveling out of the mountains and toward the coast, searching for warmer weather and hoping to find someone neither malign nor crazy with whom they can join forces. McCarthy never says what happened to bring the world to cinders. Nor does he name his characters, or tell us how old the boy is or...
  • Mr. Ford’s Mr. Lincoln

    A John Ford movie is a tough sell these days. The sentimentality, the boys-club atmosphere, the broad humor—where the only thing funnier than a bar fight is a longer bar fight—these things don’t play well with modern audiences. If movie fans think of Ford at all, it’s as the man who made a lot of John Wayne Westerns. Never mind that he made more than 140 pictures, starting in the silent era and going right up through the ’60s. His subjects ranged from the building of the transcontinental railroad to PT boat squadrons in World War II, from the Okie migration to Mary of Scotland. He won five Academy Awards. But Ford is not one of those directors, like Preston Sturges or Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, whose movies always manage to feel contemporary. His movies hark back to the 19th century in their outlook and the values they espouse. They are a little antique, a little prim. Still, they are populist in the best sense: he made movies for everyone, although not in the dumbed-down...
  • ‘Bluegrass in Reverse’

    Mike Compton calls the music he and David Long play on their wonderful new album “bluegrass in reverse.” “Stomp” ( Acoustic Disc ), released March 7, features the mandolins, guitars and voices of Compton and Long on 17 songs, some original, several by Bill Monroe, and a good many that date as far back as the 19th century. The general idea, Compton says, is to recreate the sounds that Monroe would have heard before he singlemindedly, if not singlehandedly, invented bluegrass back in the 1930s and '40s.It would be hard to imagine two musicians better equipped to tackle such a project. Compton, whose steady gig is with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, is one of the premier mandolinists now working. Anyone who’s heard the soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou” knows his work, even if they don’t know his name. He’s also probably the best living interpreter of the hard-driving Monroe style of mandolin. Long has been touring with Compton as a duet act for about three years, and, at 31,...
  • 'I'm Not Dead Yet'

    Richard Thompson isn't doing live interviews to promote this new set, but he did graciously agree to answer a few questions from NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones via e-mail. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: Is it still a pleasure to perform? To write? To play music around the house, with friends? Put another way, if money was of no concern, what would you do with yourself?Richard Thompson: Music is absolutely the center of my life. I suppose if I could afford to tour less, I would write more. And a bit more gardening.In the United States, and maybe in the U.K., a songwriter who writes and performs using traditional song forms is usually penned into one sort of box or another. The underlying assumption seems to be that writing and singing with traditional song forms is not the natural thing to do but some sort of tic or gimmick, the musical equivalent of blacking out your teeth and wearing overalls on stage. As someone who has both seriously and wryly contemplated the last thousand years of pop, does this...
  • Not Easily Categorized

    The boxed set has become the de rigueur honor for any aging pop musician who is A.) still around, B.)  still pumping it out and C.)  has enough fans to make it worth someone’s while to produce one of these things. Richard Thompson, who began his career in the '60s as a songwriter and lead guitarist for the English band Fairport Convention, has been at it long enough to warrant his second box! The noteworthy thing is that—drum roll, please—he deserves it. And this new box, “The Life and Music of Richard Thompson” ( Free Reed ), brings its subject into focus so vividly that even those of us who have followed his career over four decades can freshly apprehend his remarkable achievements.Oh, sure, anyone who has ever heard a Thompson album or attended one of his concerts knows he’s a great songwriter, a guitar player with almost no equal and the owner of a voice that, while not perfect, is more than good enough for rock and roll. What may not be so obvious to any but the most obsessive...
  • Cash on the Line

    Being the child of a celebrity means running into some part of your personal life every time you turn the corner. Being the child of a dead celebrity, as Rosanne Cash has discovered since her father's death in 2003, can drive the surreal meter right into the red: "I walked into a store the other day, and I heard my father's voice say, 'I'm not afraid to die.' You know that song 'Personal Jesus'? There it was on the sound system. I just went, whoa, glad to hear it."Being a singer and songwriter in her own right, Cash, 50, dealt with the deaths--in fairly quick succession--of her stepmother (June Carter Cash), her father (Johnny Cash) and her mother (Vivian Cash Distin) the best way she knew how: by making art out of the experience. The stunning result, "Black Cadillac," is an album-length song cycle that maps the territory she traveled after those deaths. Wonderfully crafted, deeply felt, Cash's songs are never maudlin or sentimental. Instead, they walk right up to the trickiest...
  • Walking a Fine Line

    Being the child of a celebrity means running into some part of your personal life every time you turn the corner. Being the child of a dead celebrity, as Rosanne Cash has discovered since her father's death in 2003, can drive the surreal meter right into the red: "I walked into a store the other day, and I heard my father's voice say, 'I'm not afraid to die.' You know that song 'Personal Jesus'? There it was on the sound system. I just went, Whoa, glad to hear it."Being a singer and songwriter in her own right, Cash, 50, dealt with the deaths--in fairly quick succession--of her stepmother (June Carter Cash), her father (Johnny Cash) and her mother (Vivian Cash Distin), the best way she knew how: by making art out of the experience. The stunning result, "Black Cadillac," is an album-length song cycle that maps the territory she found herself in following those losses. Wonderfully crafted, deeply felt, Cash's songs are never maudlin or sentimental. Instead, they walk right up to the...
  • Jazz: Pictures That Swing

    In 1960 William Claxton took the road trip of his dreams. A West Coast photographer already well known for his photos of jazz musicians, Claxton was asked by German writer Joachim Berendt to document a cross-country search for American jazz artists. Like the men and women they were searching out, Claxton and Berendt were great improvisers. So, while they knew generally where they wanted to go--New Orleans, Chicago, the West Coast--they made room for happy accidents. "Most all of the trip was unscripted," says Claxton, now 78. As a result, besides the usual shots of Ellington, Basie, Ella and Miles, there are arresting shots of Georgia Sea Island gospel choirs, bluesmen in Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary and a carnival outside St. Louis. In Memphis, they discovered that no one was still playing traditional jazz. "It was all hard bop by then," Claxton remembers.The results of that far-flung expedition were published as "Jazz Life" in Germany but never in this country, and the book has...
  • Among School Children, McCourt Got Schooled

    As he will be the first to tell you, Frank McCourt almost failed the exam to become a teacher in the New York City schools. "A passing grade was 65. I scored a 69," he recalls over a bowl of oatmeal one recent morning in a Manhattan diner. What saved his bacon was the teaching demonstration. He was assigned to teach a class on the World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and, as he tells it in his latest memoir, "Teacher Man," a girl in the class began talking about her brother-in-law who'd come home from Korea with no arms--"and all he ever wanted was sex. Sex, sex, sex." Things went downhill from there, but something about McCourt's effort so impressed the English department chairman sitting in judgment that he chased him down the street to say if he ever needed a job, he should just call. But by the time he did, a few weeks later, the man had died. McCourt went back to his job on the waterfront docks. It would be months before he'd land the low-rung assignment of...
  • A Comedy Of Suffering

    Amy Tan means well, but she knows that's not enough. So she did what she does best and wrote a novel about her dilemma. "Saving Fish From Drowning" is not your usual Tan story. It's not about mothers and daughters or the Chinese-American experience. Instead, it's a comic novel about an American tour group kidnapped by Karen tribesmen in the decidedly unfunny military dictatorship of Burma. Completely sympathetic to the plight of those who suffer under the dictators, Tan knew, when she started, the kind of book she did not want to write. "There were books out there that I never would have read about Burma," she said in a recent interview in her New York loft. "They start off depressing, and in the middle there's more that's horrible, and at the end there's the complexity of what this horror is like and I'm left feeling, oh, my God, I'm so sad, there's nothing I can do."Tan gracefully side-stepped that impasse by writing about what happens when colliding cultures misinterpret each...
  • America From Tom to Abe

    Sean Wilentz ends his massive history, "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln," with a description of a photograph taken in 1865: 13 men, six white, seven black, the jury empaneled to try Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy, on charges of treason. To Wilentz, the picture is an apt emblem of "the hopes of the Civil War era as to how a post-slavery United States might look." Sitting in his office at Princeton, Wilentz shakes his head in admiration. "All these white guys and black guys together. And you realize, this is unthinkable five years earlier. And it's a step toward democracy." Another shake of the head, this one more rueful. "But it all came undone. By 1900 it looks blasphemous." He leans forward to drive the point home. "Democracy can come undone. It's not something that's necessarily going to last forever once it's been established."As Wilentz tells it in his book, the story of how democracy took root in this country prior to the Civil War is an...
  • Books: A Lighter Look at Suffering

    Amy Tan means well. But she knows that's not enough. So she did what she does best and wrote a novel about her dilemma. "Saving Fish From Drowning" is not your usual Tan story. It's not about mothers and daughters or the Chinese-American experience. Instead, it's a comic novel about an American tour group kidnapped by Karen tribesmen in the decidedly unfunny military dictatorship of Burma. Completely sympathetic to the plight of those who suffer under the dictators, Tan knew when she started the kind of book she did not want to write. "There were books out there that I never would have read about Burma," she said in a recent interview in her New York loft. "Very important books about what was going on. I never would have read them because they were depressing. They start off depressing, and in the middle there's more that's horrible, and at the end there's the complexity of what this horror is like and I'm left feeling, Oh my God, I'm so sad, there's nothing I can do."Tan gracefully...
  • SNAP JUDGMENT: BOOKS

    Spook by Mary RoachHer choice of subjects--corpses in her last book ("Stiff") and now the search for the soul--suggests Roach is not your average science writer. Funny, inquisitive and uncowed by experts, she's the general reader's ideal emissary to the arcana of serious science. Whether portraying students of reincarnation or sorting through spiritualist mumbo jumbo--and putting the ech back in ectoplasm--Roach's writing has what science has so far failed to find: a divine spark.The City of Falling Angels by John BerendtIt's been 10 years since Berendt published "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and inadvertently rejuvenated Savannah's tourist industry. Venice, the setting for his new book, doesn't need his help. This time, instead of a lurid murder trial, we get a torched opera house--accident or arson? Not a bad formula, but that's what this book is: pure formula.Vita by Melania G. MazzuccoThe winner of Italy's top literary prize in 2003 is a strangely bifurcated book....
  • Monk And 'Trane --Together At Last

    It is the musical equivalent of discovering a new Mount Everest: last February, while digitizing a lot of old Voice of America broadcast tapes, Library of Congress archivist Larry Appelbaum discovered several boxes labeled CARNEGIE HALL JAZZ 1957. One of the boxes had an additional label: T MONK. Listening to the tape, Appelbaum recognized the playing of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and quickly verified with Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter that this was a rumor made real: a lost recording of a concert at Carnegie Hall by Monk's quartet when Coltrane was the sax player. It is one of the most legendary yet thinly documented partnerships in jazz history--and here was more than an hour of music by the quartet. Not only that, the recording quality was pristine, and the performances were everything you would expect from two geniuses who had been honing their sound every night for five months at New York's Five Spot Cafe.Now released as "Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at...
  • Fast Company

    Myla Goldberg talks so fast and so intensely that after 10 minutes with her you feel you've known her forever. Over lunch in a Brooklyn diner you learn--before the food arrives--that she hates to repeat herself as a novelist, which explains why "Wickett's Remedy," in stores next week, is nothing like her debut, "Bee Season." That she grew up in Laurel, Md. --"15 miles from the shopping center where George Wallace got shot"--but couldn't wait to get to New York, where she hopes to live until she dies because "people who walk fast and talk fast don't stick out." That she's 33, has been married five years and has a year-old baby girl, writes five days a week because she likes to think of writing as her full-time job--which is why she's doing this interview at lunchtime, because "that way I can eat and talk and then get right back to work."Whoa there. Can we back up to the part about the novels' being so different? Because fans of "Bee Season," a funny/sad book about a suburban Jewish...
  • Snap Judgment: Books

    --Malcolm JonesGarbo: Portraits From Her Private Collection By Scott Reisfield and Robert Dance ...
  • One For The Road

    When book-sellers go to a convention, they apparently do spend the night reading. This past June, at BookExpo America in New York City, Hyperion Books started handing out prepublication copies of J. R. Moehringer's debut memoir, "The Tender Bar," on a Friday. By Saturday morning, word of mouth had made Moehringer Topic A on the convention floor. No one who's read the book has stopped talking about it since: what conventioneers were calling "the book about the kid growing up in a bar" is poised to be the fall's sleeper hit when it arrives in stores in September. Cynics may scoff, but they haven't read the book.Moehringer, 40, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, grew up in Manhasset, a small town on New York's Long Island. His dad, a disc jockey, was "a man of many talents," the son writes, "but his one true genius was disappearing." The kid spends most of the book searching for his father's voice on the radio dial. Raised by his mother, Moehringer was an...
  • DEAR OSAMA BIN LADEN...

    It is hard to imagine an uglier coincidence: Chris Cleave's stunning debut novel, "Incendiary," the story of what happens after a bomb kills more than 1,000 people in a London soccer stadium, was published in England on July 7, the day of the London bombings. (The American edition is out Aug. 2.) No one seemed to know what to do. The publisher pulled its advertising but didn't recall the book; one bookstore chain yanked it out of window displays--but not off the shelves. Cleave, a former newspaperman, launched a Web site in which he asked people if his novel was helpful or hurtful. "A book has more to say than a bomb" was a typical sentiment. Even so, anyone who tackles Cleave's book will find his question a difficult one."Incendiary" is a book-length letter to Osama bin Laden--and arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written. The writer is a woman who has lost her husband and son in the explosion at the soccer stadium. By turns grief-stricken, raging and bleakly funny, the...
  • GUNS, MONEY AND DOPE IN THE TEXAS DESERT

    Llewelyn Moss, the hero of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, is out hunting antelope near the Rio Grande when he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong: three Broncos full of corpses and heroin. Not far off lies another corpse and a satchel full of $100 bills. Taking the money, Moss sets in motion a plot that involves vengeful drug dealers, an aging, ruminative sheriff and a hired killer who's so evil he'll kill on a coin toss. After that, not much happens in "No Country for Old Men" besides killing: the body count hits double digits by page 95.In this novel, his first since "Cities of the Plain" in 1998, McCarthy has produced a brutish tale reminiscent of his 1985 noir Western "Blood Meridian." But the baroque prose that counterpointed that earlier novel's violence has been replaced here with a far starker narration that reads like a screenplay for a straight-to-cable thriller. Or so it seems at first. Because the one thing you can depend on in a McCarthy novel is that you...